The Most Liveable Cities in Asia, According to Urban Pros

We asked urban planners and architects, a street artist, a trade advocate and an ad exec to tell us about their favorite foreign cities


If there’s one person who lives and breathes the concept of a dream city, it’s Paulo Alcazaren, urban planner, landscape architect and head of PGAA Creative Design, a multidisciplinary firm that specializes in urban planning and design, resorts, campus master planning and landscape architecture. Check out Paulo’s Facebook page and you’ll see the numerous ways he has reimagined Metro Manila’s urban landscape, sketching his visions of a cleaner, greener and safer city.


Singapore is a well-planned city where everything works” —Paulo Alcazaren, urban planner and landscape architect


It’s unsurprising that well-planned, highly efficient Singapore is the urban visionary’s dream city. It doesn’t hurt that he lived there for 12 years either. Calling it a city where “everything works”, Paulo admires how effective the mass transport system is in linking the different districts, and how the park and open-space system of the city provides residents easy access to green areas. “Singapore has followed a physical master development plan that is comprehensive but flexible. Starting from the ’70s, [the government] has constantly tweaked these plans to adjust to the country’s needs for economic as well as social development,” he explains.

Paulo considers Central Singapore, in and around Bras Basah — where he used to live and work, and where you’ll find famous landmarks like the Raffles Hotel and Bugis Street — emblematic of the city.  “The Central area conserves key heritages structures, mostly convent schools and shops from the 19th to the early 20th centuries, by adaptively reusing them as galleries, restaurants, museums, shopping and lifestyle centers that provide cultural richness and sustain an urban verve and vibrant nightlife.”

“Singapore is a livable city. It is walkable, bikeable,
clean, green, smart and safe”
— Jun A. Palafox Jr., architect and urban planner


Felino “Jun” A. Palafox Jr. knows a thing or two about what makes dream cities, considering that his 40-year career has been devoted to studying and creating urban centers.

Singapore — with its excellent urban planning, good architecture and engineering, along with visionary leadership, strong political will and good governance — fits the bill. “These are the reasons why Singapore has been recognized as one of the top 10 smart, sustainable, safe and innovative cities in the world,” Jun says. “Singapore is a livable city. It is walkable, bikeable, clean, green, smart and safe and has seamless urban mobility, connectivity and transportation. It is a city that integrates places to live, work, shop, learn, play and worship with excellent healthcare and wellness centers.”

Jun Palafox applauds how the city prioritizes environmental conservation and ensures the sustainability of its built environment. “In spite of its high urbanization, the city has emerged as a model for green architecture.”



“Why?” Oldhaws asks Manila, spray-painting the word on lamp posts, power boxes, manhole covers, pavements and walls all over the city. His graffiti is everywhere, asking the same question over and over again, and inspiring existential brooding in all who see it.

For the graffiti artist who has turned the streets of the metro into his gallery and made our daily commutes more interesting and thought-provoking, Osaka is the dream city. “I love walking around Osaka. Everywhere I look there is something that inspires me, from the vintage architecture to modern otaku. Everything — even the advertising and environmental graphics — is well-designed,” he says.

“Everywhere I look [in Osaka] there is something that inspires me, from the vintage architecture to modern otaku.” — Oldhaws, street artist


Osaka may be known as the “kitchen of Japan”, but for Oldhaws, it’s all about the city’s street art, both big and small. He talks about how he could sit for hours just gazing at street art in Osaka the way he would at art in a gallery. “I remember the large murals on the side [of] buildings that [would catch me by] surprise. There’s even one that’s directly above a small park!” he recalls. He also mentions the city’s huge sticker bombing culture. “[The barrage of stickers plastered all over the city] greets you with either profound messages or … wala lang,” he says.

What he finds most remarkable, though, are the beautiful, stylized Japanese manhole covers. These may not be unique to Osaka, but they’re what truly inspire him as an artist, especially how, he shares, each one reflects the character of the city.



David Guerrero, founder and creative director of advertising agency BBDO Guerrero, isn’t wrong when he talks about Seoul as a dream factory. He points to the way the government funded the Hallyu, or Korean Wave, which introduced Korean content across the globe and led to K-pop and K-drama world domination. This has proven to be richly rewarding for South Korea. “I think it is inspiring to see what happens when a society commits to creativity. Even more so when a country’s creative products lead directly to increases in the value of their exports,” David says.

