Upon landing in Singapore, and driving downtown through boulevards of flowering plants and arching rain trees, it takes little imagination to picture how the island would have appeared two hundred years ago. When Stamford Raffles first arrived on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula in 18191 under instruction to expand Britain’s foreign economic interests, he would have encountered a land of murky mangrove swamps and lowland rainforest. It was a place filled with the scent of ripe vegetation, where the shrieks of dugong bats would have echoed through the densely packed dipterocarps. The island, known as ‘Lion City’from the Sanskrit words simha ‘lion’, and pura ‘city’, had a population of around 150 local fisherman and tradesman. Today, the population stands at a bloated 5.3 million, and while a concrete jungle of tenements and skyscrapers has almost entirely transformed the tropical landscape, the green tinge of the city’s history is still very much in evidence.
When a new postwar world order8 propelled Singapore towards independence in 1959, its newly instated Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set out to utilise the city-state’s climate to transform it into a green paradise. In the previous two decades, Singapore’s neighbourhoods had been in a state of steady decline. The financial hangover from World War Two had rendered the urban landscape a morass of dilapidated commercial, industrial, and residential buildings, jumbled together across the expanse of the island. Kuan Yew, the dogmatic ‘father’ of modern Singapore, implemented a rigid renovation scheme aimed at creating a clean, natural space within a highly urbanised area. While some have perceived his methods as bordering on the totalitarian (particularly his penchant for severely punishing litterers), such policies have undoubtedly transformed the aesthetic of the city. With horticulture thrust to the forefront of planning laws, greenery is everywhere; trees erupt from street corners, bushes line the open promenades, shrubbery snakes up the great columns of the Benjamin Sheares Bridge and tropical flowers and plants decorate the cornices of buildings, new and old.
The intersection of cutting edge architecture and vegetation is key in alleviating the sterility so often felt in modern, developed cities. From the towering Park Royal Hotel, with its multi-storey rainforest clinging to the side of its glass exterior, to the swooping grass roofs of the School of Art Design and Media, local flora is used to create a sense of a more unspoilt habitat. The airy atriums of Changi Airport, with its park like passenger terminals filled with cactus, palms, and orchids, are reminiscent of a stroll through a quiet woodland glade. Standing upon the coiled waves of the Henderson Bridge, connecting Mount Faber Park and Telok Blangah Park, I was surrounded on either side by sprawling jungle. Just five minutes drive from the middle of town, this sense of isolation struck me as an extravagant luxury. In recent years, much has been written about the long lasting positive effects of living in green space, and my prominent memory of Singapore will be the unique enjoyment I took in exploring its garden like city centre.
Importantly, Singapore’s investment in horticultural decoration is not just a lavish expenditure on aesthetics. The establishment of nature reserves and reservoirs within the city limits, such as MacRitchie and Bukit Timah, have also ensured that beyond mere aesthetics, natural ecosystems are maintained. They are also emblematic of the government’s aim to top the ladder of global sustainable cities. Since 2005, 1,650 buildings in Singapore have been made environmentally friendly. This number is set to increase under the much touted Sustainable Development Blueprint that highlights a plethora of ‘green targets’ for 2030, including a recycling rate of 70% and a 35%21 improvement in energy efficiency. According to the latest Siemens’ Green City Index for Asia, Singapore is the best performing city in the region when measured against a range of sustainability criteria. Even taking into consideration the herd of highly polluted, resource draining cities of China, Korea and Japan, few would deny that the government is making a forcible effort to improve its green credentials.
Before I travelled to Singapore, I imagined it to be a fairly rigid, traditional financial centre. Instead, I discovered a place with a vibrant and entrepreneurial spirit. Architects and developers work in conjunction with policy makers to innovate in the field of urban development and eco friendly design. The Park Royal Hotel, for example, has used a range of methods to go green, including the installation of lush sky gardens, rain motion sensors, and natural light. Along with an efficient cooling system, its lush gardens incorporate rainwater harvesting and solar panels. Walking into its vast, naturally lit lobby, with wood panels and moss decorated walls, it was interesting to experience an environmentally conscious construction that retains architectural beauty. The Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School displays a similar synergy, using sustainable, yet stylish design elements, such as an eight storey glass atrium that provides vertical circulation for the whole building. According to Nicholas You, current head of the World Urban Campaign Committee at UN-Habitat, ‘Singapore is at the leading edge of sustainability. Indeed, the government’s active engagement in the interaction between city and environment seems, at some level, to offer a blue print for other countries around the world.
Before I toot the horn of Singapore’s sustainable horn a little too zealously, the icy blast of air-conditioned doorways on my exposed legs was a chilly reminder of the vast amount of energy expended on cooling the city’s buildings. With the majority of the world’s booming cities situated in Asia, the area will be home to one billion new consumers by 2025. Cold air has become the currency of the wealthy in countries such as India, where cars are now advertised not for their acceleration, but their ability to speedily cool their occupants. Singapore is no exception when it comes to splashing out on cooling systems and experts have voiced their concern that city has an unsustainable dependence on their use. Air conditioners use up copious amount of energy, and deliver a double whammy in terms of climate change; the coolants contained within the appliances result in planet-warming emissions, as well as the electricity they expend
Ironically, it seems that the money made available for investment in urban projects such as green architecture may come from some of Singapore’s more unsavoury cash cows. The city-state has come in for a great deal of flack for its involvement in regional deforestation to make room for palm oil plantations. One would hope that the ash and smoke that enveloped the city last year from the remnants of the Sumatran Rain Forest would have jolted the Singaporean government into preventative action, but it seems the global appetite for the oil is just too hard to resist. Furthermore, the damage to the local aquatic environment caused by the city’s bustling seaport and land reclamation has been significant. There were once over 60 offshore islands and patch reefs around Singapore, most of which were situated south of mainland Singapore. Since 1986, most coral reefs in Singapore have lost up to 65% of their live coral cover. The list of questionable practices carried out goes on, and many might scoff at the notion that Singapore is a truly ‘sustainable’ city. The undeniable fact is that despite covering just two percent of the Earth’s surface, cities use up 75% of its resources.
Taking everything into consideration (and tactfully absolving myself of having to make a final judgement on Singapore’s green credentials), I found the city’s aggressive push in the green building sector impressive. Not only does this continued focus make it a more habitable place, the promotion of green building has the potential to produce large energy savings. In terms of design and aesthetics, the curation of the city has resulted in a beautiful metropolis that often borders on the futuristic in its experimentation, and encapsulates the government’s high aspirations of reconnecting the city with nature.