Cities in nature

Singapore shows how cities can become increasingly integrated with nature.

For urban planners struggling to reconcile ever rising urban density with staying green, Singapore offers a way forward. The city-state’s government has spent the past six decades working towards solutions that allow a burgeoning population to share a small island while at the same time being in harmony with nature. And its latest efforts bring Singapore closer to this aim than perhaps any other major city.

When Singapore became an independent city-state in 1965, its founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was already set on avoiding the mistakes of other rapidly growing Asian cities. Rather than a concrete jungle, his ambition was for something more akin to Britain’s garden cities. But the initial environment wasn’t particularly promising. Singapore’s rivers were polluted, its forests had long since largely been cut down and there was a shortage of housing, pushing people into ever more marginal spaces.

What followed were clear and increasingly integrated plans for housing, transport and infrastructure with plenty of scope for green public spaces. And so, despite increasing urbanisation, Singapore managed to boost its green cover from 36 per cent in 1986 to 47 per cent by 2007, while also cleaning up the polluted Singapore River.

But now Singapore is moving to the next stage – from garden city to city in nature. It’s no longer sufficient to merely plant trees and create green public spaces. There is now a wholesale effort to green the city. That’s not just a matter of aesthetics – Singapore is now 1 degree centigrade hotter on average than it was in 1950. Greening is crucial to keeping it cool. 

This entails a number of efforts. First there’s the matter of greening harsh urban spaces – growing creepers on concrete retaining walls, concrete pillars and even lamp posts. Then there’s the matter of adding further protections to a hierarchy of parks, from neighbourhood green spaces all the way up to the national parks.

Turning concrete jungles green

Tree-lined walking and biking paths are being created and strips of land along drainage canals and underneath transport viaducts are being made green with planting schemes. Meanwhile, under new rules, developers are made to replace any greenery lost from site development by providing ground, rooftop or mid-level sky terraces. Industrial estates are now lush with trees, with another 170,000 due to be planted on these sites. Since 2019, the programme has added more than 250 hectares of greenery, including urban farms, communal gardens and green walls to Singapore.

One key element of Singapore’s city in nature strategy has been its approach to water resources. Although it gets an average of 2.4 metres of rainfall, the urban landscape means that much has been subject to run-off. So over the years, 17 urban reservoirs were created, making two-thirds of the city-state’s land area water catchment. Meanwhile, engineered waterways, such as drains, canals and stormwater collection ponds are being re-naturalised, made green with planting and landscaping. That includes converting a monsoon canal into a scenic mangrove-lined river. Not only have the aesthetics improved, but these waterways are now used as recreational spaces. And mangrove replanting helps to erode coastline erosion. 

In 1960, Singapore threatened to become yet another basket case of urbanisation gone wrong. Since then, the population has grown from 2 million to 5.7 million in an ever greener, healthier, more pleasing and sustainable environment. That’s mostly down to far-sighted government that adopted joined-up urban planning covering all the city-state’s natural resources. It’s not an easy approach, and it requires focus and long-term thinking. But, as Singapore shows, it’s possible in even the most challenging and space-constrained of environments. 

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