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Singapore: the living city

In the midst of urbanisation and rapid population growth, Singapore has made sustainable development a priority. Thanks to the nation’s commitment to green initiatives, nature now thrives among its skyscrapers

Singapore: the living city
Singapore has become Asia's greenest city, offering a welcome change from the smog of cities like Jakarta 

In the bustling city state of Singapore, 100 percent of the population is urbanised. More than five million people are crammed into the tiny nation’s area of 269sq miles, prompting the land-scarce country to embrace height and build ever-upwards. High-rise buildings now dominate the cityscape – yet amid the sci-fi-inspired architecture, lush, green spaces are flourishing in this modern metropolis.

Ranked as the greenest city in Asia by the Siemens Green City Index, Singapore provides a verdant oasis in the middle of southeast Asia. With its network of parks, nature reserves and botanical gardens, the island nation is a vibrant antithesis to the nearby smog-shrouded cities of Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.

Singapore’s journey towards sustainability began as early as the 1960s, long before environmental issues had risen to the top of the global agenda. In 1963, two years before Singapore gained independence from Malaysia, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew ceremoniously planted an indigenous Mempat tree, signifying the launch of his greening campaign for the nation. In the decades that followed, Singapore underwent a period of intense urban development, turning the fledgling nation from a third world country into a modern, liveable city state.

As the Singaporean Government set about expanding public infrastructure and building public housing, it invested equally in the city’s greenery. Over the past three decades, green space has grown to cover approximately half of the city state’s total area.

“I have always believed that a blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit” are the now-famous words of Lee, the nation’s founding prime minister. “We need greenery to lift up our spirits.”

For Lee – and for those who continue his legacy – green space is fundamental to life in a city. As with other metropolises across the globe, Singapore is now facing pressure from mass urbanisation and rapid population growth. Yet, as the city state has already proven, sustainability can and should be at the forefront of all future urban development.

The urban footprint
In our Anthropocene epoch, human beings are fast becoming a city-dwelling species. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities – up from 30 percent just 50 years ago. By 2050, more than 70 percent of us will have made cities our new homes. The same year will see Earth’s population reach a staggering 9.7 billion people, with the majority of this new life concentrated in sprawling urban centres across Africa and Asia.

Singapore’s journey towards sustainability began in the 1960s,
long before environmental issues had risen to the top of the global agenda

This unprecedented level of urbanisation is set to place a significant strain on the planet’s limited resources, as city living is intrinsically linked to increased consumption habits. At present, cities cover just two percent of planet’s surface, and yet they consume approximately 75 percent of its resources. With inefficient buildings abounding and scores of vehicles belching out toxic exhaust fumes, cities also account for some 75 percent of global carbon emissions and half of worldwide waste.

Clouds of smog and soot envelop capital cities around the world, while noise pollution and bumper-to-bumper traffic jams have come to define urban life as we know it. Yet this needn’t be the case: as cities across the globe continue to swell, urbanisation presents us with the opportunity to pioneer solutions to combat climate change and threats to public health. Well-planned, sustainable cities have the potential to positively impact the lives of at least half of the world’s population today.

If cities are to be our new homes, then they must become sustainable. As Singapore’s abundant greenery goes to show, a sustainable future can be created for cities – if governments can wholeheartedly commit to investing in the natural environment.

A living concrete jungle
Walking through the Singaporean streets, the city state’s pervasive greenery is hard to miss. Bare concrete structures are remarkably absent from the nation’s cityscape, while roads, buildings and sidewalks are bursting with life. Vines snake up the side of the skyscrapers, and rooftop gardens now cover an incredible 72 hectares of space. Nature has been allowed to thrive in this urban environment, with greenery becoming an everyday feature of the city.

According to a spokesperson from Singapore’s Ministry of National Development, speaking with Business Destinations: “Given our scarce land, one dilemma in planning is striking a balance between development and conservation of our natural heritage.”

In order to achieve this delicate balance, the Singaporean Government works closely with the National Parks Board, which oversees the nation’s 3,347 hectares of nature reserves, 350 parks and expansive botanical gardens. The board is also responsible for implementing the government’s ‘City in a Garden’ strategy, which aims to enhance public greenery, and by extension, improve residents’ quality of life.

