Singapore: A Clean and Green City From “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden”

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Singapore is a city-state with a land area of about 710 km2i. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and yet, harbours rich natue biodiversity. Singapore is well recognized as the world’s greenest city. According to the 2011 Asian Green City Indexii, Singapore is Asia’s greenest metropolis, and the only city assessed to perform well above average in the overall rankings. The Singaporean government has championed a series of green initiatives in order to maintain its image as a green city since 1963. This year, 2013, marks 50 years of greening for Singapore. The City in a Garden that Singaporean enjoy today, with its vibrant parks, lush tree-lined roads, and thriving biodiversity shows Singapore’s dedication and commitment in uplifting the quality of our living environment.

Although Hong Kong and Singapore score more or less the same on most parameters, Singapore stands out in the quality of life factoriii. About 3,318 hectares of Singapore’s land space is devoted to greeneryiv. This essay attempts to explore why and how Singapore’s greening policies have developed, with provision of the historical background Singapore’s greening initiatives. Then I will account for the idea of skyrise greenery in Singapore. This paper will argue that Singapore’s greening policies are related to city branding in addition to environmental concerns. Historical Background

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The Vision for Garden City
Singapore’s greening journey kicked off in 1963 when Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set a vision to transform Singapore into a Garden City – a clean and green city that enhances the quality of urban environmentv. The ‘garden city’ was set to tackle increasing urbanization pressure faced by the self-contained island statevi after the city declaring independence. Noting Singapore’s high building density, the City Garden aimed to deter Singapore from becoming a concrete jungle like Hong Kong. Instead it strives to be a green city, which increase the biodiversity and improve people’s mental and physical health conditions. Besides health and environmental dimensions, the Prime Minister emphasized early the planting of trees and the importance of green environments to long-term economic development of this city-state. The greening program was embraced to shape “Singapore as a First World nation, civilized, cultured and disciplined, competitively distinct from other Asian countries, thereby attracting investors and touristsvii”. On 16 June 1963, the Prime Minister launched Singapore’s first tree-planting campaign by planting a Mempat tree, signifying the start of the greening efforts. Singapore Green Plan and A model Green City

Singapore had become a world-famous “garden city” by the late 1980s through sustained effort of legislative framework such as land use planning and pollution control. Then the Singapore Green Plan 2012viii is introduced as Singapore’s 10-year plan towards achieving environmental sustainability for the next decade. Singapore Green Plan 2012 (or SGP 2012 in short) is pre-dated by the 1992 Singapore Green Plan, which laid out Singapore’s early environmental initiative. The SGP looked into new policy areas that maintain a quality living environment while pursuing economic prosperity. Specific targets are set for 6 different focus areas: Air and Climate change, Water, Waste Management, Conserving Nature, Public Health and International environmental relationsix. The Plan also stated Singapore’s ambitious goal to be a Model Green City by 2012. From “Garden City” to “City in a Garden”

Since the 2000s, Singapore has evolved from a Garden City to a City in a Garden, where greenery is incorporated into the city’s landscape and in everyday life of the peoplex. A part of this vision is to establish world-class gardens. The difference between Garden City and City in a Garden may seem small, but the latter emphasizes on developing a city that is nestled in an environment of trees, flowers, parks and rich bio-diversity: “[the difference] is a bit like saying my house has a garden and my house is in the middle of a garden”, says Poon Hong Yuen, the chief executive of the country’s National Parks Boardxi. Six Key Areas were identified to guide the city in fulfilling the vision. They are “Engage and inspire communities to co-create a greener Singapore”, “Enhance competencies of our landscape and horticulture”, “Enrich biodiversity in our urban environment”, “Establish world-class gardens”, “Optimize urban spaces for greenery and recreation” and “Rejuvenate urban parks and enliven streetscape”. As our city becomes more built-up, the continued planning for lush, landscaped spaces becomes all the more important as a relief from high-density, urban living. The City in a Garden vision has brought parks and green spaces right to the doorsteps of people’s homes and workplaces. It is estimated that at least 85% of Singapore’s households will live within 400 m of a park by 2030xii. National Parks Board has developed the Park Connector Network – a great system of trails and walking paths in connecting residents to parks and abundant nature. More prominently, it links the Central Business District to the main green spaces, where a diversity of different layers of trees and wildlife can be found. City Branding

