Singapore, from “garden city” to “city in nature”

The visitor who discovers Singapore is struck by the ubiquitous greenery of this country, which nonetheless has the third population density in the world. This is not accidental. As early as 1967, two years after Singapore’s independence, its founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, decided to turn it into a city with abundant lush vegetation and a clean environment to make life more enjoyable. This green urban goal is now taking on a new form with the recent publication by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) of the country’s new land use plan.

The garden city, a strategic goal after independence

In May 1967, Lee Kuan Yew announced a two-step plan to transform Singapore into “a beautiful garden city with flowers and trees, without rubbish and as orderly as possible”.

We were going far. The original vegetation had been gradually removed to make way for mass cultivation (rubber, nutmeg, etc.); by 1883, 93% of the original forest had already disappeared. Fortunately, the rest were so protected, making today Singapore the only city in the world with Rio de Janeiro having its primary forest in an urban environment.

The few existing parks and gardens were accessible only to the privileged classes. There were plenty of slums, the rivers were open sewers, and the streets were filled with garbage that residents sometimes threw straight from their windows. In the equatorial climate, all this led to a bad smell. A reality that unfortunately can still be seen today in some developing countries.

A street in central Singapore in the 1960s (copyright Quora)

In addition to making life healthier and more comfortable for Singaporeans, the garden city should also attract tourists and with them the development of employment and the interest of foreign investors. Finally, this has greatly contributed to attracting companies establishing their headquarters there in Asia, and entrepreneurs wishing to take advantage of Singapore’s dynamic context and its central location in Southeast Asia.

In fact, this process had started a few years earlier. As early as 1963, the government, already led by Lee Kwan Yew, launched a tree planting campaign. In addition to making the city more pleasant, the goal was to make the population aware of the need for trees in the environment, a concern far ahead of its time. After a difficult start, this campaign gained new momentum with the goal of the garden city, one aspect of which was to create a green environment where parks, gardens and open areas would be connected by roads with trees and other flowering plants. By the end of 1970, over 55,000 new trees had been planted. On November 7, 1971, the government launched the first annual tree planting day: that day, 33,000 trees were planted across the island, led by members of the government and parliament. This demonstration continues today: the last one took place on November 20, 2021, and the Prime Minister himself was an example of planting a tree in his Ang Mo Kio constituency. Similarly, national parks launched the OneMillionTrees movement in 2020, which was to plant one million new trees by 2030.

singapore river
Singapore River in its own juice (copyright Straits Times)

But in 1967, the biggest task at the time was to clean up the city and its waterways. It took many forms and a long time. It started with very prosaic things like equipping homes with trash cans and educating the population. Then there was the need to organize waste collection, improve the sewer system, establish standards for buildings and businesses and, as always in Singapore, taxes for those who did not respect them. One of the last (and longest) projects was the purge of the Singapore River, which took 10 years from 1977 to 1987.

Development of public green areas

In 1975, the Parks and Trees Act was adopted, which aims to promote and maintain the vegetation of Singapore, in particular by preserving trees in areas designated for that purpose and the obligation for a development component to create landscape in any industry or housing. development project. To manage this area, the Park and Recreation Department was established the same year, This was integrated in 1996 into the National Parks Board (NPARKS), which had been established in 1990 to maintain and develop the Botanical Garden, Fort Canning and nature reserves.

Between 1975 and 2014, the surface area of ​​green areas has more than doubled, and the number of parks increased from 13 to 330. NPARKS currently manages 400 parks and 4 nature reserves. The parks have been connected by 370 kilometers of cycle and pedestrian paths, the “park connections”, which are also green bands. Green areas now cover 7,800 ha, representing almost half of the public space. The density of the vegetation due to the equatorial climate means that one can quickly feel far from civilization, even though the first buildings are only a few hundred meters away. The same climate also requires thousands of people to maintain the parks and trim the trees, otherwise the jungle would quickly take over.

sungei buloh
Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve in Northern Singapore (copyright NPARKS)

All of this contributes to Singapore’s ranking among the very first in the world for its vegetation cover and for its quality of life. In addition, the vegetation also allows a small drop in ambient temperature and absorbs some of the rainwater, limiting flooding.

The fact that Singapore’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 was the Botanic Gardens highlights the role of vegetation in the country’s image.

When vegetation invades buildings

Since 2008, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) has adopted sustainability standards (green label), which in particular require that certain amounts of green be provided on or in new buildings. The standards now apply to existing buildings, and the goal is for 80% of the buildings (measured by floor area) to meet the standards by 2030.

In 2009, the LUSH (Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises) program was launched with incentives to integrate green into development projects. This program has had several versions, the last one from 2017.

All this has resulted in greener walls and inner courtyards in buildings and the development of roof gardens, including kitchen gardens, which contribute to the country’s food independence.

green hotel
The Park Royal Hotel at Pickering (copyright bloggers without borders)

The greening of buildings makes the concrete less visible, and therefore the city more attractive. In addition to the aesthetic aspect and the positive impact on the morale of those who live or work there, cladding of the roofs and exterior walls of buildings with vegetation absorbs some of the exterior heat and reduces the need for air conditioning. . It also turned out that roof gardens can become a habitat for wildlife.

Towards more environmental considerations

The Garden City concept was originally intended to make life in Singapore more enjoyable. Over the years, consideration for the environment has gradually grown in importance, and in 2020 NPARKS launched the concept “the city in the wild”, to promote a greener (vegetation) and bluer (waters) Singapore. . The latest revision of the long-term land use plan, which was unveiled on June 6 after a year of consultation with 15,000 people, incorporated this aspect.

It is a matter of combining the use of vegetation and fresh or salt water for our pleasure with the protection of nature and the fight against global warming.

In recent years, a network of nature parks around nature reserves has been developed to protect them from the impact of urbanization, while expanding the space devoted to nature. These nature parks, which are open for recreational activities, will be expanded by 200 hectares by 2030. More native Singaporean plants will be protected.

The other parks and gardens will be increased by 300 hectares by 2030 and will be partially rebuilt to provide more space for wildlife and bring it closer to the Singaporeans. In these rooms, 30 therapeutic gardens will be laid out, specially designed for the elderly who suffer from disorders related to old age.

Waterways and reservoirs will regain a natural appearance with less concrete, which will limit floods while supporting biodiversity. Along the coasts, the mangroves are restored, which will help protect the coasts from soil erosion and from rising sea levels.

The revegetation of high-rise buildings continues. A greener campaign for industrial areas, currently among the least green and hottest in Singapore, will be launched, including planting trees. This will refresh them, improve their air quality and make them more comfortable.

therapeutic garden
Telok Blangah Green Therapeutic Garden (copyright NPARKS)

The rather dense urbanization of Singapore leads to a division of nature reserves and parks, which constitutes an obstacle to the development of wild flora and fauna. To address this, ecological corridors have been developed in recent years that mimic the stratified structure of forests, which will be expanded to reach 300 km in 2030. Similarly, the network of “connecting parks” will be expanded to reach 500 km in 2030. .

All of this is showcased along with other aspects of the long-term land use plan in the free ‘Space for our Dreams’ exhibition, which runs until August 4 on the ground floor of the URA Center, 45 Maxwell Road. If you have not already been there, you can take the opportunity to visit the City Gallery, which is located in the same building. You will discover the main stages of Singapore’s past and future development and remarkable models of the city.

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