Pervasive greenery, the Singapore way

Last Updated : 02 August 2011, 15:44 IST

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The math is impressive. In the last 25 years, the population of Singapore has nearly doubled, to more than five million.

Over the same period, its green cover – planted areas that appear green on satellite photos, from parks to rooftops – has increased from a little more than a third of the city-state’s area to nearly half. But it is not enough.

In Singapore’s next ‘green road map,’ its 10-year development plan, the country aims to go from being ‘a garden city’ to ‘a city in a garden.’

“The difference might sound very small,” says Poon Hong Yuen, the chief executive of the country’s National Parks Board, “but it’s a bit like saying my house has a garden and my house is in the middle of a garden. What it means is having pervasive greenery, as well as biodiversity, including wildlife, all around you.”

More and more cities are waking up to the need to be more than sweatshops on a citywide scale. Singapore rose to international prominence by constructing a country that was orderly and efficient. But being globally competitive today is about more than productivity. It is about sustainability, too. In order to attract so-called knowledge workers, in industries like computing, biotechnology and other forms of new technology, a city has to be an appealing place to work, play, live, and raise a family.

“As we’ve moved into the more knowledge-based industries, they bring along talent who like to live in a great city,” said Poon. “It’s no longer about being well tended, but also about the liveability, the excitement of living in a great city – and biodiversity is part of it.”
According to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s population lived in cities in 2008 and that percentage is set to rise to 70 per cent by 2050.

Singapore ranked 28th in the Mercer 2010 Quality of Living survey of the world’s most liveable cities, and in 22nd place as an Eco-City. It tied with San Francisco in 51st position in The Economist’s index of the World’s Most Liveable Cities, making it the fourth-best city to live in Asia after Osaka, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Singapore aggressively pursued its reputation as a green city as early as the 1960s and 1970s, when the newly independent country was in the rush of rapid economic development and urbanisation.

While the authorities built thousands of public housing blocks, they also planted trees and shrubs along the main highway bringing visitors from the airport to the city centre. At the time, the government was attempting to attract a certain type of foreign investment, particularly manufacturing, and the key justification for having well-tended trees and parks was an economic one: to underscore to investors that the country was well run, well tended, and stable.

With economic policies focusing in recent years on developing creative industries and the service sector, Singapore is facing new pressures to attract talent. And with many companies in Asia, in particular, reporting a dearth of high-skilled talent, offering international companies and their employees a greener working environment becomes a big selling point.

“To be frank, we did not have a very conscious idea to conserve biodiversity right from the beginning. That was not the blueprint,” Poon said. “For a very long time, we focused only on plants and it has worked very well for us, but now we feel that to engage people and get them excited, especially the young, we need to include a wildlife component and moving forward we want to do more.”

Biodiversity will play an important role in the 1 billion Singaporean dollar, or $829 million, Gardens by the Bay project. The first phase of the 101-hectare, or 250-acre, green site the Bay South Garden, is set to open next June. While there are no plans to artificially introduce wildlife into the gardens, the National Parks Board hopes that newly resurgent species, including hornbills, kingfishers and dragonflies, will find a haven there.

Lim Eng Hwee, the deputy chief executive for planning at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, who is in charge of allocating land usage in Singapore, believes that the Gardens by the Bay project will not only enhance the quality of the urban environment, but will also enhance the aesthetic and economic value of the surrounding developments, “similar to Central Park in New York and Hyde Park in London.”

The Bay South Garden includes two giant conservatories that are set to become new architectural landmarks for Singapore. The 1.2-hectare Flower Dome conservatory will replicate the climate of the Mediterranean and include a semiarid subtropical environment, while the 0.8 hectare Cloud Forest conservatory replicates the cool-moist climate found in tropical mountain regions 1,000 meters to 3,500 meters, or half a mile to two miles, above sea level.

Close to 10 per cent of the total land area in Singapore is set aside for parks and nature reserves, and the government has plans to add more park space over the next 10 years to 15 years, “from about 3,300 hectares today to 4,200 hectares,” Lim said.

Global effort
This is all part of a global effort to reconnect cities to nature. Last October, an assembly of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya, Japan, approved a strategic plan for conserving the planet’s biodiversity over the next 10 years. It has 20 ambitious targets, including halving and where feasible bringing close to zero the rate of loss of natural habitats, including forests; restoring at least 15 per cent of degraded areas; and extending protected terrestrial areas from 13 per cent of land at present to 17 per cent, and protected marine areas from 1 per cent to 10 per cent.

“The new strategic plan has been guided by the wake-up call contained in the report on the status of biodiversity in the world released by the secretariat in May 2010,” Dr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, wrote in an e-mail. The report warned that the present rate of loss of biodiversity may be up to 1,000 times higher than the natural rate of extinction.

Singaporean officials at the United Nations proposed and helped develop the index and so far about 28 cities around the world have started using it. They include Nagoya, London, Montreal, Brussels and Curitiba, Brazil. Dr. Djoghlaf said that a global report on the status of biodiversity in cities is now being prepared and will be submitted to a city summit meeting to be held in Singapore in June 2012.

Singapore’s own biodiversity efforts over the past 10 years have started to have some positive benefits. About 500 new species of flora and fauna, like the green tree snail and the long-legged fly, have been spotted again or have been seen for the first time, including 100 species new to science, data from the National Parks Board show.

One of the recent success stories has been the reintroduction of the Oriental pied hornbill – the bird’s population has increased from just a pair 16 years ago to about 160 today. The National Parks Board is hoping to launch other wildlife projects, introducing or increasing populations of a variety of species like the Colugo, a flying lemur, and the banded leaf monkey, which is native to Singapore.

Published 02 August 2011, 15:44 IST

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