Red, white and green – An Insight special




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The big tree debate 

The past 50 years has seen the greening of Singapore. But even as people become more eco-aware, population needs put pressure on the environment. Grace Chua looks at the challenges.

YOU look out the window of your HDB flat at a view that makes you happy. It is a wide expanse of trees and grass, an open space where children play football or where yellow orioles sing. But one day, hoardings go up, construction cranes move in. And your view is gone.

Some may shrug and see it as the price of progress. Others will be sad at the loss of yet another precious slice of nature in this tiny island of so many people.

And, amid the rise of civic activism, a small but vocal minority might wonder: Could I have done something about it?

Such a scenario is a microcosm of the conflict between urbanisation and nature, that pits the needs of a growing country, such as infrastructure and housing, against less quantifiable needs such as the value of species-rich forests.

However, recently those less quantifiable things have been found to have their own currency, now that the perils of climate change have reared their head, with more pollution and fewer trees able to filter carbon from the atmosphere.

Going green now also means tangible benefits such as realising that trees help filter pollution particles and make for cleaner air, or that, planted wisely, their shade can reduce the need for expensive air-conditioning.

And to some extent, planners see the need to be eco-aware, too, with the latest Land Use Plan released in January setting a target of 0.8 park ha per 1,000 residents by 2030.

Still, there’s no escaping that tension, seen just this week as Trains versus Trees. Nature groups are upset over plans for an MRT line through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Ironically, tomorrow marks 50 years since the greening of Singapore took off officially, when the first tree-planting campaign was launched.

Today, that planting campaign still continues, but even as trees are planted, others are chopped down to make way for development.

Can any balance ever be found between a space crunch and the need for different shades of green?

What are the challenges that lie ahead in trying to reconcile the two, especially as Singapore’s population grows?

How going green took root

ON JUNE 16, 1963, then-Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew planted a slender mempat sapling at a traffic roundabout called Holland Circus.

Trees such as the mempat – known for its pretty pink blossoms – certainly are pretty to have around.

But decades before it became fashionable to be environmentally conscious, Mr Lee put shovel to soil to kick off a tree-planting campaign to help bring rain. It was the middle of a drought at the time, and leaves help send water vapour into the atmosphere.

Pragmatic Mr Lee also wanted to send visitors and investors the message that Singapore was a disciplined nation able to tend to its people and its environment.

As well, an island-wide greening programme was a social equaliser, in contrast to British rule, when only wealthy enclaves like Tanglin had cultivated gardens.

Since 1963, Mr Lee – often dubbed Singapore’s “Chief Gardener” – has unfailingly planted a tree every year, typically in November, at the start of the rainy season.

Professor Leo Tan, who in 1973 was a young biology lecturer at the University of Singapore, said: “Originally, people took (trees) for granted. The assumption was that we had enough green. But Lee Kuan Yew had this vision.”

Singapore was a fledgling country, and it was not immediately clear why government money should be spent on greening.

But Mr Lee in his memoir, From Third World To First, called it “the most cost-effective project I have launched” to differentiate Singapore from its developing neighbours.

But the scheme was not without flaws. Prof Tan said: “At that time, any green would do. A lot of it was cosmetic, such as trees along the drive from the airport to town. That’s the first impression visitors had of Singapore.”

There was also little understanding of conservation.

Even as planting took place, much of Singapore’s mangroves were cleared as they were thought to breed mosquitoes.

Clearing continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s as natural spaces were developed for housing, ports and industry.

“I watched Tanjong Rhu make way for development, Sembawang for a shipyard. My research site made way for Changi Terminal,” Prof Tan said.

“I was really angry as a young lecturer – my research sites became the history of natural history.”

In 1986, the Bukit Timah Expressway was built, slicing between Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the central catchment forests.

It was the last straw for some. In the late 1980s, several members of the Nature Reserves Board (National Parks Board’s precursor) resigned en masse, including Prof Tan, the Nature Society’s Mr Richard Hale, and the board’s then secretary, Dr Kiat W. Tan.

“We said, ‘If we are here to supervise the demise of every nature reserve, there is no point’,” said Prof Tan.

But they were persuaded to stay on for the formation of the National Parks Board (NParks) in 1990.

Recalling those eco-wilderness years, Dr Tan, who went on to be NParks CEO and who is now Gardens by the Bay CEO, said there was little civic sense then.

“People were stealing plants. The parks were not used. Some MPs said, why are we wasting so much money on parks and greenery?”

In 1990, signs had to be posted along the East Coast Parkway explaining to the public why the grass was allowed to grow.

Even the tree that Mr Lee planted at Holland Circus was removed when the roundabout made way for a flyover in 1997.

Learning to hug nature

TODAY, there are more than 300 public parks, from pocket-sized neighbourhood ones to destination parks like East Coast Park. About 50 per cent of Singapore is under vegetative cover, more than half of which is “natural” green, like scrublands and forests.

NParks chief executive Poon Hong Yuen says public reception has completely shifted. “In times past, people complained about leaves falling and creating a mess; now when we chop down a tree, people complain.”

