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Urban Design and Economic Growth: An Analytical Tale of Two Tropical Cities

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Tue, 16 Feb 2021
Urban Design and Economic Growth: An Analytical Tale of Two Tropical Cities
Urban Design and Economic Growth: An Analytical Tale of Two Tropical Cities

We explore the urban development of Singapore and Cairns, as we study diversity in patterns of urban growth in relation to economic growth.

How does urbanisation spur economic growth? According to traditional beliefs, increases in urban population have been linked to increased economic activity in cities. However, in reality; this relationship is far more complex.

Dr Taha Chaiechi, Associate Professor of Economics at James Cook University, and Australia Director for the Centre of International Trade and Business in Asia (CITBA) at JCU; Dr Caroline Wong, Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching, and Senior Lecturer in Business at James Cook University in Singapore – in collaboration with Dr Silvia Tavares, Lecturer in Urban Design and Town Planning at University of the Sunshine Coast – sought to explore the relationship between economic growth and indicators of urbanisation specifically within a tropical context. This focussed their attention on Singapore and Cairns.

The truth is, the relationship between urbanisation and economic growth is not straightforward. Cities develop differently according to multiple factors – including the city’s urban growth pattern, and these require more thorough investigation.

Turning our insight towards Singapore – which has a flourishing Central Business District (CBD) comprising of global businesses, many recreational and tourist sites, performing arts centres, theatres and museums, as well as extensive shopping malls – the city has smaller business centres that have emerged near predominantly residential areas along the outskirts of the city, thus creating clusters in other parts of Singapore. Connecting these clusters is the integrated transportation network facilitated by the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) trains and buses.

Dr Wong said, “In Singapore, authorities and city planners have been successful in promoting sustainable transportation by providing an efficient public transport system and restraining private car ownership. Moreover, the constructed landscapes of Singapore’s urban planning programs have utilised urban spaces while improving the quality of life of the people and furthering economic growth opportunities.”

She added, “There is evidence that the drivers of economic growth are moving away from the manufacturing-oriented sectors to technology and innovation-based industries. This appears to be a direct result of focusing on innovative and smart city planning, combined with a substantial investment in technological infrastructure that gives rise to economic productivity.”

However, developmental projects in Singapore can sometimes spark conflict between the needs of the locals versus the national development agenda. For example, in planning the development of the Singapore River waterfront – urban planners sought to design it as the only Mediterranean-inspired, upmarket, riverside commercial development in Singapore; while the local public favoured the river to be distinctively Singaporean, citing that any activity carried out has to have a natural demand. Thus, the quality of life of people cannot be simply equated with economic growth but needs to take into consideration the happiness and welfare of the city's people.

Dr Chaiechi said “Understanding the patterns of urban growth and its variants are important, especially when analysing the relationship between urbanisation and economic growth”. Cairns thrived on agriculture during the last century, which now faces a long-term decline while the tourism industry has been rapidly developing to provide more economic value and employment opportunities. Similar to Singapore, Cairns’ urban growth features an outward expansion from its CBD, which merges with other urban areas.

Transport within the city boundaries of Cairns is primarily based on individual cars and limited bus transit. With a few exceptions, the suburbs are not well connected by public transport, therefore compromising travel efficiency. Megastores are positioned at high-traffic hubs to provide access to key services. However, this will become a growing challenge as Cairns expands and economic and environmental pressures increase. Dr Chaiechi added, “Our investigation shows that the future development of urban settlements in Cairns, and the shape of the city, is determined by explicit urban policies of local authorities, their success in attracting new businesses, and targeted construction activities.”

Overall, the diversity in patterns of urban growth and transformation implies that different economies can grow at different speeds in achieving socioeconomic goals.


Chaiechi, T., Wong, C., & Tavares, S. (2020). Urban Design and Economic Growth: An Analytical Tale of Two Tropical Cities. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 19(2), 172–200.

Check out the staff and research profiles of Associate Professor Taha Chaiechi and Dr Caroline Wong.

Discover further information on areas of research and research strength at James Cook University in Singapore.


Associate Professor Taha Chaiechi [email protected]
Dr Caroline Wong [email protected]
Media: Pinky Sibal [email protected]