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Land, urban growth and planning in Brunei Darussalam

Water village – horizontal and vertical house extensions plus satellite dishes

The palm trees sway in the breeze. Under a blue sky, the waves lap the beach of a sandy cove. The nearby mangrove forests are home to an amazing diversity of wildlife. How will Brunei, this tropical paradise, cope with the development pressures coming its way over the next 40 years? What does it tell us about planning in small countries?

A doubling of the urban population

Brunei Darussalam is less than 500 km north of the equator and has a population of about 400,000. It is squeezed into the north coast of Borneo. Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital and largest settlement with almost 250,000 residents. In all about 300,000 people live in the urban areas. Thus it is highly urbanised already, but the rate of urbanisation remains at over 2% per annum. In addition, the rate of natural increase is high. UN-Habitat forecasts that Brunei’s urban population will double by 2050.

How to manage this surge of urban development? Land supply is finite in any country, but in a small state the limited land area can exacerbate the challenges that planners face. The situation in Brunei is particularly acute for a number of reasons. Firstly, much of the land around Bandar is mangrove swamp or tropical hardwood forest that is home to a great diversity of species. Strip such areas for urban extensions at your peril. Brunei is a high CO2 emitter, but its forests get it “off the hook” in this matter. However, one consequence is that only 5.5% of Brunei’s land is free of development constraints.

Low density: many cars

So maybe the country can follow the towering path of its Asian cousins and build high raise apartment complexes to maximise the numbers living on a small land area. While the 40 storey blocks of Singapore or Hong Kong may be way out of scale here, might 6 or 8 storeys be a viable option? Housing officials are toying with such ideas. In the meantime the standard type of housing has been much lower – usually just 2 storeys.

Historic “water villages” still fringe the riverbanks; they are generally single storey houses on stilts, where tight traditional communities still live and work.

The culture in Brunei revolves around the three-generation family household: marriages, births and deaths involve large extended family gatherings held at home. Expect resistance to offers to swap the big house in the big plot for a “house in the sky”.

A combination of sovereign wealth from oil, generous subsidy on cars, and the large families mean that car ownership per household dwarves European norms. Low density housing plus high car ownership is a cause and consequence of a limited, bus-based public transport service.

The future of the downtown

The central area of Bandar is quite small. Other than the impressive mosque with a golden dome, much of the centre is unremarkable. Shopping and leisure activities seem instead to have been growing in more suburban locations, often in places not anticipated in statutory land use plans. Thus there are question marks about what impacts the anticipated future urban growth will have on the downtown area, and where to accommodate the pressure for commercial development.

Ask the young people

This small and youthful nation thus faces an interconnected range of challenges about its future development path. Thus the Ministry of Development organised a half-day workshop for over 100 6th form students from schools across the country. I was privileged to be the facilitator for this event. We ended the workshop with students in small groups discussing the key issues for the policy makers in the Ministry.

Should the country continue to focus on low rise housing or adopt high rise forms of provision? Students were split on this one. Some pointed to the good fit between the type of house that currently exists and the large extended family structures. The house form scores high on giving privacy, an important quality in this culture. But others anticipated that in the future households would become smaller and pointed to the shifts already evident that have seen experiments with terraced forms of housing. Supporters of this view argued that the status quo is not an option and that in future the limited land available will need to be used more intensively.

There was more consensus about policies for transport. The case for investing in public transport and restricting car use was generally accepted, though the students pointed to the need to tackle the subsidy that encourages car purchase as a necessary first step. However, in a moment of revelation, the Commissioner of Brunei’s Town and Country Planning Department asked the audience if they were prepared to give up cars and travel by bus? The response was instant and unmistakable: it was other peoples’ car use that was to be curtailed, not theirs!

Finally we asked about the town centre and where future commercial development should go. While most still favoured the town centre, there were some groups who argued for a more decentralised pattern, with greater scope for expansion and to attract investors.

Planning in small countries

Brunei characterises many of the issues facing planners in small states. Land for development is scarce; natural resources need to be protected and there are risks from climate change to be negotiated. Aspirations for unlimited personal mobility are likely to see an escalation in car use and congestion in confined urban areas with consequent suburbanisation of activity centres. Where these are not planned, they are likely to be under-designed to accommodate the intensity of activity that will follow. Further congestion on narrow streets and parking problems will follow.

Last but not least there are issues of professional recruitment and capacity. One reason for holding the workshop for the students was the hope that some might be attracted into a career in planning. Here, as elsewhere, planning does not feature in the school curriculum and few school-leavers know much about planning or the careers it leads to. Yet with the rates of urban growth predicted, small countries need to attract high quality entrants to the profession.

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