When NParks recently asked for feedback on what people want from destination parks and an upcoming round-island park network, “people said, ‘We don’t want our parks to be just manicured, with no wooded area’. That surprised us because in the past, people would tell us they wanted an amphitheatre or a hard court. It’s a bit more sophisticated now.”

Is that a reaction to being surrounded by more built-up space? Perhaps, he said.

An NParks survey in 2010 revealed that 90 per cent of those polled say parks and greenery are important, even if they do not visit parks. The same number think nature should be conserved, even if they don’t visit nature.

Yes, residents still complain of the noise and mess from, say, koels roosting in trees. But planners, academics and the public increasingly recognise the ecological value of nature, which can protect against the effects of climate change.

The Building and Construction Authority looks to mangroves for coastal protection from sea-level rise. The Public Utilities Board has its ABC Waters programme, which cuts flood risk by turning canals into planted, more natural waterways.

And studies from the National University of Singapore (NUS) show that green cover reduces the high temperatures that result when buildings and roads trap heat, and that natural areas support a more diverse range of birds and butterflies than cultivated ones.

Some green innovations developed here have even gone international. Architect Ong Boon Lay came up with the concept of the green plot ratio, which measures the amount and quality of greenery used in architecture and has been applied to cities in Sri Lanka and Egypt.

In 2008, Singapore committed itself to developing the first City Biodiversity Index, which is used by parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diver-sity.

At home, greening has helped shape Singapore’s identity as the Garden City, then the City in a Garden.

Take the national Community In Bloom community-garden programme, launched in 2005. At first, people felt the Government should take care of greenery in their estates.

“Now, people see the point of it – it brings the community closer together,” said NParks’ Mr Poon.

Senior research fellow Belinda Yuen, an urban planner at the Singapore University of Technology and Design’s Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, pointed out that besides “active” uses of green space such as for exercise and picnics, there is an indirect psychological benefit.

People like having a view of a garden or nature area, she said – they know it is available to escape to if needed.

Battles and trade-offs

IS THERE a difference in benefit or value depending on whether you’re looking at a cultivated park or a natural area?

Little work on that has been done in Singapore yet, Dr Yuen said. “We need to conduct a study to better understand what exact value people ascribe to open space.”

But vociferous public debate over areas like a Pasir Ris patch of empty land, slated for an international school, and Bukit Brown cemetery, earmarked for housing, demonstrates “the people don’t just want manicured parks, they want wild areas also”, said Mr Tony O’Dempsey, a council member of The Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS).

“Promising a manicured park within some distance of each household – as per the White Paper discussion (see other report) – is missing the point of what I think people really want.”

The NSS is concerned that small forest patches at Bukit Timah, Lornie, Mandai and Seletar are getting too separated by roads from larger reserves to sustain rich plant and animal life.

It has identified green sites rich in biodiversity that should get higher priority in protection efforts, and is currently preparing a report on the overall green impact of the Government’s Land Use Plan.

And Mr N. Sivasothi, an NUS biology lecturer and coordinator of the Raffles Museum Toddycats volunteer group, calls for the protection of specific biodiversity-rich areas such as the Mandai mudflats.

In an impassioned speech on the White Paper and Land Use Plan in Parliament earlier this year, Nominated Member of Parliament Faizah Jamal said the plan’s emphasis on parks “reflects a disturbing need for human control – not just green spaces, but indeed the constant need to control life itself”.

Afterwards, she said, several MPs came up privately to agree with what she said.

Civil servants and politicians operate based on efficiency and cost-effectiveness, she noted. And providing parks for more users focuses on people, who are also voters.

“But that’s not a paradigm that works any more” because of the growing importance of the ecological services that wild places provide.

But how long will it be before nature becomes a real voter issue?

On the one hand, urbanites don’t interact with nature every day and don’t see the value of the clean air or fresh water it provides.

“On the other hand, I see young people actually doing something about it.”

The next 50 years

AS NPARKS’ Mr Poon puts it: “The top three challenges for us are space, space and space.”

However, it is precisely because the population is growing that more nature also needs to be retained – to address the impact of climate change, serve as an emotional anchor, and meet recreational needs.

But what happens when NParks’ mandate clashes with another agency’s – say, when planners decide a space is needed for housing?

At the senior levels of government, there is an understanding that greenery is important, said Mr Poon. So there is a serious attempt to come up with a solution – to retain or replace or enhance greenery.

“In the past, we’ve been quite reactive – the Land Transport Authority says we want to do road-widening, we say you can’t get rid of this tree. Now, you’re doing road-widening, can (NParks) do something to beautify the area?”

Still, retaining natural or managed areas, and adding new ones, remains a process of give and take.

Later this month, an official tree-planting event will take place at Holland Village Park, not far from where Mr Lee planted his first mempat tree.

And perhaps symbolising how much the need to value the environment has taken root, even amid necessary development, in order to build the pocket-sized green lung – completed in 2011 – it was a carpark that made way.