“Since 2009, the National Parks Board has been working with public and private organisations to bring greenery skywards, in the form of rooftop gardens and vertical green walls”, a representative of the board told Business Destinations.

In 2009, the National Parks Board launched its ‘Skyrise Greenery’ project, which aims to encourage building owners to cover their properties in plants by installing rooftop gardens and vertical green walls. As an added incentive, the National Parks Board promises to fund up to 50 percent of all installation costs for such undertakings, as well as offering sought-after additional gross floor area to those who participate in the Skyrise Greenery scheme. The project’s remarkable success is apparent: more than 80 hectares of vibrant greenery now stretch out over the modern facades of Singapore’s high-rise blocks.

“The benefits of Skyrise Greenery are widely recognised”, the National Parks Board told Business Destinations. “In addition to improving air quality, mitigating the urban heat island effect and acting as insulation for noise, Skyrise Greenery also creates a conducive and aesthetically pleasing environment for people to live and work [in].”

Back at ground level, plant life is no less abundant. Highways are lined with large, leafy trees, while rows of blossoming shrubs separate sidewalks from the traffic. A 300km-long network of ‘park connectors’ provides a series of green corridors throughout the city-state, linking Singapore’s many parks and gardens and making cycling, walking and jogging through the city easier than ever before.

Similarly, the city has developed a system of ‘nature ways’, which help animals and birds to move safely from one green space to another. Specific trees, shrubs and groundcover have been planted along certain routes to recreate the creatures’ natural habitats and encourage safe movement. Such projects not only aim to protect Singapore’s natural biodiversity, but also to make the city safer for all forms of life.

Gardens by the Bay: Singapore is home to some of the world’s finest ecological attractions

Along with its plentiful plant-lined streets, Singapore is also home to some of the world’s finest ecological attractions. On the banks of the city’s marina, a grove of 16-storey-tall supertrees marks the entrance to Gardens by the Bay, an internationally acclaimed nature reserve and horticultural attraction. Since opening its door to visitors in 2012, the park has become one of Singapore’s most exciting tourist destinations. Offering visitors a one-of-a-kind botanical holiday, the gardens have welcomed an incredible 30 million visitors over the past four years.

Boasting the largest glass greenhouse in the world, Gardens by the Bay combines the finest floral artistry and creative programming to bring the plant world to life. From its now iconic supertree grove to its 1.2-hectare flower dome, the garden is pioneering a new kind of eco-tourism, providing a tropical garden experience unlike anything to be found elsewhere in the world.

According to Felix Loh, Chief Operating Officer at Gardens by the Bay: “In the short span of four years since the garden opened in 2012, its visitorship has far surpassed that of traditional gardens, putting it in the league of international themed attractions… We are the first garden in the world to receive a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement – regarded as the Oscars of the international attractions industry.”

While Gardens by the Bay may have received the most international acclaim – receiving over 80 awards in its short history – Singapore’s collection of national parks is also experiencing something of a tourism boom. Its 156-year-old Botanic Gardens have emerged as the most visited botanical gardens in the world, receiving around 4.5 million visitors every year. In 2014, UNESCO officially honoured the Singapore Botanic Gardens as a World Heritage Site in recognition of its cultural significance and contribution to conservation and research.

Nestled on Singapore’s highest peak, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is also reaping the benefits of surging tourist interest in Singapore’s biodiversity. Home to more species of tree than the whole of North America, the reserve allows visitors to immerse themselves in a tropical rainforest without ever leaving city limits.

Over the past three decades, green space has
grown to cover approximately half of Singapore’s
total area

According to the National Parks Board: “Our parks, gardens and nature areas are for everybody to enjoy – locals and tourists alike.” As Singapore’s green spaces welcome record numbers of visitors, the value of the city’s greenery cannot be doubted.

A sustainable smart city
Aside from implementing its ambitious City in a Garden mission, the Singaporean Government is equally dedicated to actively reducing its carbon footprint through sustainable urban planning. The state is well on its way to becoming a smart city, having already embraced innovative technologies to solve such pressing issues as rapid population growth and pollution. In this regard, Singapore has always been ahead of the game.

