Singapore is the world’s 6th Blue Zone — and a look at its urban planning helps explain why

HDB apartment blocks in an estate.

Amanda Goh/Insider

Singapore is the world’s sixth Blue Zone, according to Dan Buettner, a journalist who popularized the term.
In the Netflix series “Live to 100,” Buettner shows how the country is designed to encourage its residents to live healthier.
Policies on housing, transportation, and hawker centers come together to create what he calls a “Blue Zone 2.0.”

Singapore is the world’s sixth Blue Zone, according to Dan Buettner, a journalist and researcher who popularized the use of the term to describe regions in the world where people live longer and healthier lives.

People living in these regions have several common traits that allow them to achieve longevity, including eating a plant-based diet, moving regularly, and living with purpose.

The original five Blue Zone regions include Okinawa in Japan, Ikaria in Greece, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, as well as Loma Linda in California.

Unlike the original five, which developed organically through traditions and practices that have flourished for years, Buettner describes Singapore as a “manufactured city,” in the Netflix documentary “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.” 

Life expectancy in Singapore stands at 80.7 years for men and 85.2 for women, based on the latest government data for 2022. In contrast, the average life expectancy in the country was just 65 years old in 1960, per data from the World Bank.

Here’s how policies rolled out by the government — involving housing, transportation, and hawker centers — have all come together to create what Buettner calls a “Blue Zone 2.0” in this tiny Southeast Asian city-state.

1. Public housing

A HDB estate.

Amanda Goh/Insider

Over 80% of Singapore’s residents live in high-rise public-housing apartment blocks. Built by the Housing Development Board, these public housing apartments are colloquially known as HDB flats.

In Singapore, these estates are intentionally designed to encourage social interaction among its residents. 

Each HDB estate typically consists of a few identical apartment blocks clustered together. Dedicated communal spaces such as playgrounds, fitness corners, and community gardens can be found on the estates.

A playground at one of the HDB estates in Singapore.

Amanda Goh/Insider

Despite the highly urbanized setting, these shared spaces give people from all walks of life a chance to get to know each other.

“Loneliness is largely a function of environment,” Buettner told Fortune. “If you live in a cul de sac in the suburbs, and especially if you don’t like your neighbors, you’re very unlikely to serendipitously run into someone and have a conversation.”

In Singapore, the government also has a proximity housing grant that encourages couples buying resale apartments on the open market to live with or near their parents or children.

This scheme is a way that the government is tackling the problems of an aging population.

“By 2030, 25% of our population — one in four — will be above 65,” Chan Heng Chee, ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore, told Buettner in the Netflix documentary. 

Under this policy, these home buyers can receive up to 30,000 Singapore dollars, or $22,000, in grants if they live with their parents or children.

If the house that the couple is buying is within four kilometers, or about two and a half miles, of where their parents or children live, they can receive up to SG$20,000 in grants.

This scheme is also available for singles, although the maximum grant amount they can receive is halved.

“If children look after their parents, it means people don’t get sick that often,” Chan added.

2. Transportation

A subway platform in a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station in Singapore.

Amanda Goh/Insider

Singapore has a well-connected public transport system that’s being used by nearly half the country’s 5.6 million population, in contrast to the US average of 5%, Buettner said in the Netflix documentary.

There are only around 471,000 households that own cars in Singapore, and that’s due to the high prices of cars in the country. On average, a car in Singapore can cost five times the amount it retails for in the US.

“People reach the trains and buses using bike lanes and protected walkways paid for by the car taxes, and often pass through one of the island’s 350 parks,” Buettner said in the show.

This, as he explains, encourages people to walk — and get that bit of physical movement daily that they need to stay healthy.

3. Hawker centers

Hawker center in Singapore.

Amanda Goh/Insider

Singapore’s hawker centers are known for selling cheap and delicious meals under one roof. 

“In the past decades, Singapore’s food environment wasn’t all that healthy,” Buettner says in the Netflix documentary. “They had junk food, they had lots of oil and sugar in their food, but they were able to take steps to change their environment so it was easier to make the healthier choice.”

In an effort to get the population to eat healthier, the government introduced a “Healthier Choice” symbol to denote healthier food options so that consumers can make better-informed choices.

The layout of hawker centers also encourages people in the community to come together.

“You share tables and you’re interacting with the stall user, interacting with the person next to you,” Buettner told Fortune. “The chances you’re going to run into an old friend or make a new friend are exponentially higher.”

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