* Mr Lee Kuan Yew plants a tree at Holland Circus as start of island-wide campaign

* Parks and Trees Unit formed underPublic Works Department

* Post- independence, mangroves at Pandan and Kranji cleared for development


Garden City programme of roadside landscaping launched


The first Tree Planting Day held (November); replaced by Clean and Green Week in 1990


Labrador Beach de-gazetted to be nature park


Parks and Recreation Department formed


Bukit Timah Expressway constructed, cutting through Bukit Timah and Central Catchment Nature Reserve


Sungei Buloh given nature park status after Malayan Nature Society (Singapore) calls on Government to conserve it


Nature Society of Singapore (NSS) publishes its master plan for nature conservation


National Parks Board (NParks) established to oversee nature reserves, Singapore Botanic Gardens and Fort Canning Park


Government publishes its first Green Plan; Lower Peirce Reservoir golf-course development put on hold after environmental impact assessment by NSS


Parks and Recreation Department merges with NParks


Labrador Park re-gazetted as nature reserve


Sungei Buloh gazetted as nature reserve


Eco-link between Bukit Timah and Central Catchment reserves over the BKE is announced; Blue Plan by academics and non-government groups is submitted to Government, proposes specific marine areas that have high conservation value


NParks, National University of Singapore and corporate sponsors begin five-year Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey


Gardens by the Bay officially opened


* Government publishes its Population White Paper and Land Use Plan laying out plans till 2030

* Nature groups raise concerns about environmental impact, particularly of Cross-Island Line

* Land Transport Authority agrees to postpone its Environmental Impact Assessment report till nature groups have studied the effect of different rail-line alignments

Greenery is now integrated into new building structures, such as the Sky Park at City Square Mall. More people are seeing the tangible benefits of going green as trees help filter pollution particles and, planted wisely, their shade can reduce the need for expensive air-conditioning. — ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Land Use Plan: The good, bad and ugly by Grace Chua 

DAYS after the White Paper came out, with its projection of a 6.9 million population by 2030, came a policy plan in January showing, among other things, how to accommodate that number.

This is the Ministry of National Development’s Land Use Plan.

How the plan squeezes in more people and infrastructure affects the environment in ways that encompass the good, the bad and the ugly, say conservation-minded nature groups.

The good: By 2030, the Government wants 85 per cent of residents to be able to live within 400m of a park, and has a planning target of 0.8ha of parkland per 1,000 people.

Eco groups also like that the plan outlined new nature areas with different habitats: Jalan Gemala in Lim Chu Kang for marshes, woodland and a river; a reef and intertidal area at Beting Bronok off Pulau Tekong; and coastal mangroves at nearby Pulau Unum.

The bad: some of the land reclamation. Environment groups say the plans appear to swallow up biodiversity-rich shores, including mangrove areas in Mandai and Pasir Ris, areas with marine life like Chek Jawa and Pulau Sekudu, and even perhaps islands like Pulau Hantu.

They are also concerned about how the Cross-Island MRT line goes through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, a gazetted reserve.

In Parliament, Nominated Member of Parliament Faizah Jamal asked if any environmental impact assessment had been done in the first place.

Mr N. Sivasothi, of the Toddycats volunteer group at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, asked why “existing sites under the highest protection can be casually subverted to a transport plan”.

The Land Transport Authority is now engaging civic groups on the issue.

This week, it met nature groups and academics, and agreed to hold off conducting its environmental impact assessment until nature groups finish a six-month study on how different rail-line alignments will affect the reserve.

Mr Tony O’Dempsey, council member of the Nature Society (Singapore), also highlighted that there would be high-density developments right up to the edge of nature reserves.

These produce light, sound and smell pollution and changes in lighting and wind flow, he said. “The bite-back is you end up with monkey and other wild animal interactions, and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority solution to this problem is culling the animals that become a nuisance.”

The ugly: lack of prior consultation, internally and with civic groups and the public, over the overall environmental impact of the Land Use Plan.

Mr Sivasothi said: “The question should be: Has the Government asked these questions on a broad scale?

We should model the situation to circumvent predicted impact, not simply respond to stress points.”

Mr O’Dempsey added that the average citizen is not necessarily familiar with longstanding urban plans, “hence the conflict that occurs when the planned use is ‘activated’ by the agencies”.

Rather, plans should be communicated in a more accessible way, he said.

And what of the Government’s green-spot guardian, the National Parks Board (NParks)?

The Cross-Island Line was no surprise to NParks, said its former chief executive Kiat W. Tan, now NParks adviser and chief executive of Gardens by the Bay.

“It was always the other shoe waiting to drop,” he said. However, he has “great optimism” that an environmentally sensitive alternative can be found, even if expedience is sacrificed.

And NParks chief executive Poon Hong Yuen said Singapore is capable of coming up with creative solutions to the space crunch, such as drainage reserves doubling as park connectors.

When agencies’ mandates conflict, a serious attempt is made to find a solution, or at least develop in a way to retain, replace or enhance the greenery that was there before.

“The objective, the most important thing, really is to create a better Singapore for Singaporeans,” he said.

(c) 2013 Singapore Press Holdings Limited 
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