How Singapore’s “Garden City” Vision Fused Nature and Urban Design Like Nowhere Else


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

On my first visit to Singapore, I was struck by how remarkably different the city was from Hong Kong, despite its underlying similarities. Both are former British colonies with a land area of ​​comparable size, and with similar population numbers and industries. Yet they couldn’t be more different. In Hong Kong, closely spaced skyscrapers and underground infrastructure make it difficult for trees to grow. The city has narrow streets and crowded sidewalks, with skyscrapers blocking the sunlight. With all the cables and pipes in its ground, very few trees survive in the city’s urban core. This contributes to the city’s dangerously poor air quality, which can cause bronchitis and decreased lung function.

Opposite the frenetic concrete jungle of Hong Kong stands Singapore, a green oasis of calm. At the origin of these two different destinies hides an opposing logic of government. Postcolonial Hong Kong was largely market-driven, built by developers without too much of a grand plan. Singapore is top-​down, ruled by the strong hand of a philosopher king, where nothing has been left to chance. Both cities prospered, but in totally different ways. Hong Kong has become a mecca for public transport, Singapore a city with a green thumb.

These differences date 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 defining moment, Singapore became the first nation-state to achieve independence involuntarily. This left the small country, bereft of natural resources, in a difficult position. The new country’s prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, had major challenges to resolve. “I looked for a dramatic way to set ourselves apart from other Third World countries,” Lee said. “We struggled to find our bearings.”

“To achieve first-world standards in a third-world region, we decided to turn Singapore into a tropical garden city,” Lee decided. “Greening has lifted people’s spirits and given them pride in their surroundings.” In 1963, before independence, Lee launched the first tree-planting campaign. He himself planted the first tree, a Cratoxylum formosum, known for its light pink flowers resembling cherry blossoms. After independence, he reinforced these efforts. He launched the Garden City campaign and an annual tree planting day to beautify Singapore. Lee chose November because that’s when the young trees need the least water, at the start of the rainy season. In 1974, Singapore had 158,000 trees. Forty years later, it had 1.4 million.

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In 1973, Lee created the Garden City Action Committee and sent green missions around the world. “Our botanists brought back 8,000 different varieties and grew some 2,000 in Singapore.” Lee personally chose Vernonia elliptica, an unusual choice because it has no flowers and if left untended looks like a weed. But city gardeners widely used the species to decorate the walls of unsightly buildings, bridges and overpasses.

Lee, dubbed “the chief gardener”, also urged leaders of neighboring countries to go green. “I encouraged them, reminding them that they had a greater variety of trees and a similar favorable climate.” This would lead to a green race, with neighboring countries trying to “greener and less flowery” each other. “Greening was positive competition that benefited everyone – it was good for morale, good for tourism and good for investors,” Lee surmised.

Greening has also become a matter of survival. Singapore is a country the size of a city. With around 6 million people, it has the same population as Denmark, but in an area only half the size of London. As a result, the nation depends on neighboring countries, like Malaysia, for such basic things as water. However, Lee knew his neighbor could cut off 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 cut off the water.

Joy of living at Gardens By The Bay, Singapore. (Credit: Tomás/Adobe Stock)

To avoid dependency on other countries, Singapore needed to be self-sufficient within its own compact footprint. Having to capture rainwater, it could not afford to leave its rivers polluted, as so many other countries have done. Singapore, in the name of self-sufficiency, had no choice but to go green.

In 1963, Lee brought together different entities to create a national water agency. For ten years, the agency worked to clean up the rivers, which until then had been an open sewer. Officials moved factories and farms and built water reservoirs, planning to collect and harvest rainwater in the city. “In 1980 we were able to supply some 63 million gallons of water a day,” Lee said, “about half of our daily water usage at the time.”

Today, Singapore has a myriad of water reservoirs, rooftops, parks, roads and sidewalks to all catch water. Two-thirds of its surface is a water catchment area. An elaborate system of canals, tunnels and pumps then conveys the water to treatment plants, all controlled by microprocessors.