While environmental and social concerns are some major motives, another driving force of the greening policies is related to Singapore’s city branding. Both the Garden City and City in a Garden visions are key strategies to differentiate Singapore from other countries. Former Prime Minister Mr. Lee branded Singapore as “Green Singapore”, aiming to make it a “first world oasis” to attract foreign investmentxiii. ‘Green’ is generally seen as something positive, and residents, visitors and businesses place high value on high quality, green urban environmentsxiv. The green city branding was a subtle approach to instill potential investors with the notion that Singapore was an efficient and effective place to do business. Mr Poon, the CEO of Singapore’s National Park Board says that the City in a Garden vision will help strengthen Singapore’s brand as a distinctive, liveable cityxv. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2011–2012, Singapore ranked second in both the Global Competitiveness Index and the newly introduced Sustainable Competitiveness Index, which takes into account countries’ environmental policy, resource efficiency and environmental degradation, alongside other economic and social indicators. In 2012, the Economist Intelligence Unit (The Economist Group) ranked Singapore as third most competitiveness city in the world, just behind New York and London. This has demonstrated Singapore’s focus on environmental sustainability as a key aspect of liveability, and its ability to attract capital, businesses, talent and visitors, through sustained greening initiatives throughout the decades.

Significant role of Singapore Botanic Garden
The Singapore Botanic Garden, founded in 1859, has played a significant role in Singapore’s cultural, social and economic development.
While the Singapore’s urban landscape has changed drastically over the past 50 years, the botanic garden was preserved, forming a valuable green oasis in the midst of the compact and densely populated city. The Singapore Botanic Garden has rich historical value for its colonial English style garden. The Tanglin core zone of Singapore Botanic Gardens represents one of the most authentic and unchanged examples of original design among colonial botanic gardens in South and South East-Asia. Botanic Gardens is also the only city botanic garden in the world to include a tract of primary rainforest within the original boundaries of the gardens, thus preserving in some small part the unique ecological heritage of Singapore. Thus it contributes greatly towards providing a sense of history, place and identity to Singaporeans and visitors. It remains the most popular park in the city, counting more than 4 million visits per annumxvi.

The Botanic Garden is more than a public park for recreation and leisure; it is a leading centre for plant science, research and conservation in South-East Asia. Its library and herbarium collections (of over 600,000 dried and preserved specimens) serve as an important reference centre for research on the region’s flora for botanists around the worldxvii. Unlike Singapore Botanic Gardens, Hong Kong Botanical Gardens retains few original features and had only a limited contribution to plant science research and to the impact of economic botany on the prosperity of the region. The herbarium and collections are distinguished in the region and globally because of their particular contribution to tropical biodiversity research and inventorying. Today it has gained international recognition such as Time Magazine’s “Asia’s Best Urban Jungle” award and a three-star rating by the Michelin Green Guide. Singapore Botanic Garden has contributed a lot in making Singapore become a green city through its work in plant research, education and conservation. It successfully realized the former Prime Minister ‘s vision of Garden City that started in the 1960s and continues to support the transformation of Singapore into a City in a Garden. The botanic gardens provide expertise and resources, empowering the Singaporean actively participate in the greening of the city. It has fostered a sense of pride and ownership in Singapore’s citizens. The Skyrise Greenery Initiative – Green Roofs, Green Walls

Skyrise Greenery, a concept that integrates green elements into the built environment, has contributed a lot in shaping Singapore as a City in a Garden. Due to Singapore’s limited land space and the increasingly built-up environment, the primary aim of the Skyrise Greenery Initiative is to alleviate the heat island effect faced by Singapore, where roof surfaces temperature can reach 58 °C high. There are mainly two approaches – rooftop greenery and vertical greenery – for implementing skyrise greenery. Rooftop greenery refers to the greening efforts and landscaping on rooftop surfaces. Vertical greenery involves the incorporation of plants within vertical surfaces through climbing plants with adventitious, self-clinging roots growing directly on coarse building surfaces.

In fact, the idea of green roof can be traced back to 600BC, when Hanging Gardens of Babylon is the earliest example of green roof. At the very beginning, sod material was used to build the roofs and provided insulation for the homes of the Northern Europeans. The modern trend started when green roofs were developed in Germany in the 1960s, and has since spread to many countries. Modern green roofs, which are made of a system of manufactured layers deliberately placed over roofs to support growing medium and vegetation, are a relatively new phenomenonxviii. NParks seeks to go beyond conventional green roofs and walls to present and explore new possibilities for skyrise greenery within Singapore’s evolving landscape. Aside from conventional cooling and aesthetic purposes of green roofs, they can also provide educational spaces and interactional places for various age groups. Green walls and roof gardens are great channels to showcase and conserve native plants. For example, the green wall at 6 Battery Road integrated native species such as Asplenium nidus, Davaillia Denticulate and Ficus Deltoidea. Singapore also tried to use maximize the creativity in making rooftops and green walls. The industrial lightweight roofs of Universal Studios Singapore @ Resorts World Sentosa (above left) have been transformed into ‘naturalized meadows’ using various coloured plants to create ‘natural’ swathes with informal patternsxix.