And, he adds, their commitment to creativity doesn’t end there. He mentions Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by the late Zaha Hadid, as one example of how it manifests in their built environment as well. “[It’s] an extraordinary building. It looks like a spaceship landed in the middle of the highway,” he says, marveling at the quality of the construction and the awe it inspires in the people who visit it.

Seoul is not just a dream city, but a dream factory”
— David Guerrero, advertising executive


It’s no surprise that Guerrero chose Seoul, a Unesco-designated Creative City for design, as his favorite. After all, he’s in the business of creativity. BBDO Guerrero, the advertising agency he heads, is responsible for the highly successful “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign. And he has recently been elected chairman of the 4As of the Philippines, the organization of advertising agencies that champions the power of creativity to achieve extraordinary business results. Both roles, he says, involve plenty of local and international travel, giving him the opportunity to discover new destinations — like Seoul.

For him, the appeal of the South Korean capital can be summed up in a quote from author Italo Calvino: “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears.” He believes that Seoul has an abundance of both. “Just 56 kilometers to the north is the closed border with North Korea. And while relations are improving, fears still persist. On the other hand, stylish, modern and material Seoul often showcases aspiration and desire,” he says.

“So the city is… a constant reminder not to take life for granted. And all people — especially creative people — need reminding of the deadline to get things done,” he explains.

Finally, Seoul reminds him of Manila in that, he shares, it doesn’t yield its secrets easily. “I like the continuing mystery of the city from an outsider’s perspective,” he says. “There are always new things to discover.”


Hong Kong

Hong Kong may be famous for its imposing skyscrapers and iconic harbor, but for Julia Nebrija, it’s the city’s diversity and variety that make it, in her words, endlessly captivating. She adds that, thanks to the accessibility of public transport and its walkability, “Hong Kong allows you to wander freely and take in each experience as it reveals itself.”

Julia is an urban planner and self-described advocate for livable, lovable cities. “I love cities because they provide an opportunity to walk out the door and see what the day brings,” she explains. It’s that passion for urban life that fuels her work as a program manager for the Department of Budget and Management, finding funding to develop public spaces in 145 cities across the Philippines and to rehabilitate the Pasig River Ferry System.


Hong Kong allows you to wander freely and take in each experience as it reveals itself” — Julia Nebrija, urban planner and advocate for livable cities


As an urban planner, she appreciates how the cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong integrates green, open spaces into its highly urban environment, giving it and its residents space to breathe. “You can find terraces, courtyards, plazas and small parks woven between buildings in neighborhoods, aside from the larger greens like Central Park,” she says. “The city also offers plenty of waterfront access where people can walk, bike and jog along wide esplanades. This adds an incredible level of livability where people would otherwise feel overwhelmed by its density.”



“I will always have a soft spot for Bangkok because that’s where my husband and I got married,” shares Pauline Suaco-Juan, trade show organizer and executive director of the Department of Trade and Industry’s Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions (CITEM). The former editor-in-chief of Preview magazine spent 16 years in publishing, giving her a unique perspective on, and access to, local design and designers, and making her the perfect choice to head CITEM, the export promotions arm of the department.

“I love the creative energy of this city. My favorite thing to do is to seek out new local designers in fashion and home goods,” Pauline says. “It’s ridiculous the amount of stuff I’ve shipped out of Bangkok — from a rocking carabao signed by a Chatuchak artist to a stamped leather table with matching chair from the Bangkok International Gift Fair — when I used to have friends based there.”

“I love the creative energy of Bangkok
— Pauline Suaco Juan, Philippine trade promoter


Fortunately, Bangkok’s bustling shops aren’t just good for personal retail therapy. “Shopping, especially for local designs and crafts, has always been a pleasure, and because I’m often in Bangkok, I am able to observe their product development, something that came in handy when I became Executive Director of CITEM,” Pauline says.

The way Bangkok has been able to repurpose World War II-era warehouses is something she also admires. A great example, she says, is Warehouse 30, which is now a local arts hub with cafés, galleries, shops, a screening room, a vinyl record store, a co-working space and even a flower shop.

And she finds how the city revitalized pockets of the touristy Bangkok riverside fascinating — “From The Siam, a fantastic luxury hotel and spa, to the new Iconsiam mall (from the developers of Siam Paragon and other upscale malls), to Asiatique, which is where the night market in Suan Lum relocated to.”



*Photos by Shutterstock

Cebu Pacific flies to Singapore, Osaka, Seoul, Hong Kong and Bangkok from Manila.

This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Maggie Adan

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