Citiwire.net: Singapore Models the Ultimately green City
Neal Peirce / Jun 21 2012
SINGAPORE — In a lifetime of covering cities, I’ve never seen urbanism and greenery mix so magically.
A sensitively planned “Gardens by the Bay” project, set in Singapore’s Marina Bay downtown area, opens to the public this Thursday. Visitors will get a remarkably close-up gardens to city view — including one building that’s itself topped with tropical greenery.
At ground level these new gardens offer distinct horticultures reflecting the history and lifestyle of Singapore’s main ethnic groups — Malay, Indian, Chinese and Colonial.
But those are just appetizers. Towering above, are “supertrees” — 9- to 18-story high tree-like structures designed as vertical gardens with climbers and ferns mounting their sides. They’re embedded with water systems to nourish the plants. And they have photovoltaic cells on their canopies to harness the equatorial sun and then glow warmly in the night hours.
There’s a high-elevation skywalk linking several of the supertrees, offering even more dramatic city views. And nearby, visitors will find dramatically designed ground-level conservatories — themselves with vast window space turned toward Singapore’s skyscrapers, displaying plants and flowers from tropical and Mediterranean settings.
For Singapore, a 300-square mile island state, plagued by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at its founding a half century ago, Gardens by the Bay is yet another symbol of amazing achievement. City leaders now cite the country’s remarkable political stability, its excellence in education and economic opportunity and urban quality, as magnets to draw discerning professional families from across the globe.
But a trip to Singapore — already closely packed with 5.2 million people — isn’t necessary to learn how ingenious experiments in green can work to create a dramatically high quality of life.
The effort began in 1963 when Singapore’s powerful prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, launched a tree-planting campaign that eventually added 1.5 million trees. The tree planting humanized the environment, adding greenery mile by mile across the island. I wondered at the result — even in industrial areas that most planners in most nations tend to ignore.
But the green wave didn’t stop with trees. Today Singapore seems virtually covered by a lush mantle of tropical plantings that have been installed to soften retaining walls, pedestrian overhead bridges, viaducts and surface parking lots. Open spaces have been transformed into parks, flowering plants and bushes added in neighborhoods to provide splashes of color. The waterways have been “softscaped” with greenery.
The total effect beautifies and relaxes. And it seems quite contagious as today the verdant growth continues to spread as “skyrise greenery.” One’s amazed to see the green decorating bridges, climbing up walls and pillars and wires, reaching up to occupy roofs.
The Singaporeans celebrate the rise of green as a way to provide thermal insulation and cooling, help cleanse the air and water, and contribute to urban diversity in the form of added habitats in the city.
It’s true — most world cities aren’t in a year-round summer of tropical warmth, so they can’t be quite as green as Singapore. But it’s a strong sign of the times to see how many cities worldwide, increasingly in response to global warming concerns, have been stepping up tree planting campaigns.
What Singapore adds to the formula is the idea of greenery virtually everywhere it’s feasible — even the most unlikely spots. Greenery transforms the face of the center city, neighborhoods and waterways, creating a city of greens and blues, a net addition of remarkable quality and value to urban life.
Yet even Singapore, while master planning effectively, can act insensitively. It’s allowed a surfeit of golf courses — more than 20 — which critics depict as “spatial injustice,” favoring a privileged minority instead of ordinary citizens hungry for open space opportunities.
There’s also contention over the Singapore’s plan to build a new eight-lane highway straight through Bukit Brown, the largest Chinese burial ground outside China with some 100,000 graves. In a break with Singaporeans’ usual acquiescence in government decisions, a volunteer group is fighting the demolition. But they’re not likely to succeed. Walking through the cemetery, abandoned since 1973 — the land today left to wondrous African tulip trees, 100 bird species and macaque monkeys — one senses the downside of all-powerful government.
But it’s also true: notwithstanding the heavy hand for which it’s sometimes known, the Singapore government has provided an exciting standard of green for world cities to consider.
The new idea is no longer “a garden in the city.” Rather, it’s “the city in a garden.” Here’s a breakthrough idea all cities might embrace, enhancing the very essence of their urbanity and livability by learning to interact more harmoniously, and fruitfully, with nature.
Neal Peirce (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chairman of the Citistates Group, a group of writers, speakers and consultants focused on the viability of U.S. and international metropolitan regions as well as the founder and former contributing editor of the National Journal.