One of the first things that strikes visitors arriving in Singapore is the lushness of the city's greenery. On the road from Changi International Airport to the city's center, the highway is lined with Angsana and rain trees, branching out above flowering bushes. As you walk down the Orchard Road, one of the city's major commercial thoroughfares, the sidewalks are separated from auto traffic by beds of lilies and shrubs. Tropical flowers blossom on overhead walkways. Looking down from one of the city's many sky scrapers, rooftops sprout gardens and even trees.
All this lushness is not a happy accident of the tropical climate, but is the result of decades of city planning and supportive policies. Since the country gained sovereignty in the 1960s, it strove to become a "garden city." Today, the city is trying to push this concept even further, by making Singapore into "a city in a garden."
Although British colonialists left behind a poor urban legacy, city planners did create open spaces for sports fields and cemeteries. "What they did, perhaps unconsciously, was create a green heritage," said Dr. Liu Thai Ker, Chairman of the Centre for Livable Cities and the former CEO of the city's housing authority. He said the Padang, which means "field" in Malay, "is the tropical answer to the European Piazza."
From this skeleton of open space, the city has fleshed out an impressive system of parks. Today, roughly 10 percent of the island's land area is dedicated to public parks and nature reserves, despite expensive land values and high population density.
Dr. Thai Ker described Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as the city's "master gardener," who launched the city's first tree-planting initiative in 1963, founded the parks commission in the 1970s and insisted on a policy of "no brown fields." Any vacant lots had been sodded with grass or otherwise planted by the late 1970s. Dr. Thai Ker said this policy prevented brown fields from filling with trash and becoming "scars" in the urban landscape.
Singapore's National Parks organization (NParks) plays a significant role in maintaining the city's greenery. "I've never met a parks department with so much power," said landscape designer Kathryn Gustafson, who designed the Bay East Garden in Singapore's Gardens by the Bay.
The parks department manages 322 neighborhood and regional parks, 2,671 hectares of roadside greenery, four nature reserves, vacant state land and other government premises. In 2012, NParks spent 196.1 million Singapore dollars and employs just under 900 people, in addition to contracting out some landscaping and maintenance services.
NParks is also in the process of building park connectors, greenways that are designed to allow both people and fauna to travel from park to park without leaving a corridor of green. The park connectors are often built along the city's reservoirs, at once giving park space an additional function and making the storm water management system more attractive. So far, 200 kilometers of park connectors have been built, and another 100 kilometers are planned to be completed in the next five years.
In addition to the green spaces maintained by NParks, the National Housing Board has also integrated parks and green spaces into the design of many of its estates. This sometimes means building higher or more densely, but Dr. Thai Ker says that saving some space for parks makes a big difference in the lives of the residents. If you compare a building that covers an entire block to one that allows for open space, the increase in density doesn't have to be noticeable, but "the difference between having a park and not having a park is very noticeable."
One of the things that struck me during my time in Singapore is how the need for plants, parks and greenery was foremost associated with a higher quality of life. In interview after interview, economic and ecological benefits seemed to be secondary, although there are many. Parks and greenery improve air quality, lower the urban heat effect and can help to manage storm water runoff.
This emphasis on quality of life was not only true of the the city's spokespeople, but of citizens outside of the urban planning field. I met a middle-aged man jogging through the National Botanical Gardens, who praised Singapore for making greenery a priority. "They spend millions," he told me. "And this city is a wonderful place to live."
Getting the community to care about green spaces--and help keep the parks clean--is another big concern of NParks and Singapore's government. Ng Cheow Kheng, the director of Horticulture and Community Gardening at NParks, said that volunteer programs and community outreach programs are working to connect people to the city's nature. "This city truly becomes a garden when people love and nurture it," he said.