Along with greening Singapore, Lee wanted to get people to own apartments. Landlords, he surmised, would have a greater sense of ownership than tenants. The city’s Housing & Development Board (HDB) would build low-cost housing that citizens would be allowed to rent and then buy with their pension funds. Today, 88% of all Singaporeans are homeowners, among the highest homeownership rates in the world. It should be noted that the system deliberately discriminates against same-sex couples and excludes several hundred thousand migrant workers, who live in overcrowded dormitories.

With limited land supply and rapid population growth, Singapore had no choice but to build. Everyone had to be housed in skyscrapers. This transition to living at height hasn’t come easily, especially for pig farmers, Lee noted. “Some have been seen coaxing their piggies down the stairs!”

The foundations for Singapore’s new green skyline have been laid. As the state imposed green policies and high-rise buildings, it was just waiting for nature to intertwine with the skyscraper. Defying the negative stereotypes around high-rise public housing, the city’s skyscrapers have become sleek, modern, and increasingly green. In 2009, the HDB completed the [email protected], the tallest social housing project in the world. It comprises seven interconnected 50-story towers with landscaped raised gardens, allowing residents to take a daily jog among palm trees, 500 feet above the ground.

Cheong Koon Hean, who headed Singapore’s national planning authority, has pursued the city’s green arc for the past two decades. It has endowed the city’s new central business district, the Marina Bay, with an urban water reservoir and a 250-acre botanical park, the Gardens by the Bay, with 18 “super trees”, gardens vertical as high as ten floors. building. Architect Moshe Safdie designed the neighborhood’s signature project, Marina Bay Sands, an integrated resort constructed of three 57-story hotel towers topped by a 1,120-foot-long SkyPark. Perhaps most innovative is the way all this greenery coexists in an urban center, with skyscrapers. “We intersperse parks, rivers and ponds in the middle of our skyscrapers,” Cheong said.

The city has adopted building regulations with a significant implication for high-rise buildings. If developers are building on open space, they must replace it with green elsewhere in the project. Through LUSH, or “Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-​Rises” incentives, developments can create terraces and gardens to meet these requirements. The authority even encourages developers to include plants with a higher leaf area index, taking into account that some species have more leaves than others, and therefore more benefits. All of this helps spawn even more green coverage. In Marina Bay, for example, developers needed to replace 100% of the landscape lost on the ground 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 is Marina One, a multi-tower development serving 20,000 residents and office workers. At its heart is a tiered terraced garden with winding wooden walkways, home to over 350 species. Unlike typical buildings, the floors have deep beds for drainage, soaking up water during periods of tropical showers.

Just west of Marina Bay, the Parkroyal Collection Pickering hotel envelopes hotel guests in trees and vegetation. On all four levels, tropical plants are draped in heavenly gardens, with palm trees and frangipani in bloom. Another skyscraper, the Oasis Hotel Downtown, is encased by a red aluminum trellis, which 21 species of vines will gradually fill. Each type of plant being able to survive better according to the solar orientation and the shade of the trellis, the vines and the flowers will make for a unique model yet to come. The mesh covering almost the entire skyscraper will replace a record more than 10 times the lost green area on the ground. Meanwhile, the city record holder for the largest vertical garden is the Tree House, a 24-storey condo tower in the western region of Singapore. The green wall completely covers one side of the building, measuring almost 25,000 square feet, or about the size of five tennis courts.

Singapore intends to use all this greenery to compensate for its fundamental flaw. The city came at the cost of its rainforest. Only 0.5% of the country’s primary forests remain. Urbanization has had an impact on the climate, with urban areas being up to nine degrees Fahrenheit warmer than rural areas. Newly planted trees and green city walls will help cool buildings, provide shade and reduce outside temperatures. Hopefully this will encourage people to walk or take a bus, instead of taking an air-conditioned taxi.


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