Land, development and planning in Brunei

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.

Spacious houses: 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.

  • Aaron Russo

    Thank you Cliff for your very interesting take on the state of urban planning in Brunei. I hope you enjoyed your stay here.

    Indeed, as you have pointed out, two of the major problems from a land use planning point of view in Brunei have been a local preference (need) for low density housing (large houses or large lots) and high private vehicle use. The latter has been a result of both subsidies on new cars as you mentioned, but also extremely cheap subsidised fuel – diesel is just 15p/litre and super unleaded 30p/litre!

    Brunei has seen a rapid and remarkable transformation over the past 50 or so years, when you consider that in the middle of last century the majority of the population lived in Kampong Ayer (the Water Village). Today it houses roughly 8% of the overall population.

    Much of this rapid urban development has predominately been lineal and low density, restricted to major roads. It has led to a somewhat inefficient and amorphous settlement pattern often lacking any real depth or “sense of place”. Private vehicle reliance is high and travel times are long.

    The public transport system consists of four different bus routes named for their general direction – North, South, East and West. The services are largely patronised by migrant workers and public transport is definitely not part of the psyche of local Bruneians. Even taxis are a relative rarity. The road network, particularly around Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) is extensive with several motorways and dual carriageways cross-crossing the urban area. For many journeys across town there are typically three of four alternatives with little difference in distance and travel times. At peak periods, such as morning and evening peak hour and the end of the school day (12.30), many of the roads become congested. At other times some of the major roads can feel almost deserted!

    As you have noted, the city centre is small and lacks a real retail or commercial hub. Commercial and retail uses are mostly spread throughout the suburban areas. The main retail hubs include Gadong and Kiulap, which are both located some 5km from the centre of BSB.

    The country is divided into four districts with over 70% of the population residing in the smallest district, Brunei – Muara, which incorporates BSB. With land in Brunei-Muara becoming increasingly scarce, it is anticipated that the vast majority of the anticipated population growth over the next 40 years will be housed in the other districts which are currently under-populated.

    The problem is that these districts are mainly covered in forest or fertile agricultural land. Primary industry, particularly agriculture, is set to play a major role of the Government’s economic diversification strategies as it seeks to shift the existing reliance on oil. Further, the Government has committed to 60% of the nation’s forest being protected or sustainably managed under the multilateral Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiative.

    These two constraints highlight how imperative it is that densities are increased for new housing and that more thought goes into the efficient planning of new settlements. There is evidence that this is happening, with recently completed and under construction housing schemes featuring a range of housing densities. The predominant detached housing form is being phased out and replaced by semi-detached dwellings and terrace houses, a relatively new concept for Brunei.

    Current medium to long term district level strategic planning in Brunei is beginning to focus on the concept of urban “Emergent Growth Centres” as the preferred model for new development, particularly on the urban-rural fringe. This involves selecting existing small population centres with existing and upcoming urban infrastructure, with new housing schemes clustered around multi function centres with expanded commercial, service industry, and government and community facilities. These future residential areas will provide a mix of densities such as townhouses, terrace houses, and low rise walk-up flats. In certain locations medium to high rise residential buildings of six stories or more are envisaged located close to the new centres. Convincing residents of the virtues of higher density living represents a substantial challenge; however recent surveys conducted within the country have indicated a growing openness to the idea.

    Transport planning is receiving more attention too. A Light Rail Transit (LRT) proposal, which would connect the City Centre with the airport and some of the major commercial, retail and community use nodes has recently been mooted. New settlements are being planned with regard for public transport connectivity, transit nodes and transit interchanges. A paradigm shift will be required before public transport usage rates increase markedly, but it is hoped that at least future residents will have a greater choice than currently exists.

    From an urban development perspective, it is likely that over the next 40 years Brunei will continue to experience rapid and extraordinary change. Where most of the population once lived in traditional water villages, and now live in large houses on large lots, by 2050 will likely be housed in more sustainable medium and high density housing serviced by defined and robust centres. In this way, perhaps, the nation’s abundant natural resources, rich ecological diversity and vast areas of unspoilt natural wilderness can remain largely protected from urban encroachment.

    Aaron Russo
    Urban Planner
    Integrated Environmental Consultants (IEC) Brunei

  • Cliff Hague

    Many thanks Aaron for this very substantial comment which adds greatly to the blog that I wrote. You have really provided the depth that I was unable to achieve in writing the blog, which, as you know, was based on a very short stay in Bandar Seri Begawan.

    I did indeed see the new terraced houses that are being built. One way to sell the idea of such alternatives to people whose expectatioons are for a large detached house might be to make the design of the terraces houses more interesting. Those I saw were simply laid out as long rows of single storey houses so that all the houses looked the same. It might be possible to think of mixing some 2 or even 3 storey houses into a scheme, e.g. emphasising corner sites and creating more visual interest.

    On the public transport front, why not experiment a bit? How about a “free fare” period, or as here in Scotland, free passes for over 60s to use on the buses? There might also be scope for air cooled bus shelters to protect people from the hot sun and heavy downpours while they wait for a bus. Another widely used approach in the west is dedicated bus lanes that can speed and make more reliable the bus travel.

    What is clear is that the scale of growth anticipated, combined with the development constraints that you describe, mean that at some point soon there will have to be some new trajectory. Developing that vision and getting people to buy into it seems to me to be the major challenge now.