How Singapore’s “Garden City” vision combined nature and urban design like nowhere else

Adapted from Supertall: How the tallest buildings in the world are reshaping our cities and our lives. Copyright (c) 2022 by Stefan Al. Used with permission of the publisher, WW Norton & Company, Inc. all rights are save.

On my first visit to Singapore, I was struck by how remarkable the difference is between the city and Hong Kong, despite their underlying similarities. Both are former British colonies with roughly the same size of land, and have similar numbers and industries of population. However, they couldn’t be more different. In Hong Kong, close-knit skyscrapers and underground infrastructure make it difficult for trees to grow. The city has narrow streets and crowded sidewalks, where skyscrapers block the sun’s rays. With all the cables and tubes in its soil, very few trees remained in the urban heart of the city. This contributes to seriously poor air quality in the city, which can lead to bronchitis and decreased lung function.

In contrast to the frenetic concrete jungle of Hong Kong stands Singapore, a green oasis of calm. At the root of these two different Egypts lies an opposing approach to governance. Postcolonial Hong Kong was largely market-led, and developers built it without much of a grand plan. Singapore from top to bottom, led by the strong hand of a philosopher-king, where nothing was left to chance. Both cities flourished, but in completely different ways. Hong Kong has become a public transport hub, and Singapore is a city with a green thumb.

These differences can be traced back to 1965, in the aftermath of British colonial rule, when the Malaysian Parliament voted unanimously to expel Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia. At this watershed moment, Singapore became the first nation-state to inadvertently gain independence. He left this small country, which lacks natural resources, in a difficult situation. The new country’s prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, had major challenges to solve. “I looked for an interesting way to distinguish ourselves from other third world countries,” he told me. “We struggled to find our feet.”

Lee decided “to achieve first world standards in a third world area, we set out to transform Singapore into a tropical garden city”. “Greening lifts people’s spirits and gives them pride in their surroundings.” In 1963, before independence, Lee launched his first tree planting campaign. He planted the first tree himself, a form of Cratoxylum formosum, known for its light pink, cherry blossom-like flowers. After independence, he consolidated these efforts. Launch the Garden City campaign and annual tree planting day to beautify Singapore. Lee chose November, because this is the time when seedlings need the least amount of water, on the cusp of the rainy season. In 1974, Singapore had 158,000 trees. Forty years later, she had 1.4 million.

Subscribe to get unexpected, surprising and touching stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

In 1973, Lee established the Garden City Labor Committee and sent green expeditions around the world. “Our botanists brought back 8,000 different species and got 2,000 to grow in Singapore.” For me personally he chose Vernonia elliptica, which is an unusual choice, because it has no flowers, and if it is rude, it looks like a cannabis. But city gardeners widely used this species to decorate the walls of unsightly buildings, bridges and bridges.

Lee, nicknamed “The Chief Gardener,” tempted the leaders of his neighboring countries into conservation as well. “I encouraged them, reminding them that they have a greater diversity of trees and a similar favorable climate.” This would lead to a green race, with neighboring countries trying to “get out of the green and prosper” each other. Lee assumed that “greening was a positive competition that benefited everyone – it was good for morale, for tourism, and for investors.”

Greening has also become about survival. Singapore is a country the size of a city. With a population of about 6 million, it has the same population as Denmark, but in an area no more than half the size of London. As a result, the nation depends on neighboring countries, such as Malaysia, for basic things like water. However, Lee knew his neighbor could cut Singapore’s lifeline, fresh water, in times of conflict. The president of Malaysia once said, “We can always put pressure on them by threatening to shut down the waters.”

The Joy of Living in Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. (Credit: Thomas/Adobe Stock)

To avoid dependence on other countries, Singapore needed to be self-sufficient within its compact footprint. Forced to catch rainwater, it cannot leave its rivers polluted, as many other countries have done. Singapore, in the name of self-sufficiency, had no choice but to go green.

In 1963, Lee consolidated the various entities to create a National Water Agency. For ten years, the agency worked to clean up rivers, which until then had been open sewers. Public officials moved factories and farms and built water tanks, to plan for the collection and reclamation of rainwater in the city. “By 1980, we were able to save about 63 million gallons of water per day,” he told me, “about half of our daily water consumption at that time.”

