Urban Jungle: Singapore Leads the Way on Green Space

This is the sixth post in our “Urban Jungle” series, which explores the inextricable connections between nature and thriving cities.

giant artificial trees, Singapore

Singapore’s “supertrees” that act as vertical gardens and use solar panels to generate electricity for the city. (© CI/photo by David Emmett)

The rainforest was quiet except for the sound of moisture dripping from trees, and calls of frogs and insects. My torchlight illuminated a snake sleeping in a tree, coiled around a mass of orchids. The clear stream was teeming with beautiful fish, shrimp, crabs and even a large, rare softshell turtle. Overhead, a tree was festooned with feeding bats; the air was heady with the musky scent of overripe fruit.

As I walked up the hill, a civet stepped onto the muddy trail. It looked up, eyes reflecting brightly in the torchlight, then climbed a tree and disappeared. The forest floor was dotted with glowing fungi, the air alive with fireflies. It was a magical place.

Moving lights shone through the forest. I knew what that meant, so I stepped aside as cyclists rode past, greeting me cheerfully. I walked up the path, stepped out onto a small road and climbed into my car.

Driving down the road, the forest crowded closely on both sides and the canopy loomed overhead. After five minutes I reached a main road, stopped at a line of shops, collected the pizza I’d ordered 10 minutes earlier while walking in the rainforest and drove home.

Singapore’s Unexpected Treasures

I love Singapore.

One of the most densely populated countries on the planet, Singapore’s over 5 million people are crowded into only 269 square miles [697 square kilometers] of land, an area less than four times the size of Washington, D.C. That’s 18,500 people per square mile, compared with 83 people per square mile in the U.S.

Land prices are among the highest in the world. It’s well known that this tiny country is a giant in Asia’s corporate and financial sectors. The business district showcases some of the most modern, advanced skyscrapers anywhere on Earth.

What’s less well-known is that Singapore is also a haven for nature. Sure, larger species like tigers were hunted out a century ago, but many species remain. It’s possible to stand on the edge of the Central Business District next to a vast building complex that won a global architecture award in 2013, and watch a family of rare otters bounce and cavort across a wide footpath and plunge into a lake.

python, Singapore

Pythons are common in Singapore, benefitting from the network of waterways. (© CI/photo by David Emmett)

Singapore is arguably the most developed tropical city in the world. So why and how has it maintained so much land area for nature? And how has it done such a good job that my daughter asked me why we were driving in the jungle, when we were actually driving into town from the airport?

Building a “Garden City”

The answer lies in the 1968 vision of the country’s founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, regarding the way the city would be developed. He recognized and embraced the idea that Singapore would be not a “concrete jungle” but a “garden city,” both to attract foreign investment and to provide an attractive and comfortable home for its people.

The country envisions a lush green city, with attractive new parks and verdant links between them, as well as eye-catching vertical and high-rise greenery. This vision is closely linked to human well-being and economic growth. And it is a working model of the benefits to society of maintaining nature as an integral part of an urban landscape.

otter sign, Singapore

Otters are found throughout Singapore, even within the most urban areas. (© CI/photo by David Emmett)

As to why the government of Singapore has exceptional understanding of the economic values of nature, it’s because the government realized decades ago that the country relies on nature’s resources and services. Especially water.

This recognition links back to the country’s origin. Singapore was once part of Malaysia. When it became an independent nation, a deal was brokered with Malaysia to ensure a supply of fresh water to Singapore … until 2061. The Singaporean government has since worked hard to conserve and recycle its rainfall and freshwater reserves, so it will not be dependent on others for this essential resource. The country purifies wastewater, has a vast desalination program, invests in careful management and collection of rain and stormwater, and maintains a forested central catchment area. The plan is that, when the Malaysian water deal expires, Singapore will be self-sufficient.

Singapore’s central catchment provides much of the fresh water that is the city’s lifeblood. The catchment consists of secondary rainforest, clear streams and vast reservoirs and lakes interconnected by overgrown canals. Due to very strict regulations prohibiting hunting and fishing, combined with the reality that Singaporeans don’t need to hunt for their food, wildlife is prevalent.

The central catchment and nature reserves are a haven for aquatic and terrestrial wildlife such as otters, pythons, monitor lizards, pangolins and hornbills. The aquatic species use waterways and stormwater canals to move throughout the country, deep into the heart of the city.

Pythons upwards of 10 feet [3 meters] have emerged from drains on Orchard Road, one of the largest and busiest shopping streets in Asia. I’ve seen monitor lizards longer than 5 feet [1.5 meters] basking amongst vegetation on the wide central reservations of major highways, benefitting from the government’s Streetscape Greenery Master Plan. This is even more impressive when considering how exploited these species are elsewhere in Asia.

Singapore at night

Singapore at night. Despite being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Singapore has been able to maintain impressive areas of green space. (© CI/photo by David Emmett)

A Model for Cities Worldwide

CI’s Asia-Pacific field division originally chose Singapore as its divisional hub for a variety of reasons. It’s a central base from which to visit the division’s country programs. It’s a global centre of academic excellence. It’s a corporate hub with over twice as many major global companies as New York or London. It has an exceptionally high number of millionaires and billionaires, providing fundraising opportunities. And it’s a key media and communications base for the Asia-Pacific region.

But now we know another reason why it’s good to have our Asia-Pacific hub here: It is a world-class demonstration of urban nature conservation. The country was developed based on the same principle that shapes CI’s mission: People need nature. The country was decades ahead of its time.

The issue of how to develop a sustainable green city in the face of climate change and population growth is quickly becoming one of the great challenges of our age. Many other cities — Jakarta, Bogotá, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Nairobi — all face this challenge, and the issue will only grow. Singapore may not be perfect, but when it comes to demonstrating effective sustainable development for tropical cities all around the world, it’s one of the best models we have.

David Emmett is the senior vice president of CI’s Asia-Pacific field division. Learn more about Singapore’s policies and activities to balance development with nature on its government website (relevant pages here and here).

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