04 June 2012 ~ Comments Off

Singapore: City in a Garden

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There has been unprecedented priority given in recent years to sustainable cities and green building (a very positive trend), but too often the result are places that are not especially green in the literal sense. While not a perfect story, there are few dense cities in the world today that can claim a better record of greening the city than Singapore.  For many years known as a garden city, Singapore has now shifted significantly its aspiration—it now strives to be “a City in a Garden”.  This is not merely a subtle shift in semantics, but the embracing of a bolder vision—nothing short of reimaging of DNA of cities and the growing of a biophilic culture.

In February of this year I had the chance to spend ten days exploring one of the first partner cities in our global biophilic cities project.  A visit largely organized by NParks, the Singapore National Parks Board, I had a dizzying introduction to the many programs, initiatives and biophilic projects completed or underway in this tropical city-state.  I also helped teach, with my colleague Peter Newman, a course at the National University of Singapore, learning much from a group of energetic students who were also learning about the biophilic design and planning innovations around them.

There are few cities today that represent better efforts at balancing urbanization and conservation of nature, and at creatively integrating nature and urban form than Singapore. Singapore owes much of its greenness to the early leadership of long-standing Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who emphasized early the planting of trees and the importance of green environments to long term economic development of this city-state. An emphasis on greenery and nature takes many forms here. NParks has taken the lead in connecting residents to parks and abundant nature, for instance, through an impressive system of trails and walking paths, known as the Park Connector Network. The length of this system is now almost 200 kilometers. I had the chance to walk an impressive stretch of this network, along the so-called Southern Ridges, a series of parks, tied together by largely elevated walkways and bridges that provide spectacular vistas of the city and incredible access to nature. On my hikes there were countless butterflies and birds, and at one point even an encounter with a monitor lizard.

And Singapore is pushing the envelope in finding new and creative ways to include nature in the vertical realm (as it must). We toured one project, 158 Cecil Street, where a seven-story green wall has been installed, as well as an elementary school where the students designed and built their own green wall. NParks now financially underwrites the installation of these green elements (there is even a Skyrise Greening section within NParks), mandates them in some places, and supports them in a host of other ways, including publication of high-quality popular and professional reports, recognition of good practice and design, and support for research. NParks has an ongoing research project located at its Horticultural Park, to study the performance and functioning of alternative vertical green wall technologies, and has been publishing and disseminating the results of this research.

Everywhere in this city it seems there are efforts underway to plant things and to bring nature to the fore.  Both the public and private sectors are emphasizing these natural elements in new projects. A new public hospital, the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), is the greenest, most biophilic health facility I have certainly ever seen. The hospital’s CEO, Liat Teng Lit, explained the charge given to the architects:  they wanted a building that “when you come in here you’re blood pressure and your heart rate go down, not up.” And it is uniquely biophilic in other ways: a hospital with a 140 fruit trees and larger community garden on the roof, and a desire to measure success based on the number of bird and butterfly species seen there, and the number of native fish species in its ponds.  It is as much an Ark as a hospital.

New private development demonstrates a market demand for green elements, on the part of companies and residents alike. Recent examples include the Ken Yeang-designed office tower Solaris, with its distinctive 1.5 km long green ribbon that encircles the structure, and the 36-story Newtown Towers, with its external garden terraces and dramatic multi-story green wall.

And larger systems are being greened. Under the City’s ABC (Active, Beautiful and Clean) Waters Program, natural streams and rivers are being restored. The most dramatic case is the Kallang River, which runs through popular Bishan Park: in dramatic fashion this river has been converted from a concrete drainage channel to a free-flowing, biodiverse riparian ecosystem.

Perhaps these steps at greening are easier in a tropical climate where everything seems to grow, and no doubt this is true. But the overall results here are nevertheless impressive—and Landsat imagery shows that from 1987 to 2007, during a time when the population of the city grew by 2 million, the percentage of the island covered by trees and greenery actually rose (from 36% to 48%)! And a culture of closeness to nature is taking hold, a result of planning and policy commitments, and a deep recognition that quality of life, public health and economic prosperity are intimately (and inextricably) linked with the natural fabric of a city.

In recent years I have become convinced of the power of telling these city stories through films. Peter Newman and I invited a talented Australian filmmaker, Linda Blagg, to accompany us on this journey and to record on film many of our site visits and interviews. The result has been a compelling film that tells (and shows) a compelling story of an emerging exemplar of a biophilic city:

Please take a minute and visit the Singapore page of the Biophilic Cities webpage for more information about the exemplary efforts of this city. You will find a slide show, maps and data, and additional links that help to further tell this impressive green-urban story.

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