As a newly independent country, Singapore suffered near-constant water shortages during the 1960s and relied heavily on neighbouring Malaysia for supplies. With no natural water supply, self-sufficiency in this regard seemed near impossible for the island. Over the past few decades, however, Singapore has overhauled its water operation, bringing the nation ever-closer to self-sufficiency. The national water agency has set about collecting rainwater in reservoirs, diligently filtering wastewater and has even begun to desalinate seawater to make it safe to drink. Now rainwater and wastewater meet 40 percent of the nation’s water needs, with this figure expected to rise to 55 percent by 2060.

Following this success, the Singaporean Government is now applying this innovative outlook to another of the nation’s most pressing issues: road traffic. With limited land space, the solution to Singapore’s congestion woes isn’t as straightforward as simply building more roads. Instead, the city is focusing on taking cars off its streets entirely, and will soon be rolling out a trial car-sharing scheme, comprising 1,000 electric vehicles. In an effort to further reduce car ownership, the nation’s public transport network is also undergoing a transformative upgrade. Over the next five years, the Singaporean Government expects to invest close to $30bn in its bus and rail systems, and has already succeeded in growing its bus fleet by 35 percent since 2012.

“Singapore is investing significantly to expand its public transport capacity and options”, the Ministry for National Development told Business Destinations. “By 2030, we will have doubled our urban rail network to 360km, which will put 80 percent of households within a 10-minute walk of a train station. In terms of rail density, this will make us comparable to major cities such as London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.”

Interestingly, some of Singapore’s most innovative sustainability efforts come courtesy of the nation’s network of parks. At Gardens by the Bay, the magnificent 50m-tall supertrees are a shining example of energy efficiency and technological innovation. Drawing inspiration from rainforest plant life, the artificial trees are fitted with various technologies that mimic the ecological functions of living trees: solar cells on the structures replicate photosynthesis, storing energy to use for other functions, while rainwater is collected for use in irrigation and fountain displays at the park. With more than 300 species of plants adorning the trunks of the manmade trees, the structures also contribute to improving air quality.

Inside the park’s expansive greenhouses, hi-tech cooling systems reduce energy consumption by an impressive 30 percent. The conservatories are themselves cooled using energy generated from burning agricultural waste.

According to Loh: “During planning and construction, a concerted effort was made to develop a garden rooted in environmental sustainability – one that would provide an urban ecosystem for biodiversity… Gardens by the Bay contributes to enhancing the quality of the living environment in Singapore by providing not just another green space, but one that enriches the lifestyle of the people.”

Enriching lives
While the government’s greening policy has had a transformative effect on the Singaporean cityscape, it has also enriched the lives of the nation’s people. Due in part to the country’s history as a trading hub, Singapore is a melting pot of different cultures, nationalities and influences. Today, nearly one quarter of Singaporean residents are foreign-born, with the city state now a top destination for European expats.

Outlining its vision for the country, the Ministry of National Development stressed: “It is important to maintain Singapore’s social cohesiveness, especially with the influx of foreign talent to our country. It is also important to foster within our citizens an attachment and love for our homeland in order to retain them in Singapore.”


of the world’s population
lives in cities


of global carbon emissions
are caused by cities


hectares, the total area of
Singapore’s rooftop gardens


hectares, the city state’s network
of nature reserves

In an effort to foster community spirit among Singaporeans, the National Parks Board has launched a number of well-received neighbourhood initiatives. Introduced in 2005, the ‘Communities in Bloom’ project encourages citizens to collectively work on shared gardens and allotments, coming together to tend to their plants. Now more than 1,000 community gardens are flourishing across the city, nestled in public and private housing estates, hospital grounds, schools and office spaces.

According to the National Parks Board: “Our Communities in Bloom project brings residents together to make Singapore our garden… As well as contributing to the lush greenery in schools, the programme adds value to school curriculums and encourages self-directed learning among students.”

With more than 20,000 residents engaged in such collaborative projects, Singapore’s green space is effectively enhancing communities along with the environment. Since the early days of its independence, the city state has sought to establish a coherent national identity, distancing itself from its international reputation as a somewhat sterile stopover.

Despite limited land space and the pressures of population growth, Singapore’s commitment to greenery has fostered a strong sense of identity among its citizens – one that’s defined by environmental awareness and community engagement.

As our planet continues to undergo relentless urbanisation, it is imperative that cities around the world follow Singapore’s lead and move from mass consumption to long-term sustainability. As the island nation goes to show, modernity and greenery are by no means mutually exclusive.

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