Success story: Singapore’s transformation into a garden city
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Author | M. Martínez Euklidiadas

Singapore, the Garden City, is a series of parks and green spaces. Vegetation starts out on the ground and reaches the very top of buildings. It grows on terraces and also inside houses and offices. But this has not always been the case.

Just under 50 years ago, this city-state, which was then an emerging country, began a race to become one of the cleanest and greenest cities in the world. Singapore’s success story as a green space is recognized the world over.

Why is Singapore known as the Garden City?

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In 1967, Singapore set out to become a garden city. According to the ‘The Straits Times’, the city would follow “a two-stage plan, which will transform Singapore into ‘a beautiful garden city with flowers and trees, without waste and as neat and orderly as possible’ was announced today by the prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.”

This plan marked the start of the transformation of this small Asian city-state, then a dirty and highly polluted city, into a green and sustainable model. Firstly, by removing rubbish from the streets (“often the result of lack of public awareness and apathy”, in the words of the prime minister). Then, by educating people, since it was normal to throw rubbish out of windows or into public drainage systems, or to see street vendors and motorists simply throwing rubbish out of vehicles.

What is a garden city?

A garden city is an urban planning movement dating back to the 18th century aimed at creating an urban area designed for healthy living and working. Although the model has been criticized and reviewed —today trends swing towards urban re-naturalization with urban ecosystems rather than landscaping as it was known centuries ago— the garden city model, made popular by the book ‘A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’ (1898), radically changed the appearance of cities such as New York, Berlin, Madrid or Singapore.

PIC 2Ebenezer Howard

In the initial proposal, the garden city not only included gardens as such, but also agricultural land and even industry in the form of a belt surrounding the cities. The idea was not new (the first urban settlements, which were much smaller, grew in this way).

There are now indoor farming proposals (vertical farming) in cities, precisely in Singapore, which seek to combine the garden city movement with today’s technology. This allows nature to not only be outside, but also inside of buildings.

Singapore’s change of strategy

To transform the city, Singapore had to create new ‘green’ laws, which included each household and business having to have a waste recycling bin, taxing those that generated more waste and imposing high fines on those found littering the streets. This strategy towards a green city was necessary.

Firstly, it would improve public health by reducing the number of mosquitoes, flies and diseases. “There cannot be a substitute for an efficient cleaning service, given Singapore’s tropical climate, which fosters the decomposition of waste and the city’s high population density”, the aforementioned newspaper indicated 12 years later.

Furthermore, a garden city would attract more tourism, by reducing unemployment rates and increasing the interest of foreign investors in the city-state.

The start of the garden city

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The ‘Singapore, garden city’ project (which was later renamed ‘Singapore, a city in a garden’) was based on an initial premise: to improve the quality of life of its inhabitants introducing vegetation into public spaces. By the end of 1970, over 55,000 new trees had been planted and, in 1971, a tree planting day was inaugurated, an annual event involving a large part of the population.

The transformation was also reflected in laws such as the ‘Parks and Trees Act’ of 1975. This required government and private agencies to reserve spaces for trees and vegetation in their projects and buildings. The number of parks and natural spaces also increased; campaigns such as the ‘Clean and green week’ were introduced and citizens’ environmental and ecological education was improved.

As a result, this ‘eco municipality’ has seen its green areas continue to grow. A large network of tree-covered and pedestrian corridors connects the parks with one another and the number of new trees increased from approximately 158,600 in 1974 to 1.4 million in June 2014.

Eco-friendly building and vertical gardens

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As these green spaces grew, so did the population of Singapore. This posed a challenge, since the city-state has a high population density: Singapore has a population of over five million in less than 700 square kilometers.

The solution to continue creating green spaces despite the increased population was to combine architecture and vegetation. Green building has been mandatory since 2008 in Singapore. It is normal to find plants on the top and the sides of buildings (like cascading gardens) and also inside the buildings. Behind measures such as these, is Cheong Koon Hean, who was the first woman to head Singapore’s urban development agency.

One of the finest examples of the union between architecture and nature on the island is the Jewel Changi airport. The last extension, designed by the architect Moshe Safdie, combines natural light, water and green spaces.

Another good example are the Supertrees, 50-meter tall artificial trees located in the famous Gardens at the Bay. These structures offer a light show (powered by solar energy) and also have more than 150,000 real plants embedded on their sides.

Change of perspective

“In many countries, short-term approaches have prioritized economic development over the environment. A change of mentality was needed”, according to Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources of Singapore. “Our approach has been to build a habitable and sustainable city through a pragmatic policy, based on solid economic and scientific principles, a long-term planning approach and the effective implementation and capacity to gain the support of the people for the public interest.”

Many of his measures, such as the integration of sustainable infrastructures and increasing green spaces in the city, may help to achieve various UN Sustainable Development Goals. For example, reducing cities’ negative environmental impact per capita: the presence of trees and green areas contributes to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and the effects of the urban heat island.

One of Singapore’s main strengths in following this line of action in the future is the environmental awareness of its citizens. For Lim Liang Jim, director of the National Parks Board's National Biodiversity Center, educating young people is essential in order to maintain the achievements reached in the city-state: “If in the future someone says ‘let’s not think about green, let’s build’, a significant portion of the population will act as informed advocates for nature’s conservation and green spaces.”

Is Singapore a green and clean city?

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During Singapore’s so-called ‘economic miracle’ (in mid-1965), CO2 emissions per capita rapidly increased to the point that the UN declared it a “disaster zone”, as illustrated in the World Bank Data. However, since the beginning of the ‘80s, this green city decided to maintain and then decrease its emissions.

Despite the efforts, according to the multidisciplinary study ‘Carbon footprint of 13,000 cities’ (2018), the city-state of Singapore is still the fourth most polluting city on the planet per inhabitant, with 30.8 tCO2/cap (here is the complete list), therefore its improvement margin is notable. It is important to bear in mind that this city contains an entire country (industry included) and that, it terms of a nation, the figures are equivalent to Europe.

Is Singapore the greenest city on the planet?

The city-state of Singapore is one of the greenest cities on the planet, according to the MIT study Treepedia. Thanks to this region’s ‘landscaping’ policies, around 29.3% of the total area of the city is made up of green spaces. It is followed by Vancouver and Cambridge with 25.9%.

Cities such as Buenos Aires (14.5%), London (12.7%) or Paris (8.8%), are quite far behind, although Tampa (36.1%) is the clear global winner. Without doubt, Singapore is at the top of the list of the greenest Asian cities, although if it wants to take the first spot it will have to build more skyscrapers in order to free up space for its gardens.

Images | Yeo Khee, Lita Ruza, Kenneth Koh, Victor, Sergio Sala

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