Since 2009, skyrise greenery has been promoted in a pursuit of a lusher, greener Singapore. With integration of green areas into urban infrastructure, more terrestrial and aquatic habitats can be found in built-up areas. The Government set a target for Singapore to have an extra 50ha of skyrise greenery by 2030xx. Landscaping For Urban Spaces and High Rises programme is a comprehensive program set to enhance the livability and aesthetics of Singapore’s high density physical environment. This innovative policy provides guidelines to land developers such that more greenery could be provided through a combination of landscape areas on the first storey and the upper levels of the development in the form of skyrise gardens and roof terraces. This could also provide more covered public spaces and recreational areas for people in the community. The National Parks Board of Singapore advocates the establishment of rooftop greenery and vertical greenery in commercial and residential buildings all over the country. The Housing Development Board has introduced a policy to implement rooftop gardens or green roofs in every multi-storey carparks in public housing since 2006xxi.

Various greenery initiatives have been introduced to achieve skyrise greenery. The skyrise Greenery Initiative and the Building and Construction Authority’s Mark Scheme specify the guidelines on the amount of greening of buildings must occur. However, building a green roof is costly because it is a lightweight growing system, which requires a proper selection of plant material for easy maintenance. With regard to this cost concern, cash reimbursement of up to 50% of the installation cost are granted to building owners to install green roofs. In addition, bonus gross floor area for rooftop outdoor refreshment areas are granted to maximize the incentives to provide rooftop landscaping in Singapore. The Scheme started to pilot in the Central Business District and Orchard Road areas, enhancing the level of skyrise greenery and the city’s image in these high activity corridors. More than 10ha of Skyrise greenery has been installed in Orchard and downtown areas and public housing around Singaporexxii. The next target is low to mid-rise buildings that are highly visible from a vintage point, then buildings in areas with low level of street-level greenery. Through the effort to promote greenery in the upper levels of buildings, more than 100 developments have been approved terrestrial with sky terraces. These initiatives encourage the greening of our urban high-rises and contribute to the vision of Singapore as a City in a Garden

Singapore’s efforts to encourage even more greenery within high-rise buildings and developments have yielded significant benefits. It offers environmental, economic, social and aesthetic benefits. Findings of a Study of Rooftop Gardens in Singapore (2012)xxiii show that rooftop gardens in Singapore could reduce the roof surface temperature by a maximum of 31°C; reduce ambient air temperature by as much as 4°C. Therefore, Singapore has successfully mitigated the urban heat island effect by reducing the air temperature, because rooftop plants can absorb heat. Green Rooftops also improve air quality and public heath. Besides, it can even enhance the biodiversity through careful selection of indigenous plant species and landscape materials. From the economic perspective, skyrise greenery maximize the usage of space that would otherwise have remained unusedxxiv. It can increase the value of the property. Air conditioning costs can be saved because more greenery can cool the buildings. From the social aspect, skyrise greenery provides people with a sense of ownership and fosters community interaction. Rooftop gardens will serve as a public space for residents or co-workers to socialize, uplifting the quality of life. It can also enhance citizen’s health. For instance many of Singapore’s public hospitals have developed roof gardens as a healing effect for patientsxxv. Skyrise greenery can create iconic landmarks for Singapore by incorporating green elements and technologies to the unique architectural designs.

Ultimately, Skyrise greenery reinforces Singapore’s distinctive image as a “City in a Garden” and helps the city stand out on the world stage. It will lead to an aesthetically pleasing environment for locals and visitors, a greener, healthier living environment and more green recreation spaces for all.


Singapore is a young country with only a 43 years history as an independent republic. It has transformed from being a third world country to first world country in the span of about 30 years. Singapore is internationally recognized as a green nation. Its urban landscapes are integrated with greenery and nature such that the people, the city and the nature form an interconnected web. It has more green buildings than many other major cities to ensure that rapid urbanization will not harm liveability and sustainability. Above all, Singapore has been very successful in carrying our projects to make itself greener in the light environmental issues such as urban island effect, as well as the pursuit of a “Clean and Green City” brand.

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Singapore: A Clean and Green City From “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden”. (2016, Sep 06). Retrieved from

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