Today, Singapore features countless water reservoirs, rooftops, gardens, roads, and sidewalks for all the water captured. Two-thirds of its surface is a catchment area. Then a sophisticated system of channels, tunnels and pumps transports the water to the treatment plants, all of which are controlled by microprocessors.

In parallel with the greening of Singapore, Lee wanted to convince people to own apartments. Assume that homeowners will have a greater sense of belonging than renters. The city’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) will build low-cost housing that citizens are allowed to rent and then buy using their pension funds. Today, 88 percent of all Singaporeans are homeowners, which are among the highest rates of home ownership in the world. It should be noted that the system deliberately harms same-sex couples and excludes hundreds of thousands of migrant workers living in overcrowded dormitories.

With limited land supply and rapid population growth, Singapore had no choice but to build. She needed to house everyone in the skyscrapers. Li pointed out that this transition to high-rise housing did not come easily, especially for pig breeders. “Some were seen convincing their pigs to go up the stairs!”

The foundation has been laid for Singapore’s new green skyline. As the state enforced green policies and tall buildings, it was just waiting for nature to intertwine with the skyscraper. Defying negative stereotypes about high-rise public housing, the city’s skyscrapers are becoming sleek, modern, and increasingly decorated with plants. In 2009, HDB completed a program [email protected]The longest public housing project in the world. It features seven interconnected 50-story towers with elevated landscaped gardens, allowing residents to run daily among the palm trees, 500 feet above the ground.

Cheong Koon Hean, who served as Chairman of the National Urban Planning Authority of Singapore, has continued to create the city’s green arch in the past two decades. It has infused the city’s new central business district, Marina Bay, with a 250-acre urban water reservoir and botanical garden, Gardens by the Bay, which includes 18 “super trees”, and vertical gardens a ten-story building. Architect Moshe Safdie designed the district’s signature project, Marina Bay Sands, an integrated resort built of three 57-story hotel towers topped by a 1,120-foot Skypark. Perhaps most innovative is how all these green spaces coexist in an urban center, along with skyscrapers. “We are dividing parks, rivers, and ponds among our highlands,” Cheung said.

The city has passed building regulations that have an important impact on tall buildings. If developers are building on an open space, they should replace it with green elsewhere in the project. Through LUSH incentives, or ‘landscapes of urban spaces and tall buildings’, developments can create sky terraces and gardens to meet these requirements. The authority even encourages developers to include plants with a higher leaf area index, considering how some species have more leaves than others, and thus more benefits. All this helps to produce more green cover. In Marina Bay, for example, developers needed to replace 100 percent of the landscape lost on Earth due to their buildings with greenery in the sky.

With all these LUSH requirements, the city has become a breeding ground for truly green buildings. Just south of Marina Bay, Marina One is a multi-tower development serving 20,000 residents and office workers. At its heart is a multi-level garden with winding wooden walkways, which is home to more than 350 species. Unlike typical buildings, floors contain deep planting beds to drain, absorbing water during times of tropical rains.

Just west of Marina Bay, the Parkroyal Collection Pickering envelops hotel guests with trees and plants. Every four levels, tropical plants are covered by the sky gardens, which feature palm trees and blooming frangipani flowers. Another skyscraper, the Oasis Downtown Hotel, is surrounded by a red aluminum grid, which will gradually fill 21 species of reptiles. With each plant species able to survive better depending on the net’s solar orientation and shade, creepers and flowers will make for a unique style yet to come. A grid that covers almost the entire skyscraper will replace a record-breaking 10 times the green space lost on Earth. Meanwhile, the record holder for the largest vertical garden in the city is Tree House, a 24-storey residential tower in the Western District of Singapore. One side of the building is completely covered by a green wall, and its area is about 25,000 square feet, about the size of five tennis courts.

Singapore plans to use all this green space to make up for its fundamental mistake. The city came at the expense of its tropical forests. Only 0.5 percent of the country’s primary forests remain. Urbanization has affected the climate, with temperatures in urban areas reaching nine degrees Fahrenheit warmer than rural areas. Newly planted trees and green city walls will help cool buildings, provide shade, and reduce outdoor temperatures. Hopefully this will encourage people to walk or take the bus, rather than take a climate-controlled taxi.

%d bloggers like this: