Biodiversity in Singapore
ONE MIGHT RAISE AN EYEBROW AT the statement that Singapore no longer aspires to be a garden city – but this is only because we have already achieved this goal, and our sights are now set on a more holistic aim – to go from an ideal ‘garden city’, to a vibrant, thriving City in a Garden. This new goal goes beyond Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s early mission to add greenery to Singapore’s landscape to make it attractive to investors, and uplift the spirits of dreary urban dwellers.
Rather, the ‘City in a Garden’ concept incorporates the notion of a Garden City into a multi-pronged, holistic framework that includes development of the horticultural industry, establishing Singapore as a hub for horticultural excellence, and nurturing and sustaining local ecosystems and biodiversity. Greening the landscape and bridging the gap between fast-paced urban life and picturesque nature getaways, of course, is at the forefront of Singapore’s new green agenda.
SINGAPORE’S GREEN AGENDA
The original Garden City Plan was implemented in the 1960s through a series of policies on environmental education, clean technologies, and nature conservation. Over more than 40 years, Singapore’s urban landscape has transformed from one that was devoid of any greenery to a unique array of lush, green plants, colourful roadside flowers and vast, green parks in the middle of the city. The landscapes we enjoy today did not sprout from the ground overnight, but are the result of many decades of meticulous planning, conscientious policy implementation and consistent efforts to plant and maintain Singapore’s greenery. A stable, ecologically balanced environment is not something that can be achieved easily, or instantly – Singapore’s Garden City status is the result of the long-term, sustained effort that has been put into greening the city.
OUR GARDEN CITY
Today, 1763 hectares of Singapore’s land are occupied by parks, park connectors and green spaces. Additionally, the National Parks Board also manages 3,326ha of nature reserves, and 4,278ha of roadside greenery and vacant lots. This adds up to over 13% of Singapore’s land area dedicated to greening the urban landscape and maintaining a healthy ecosystem – for a country as small as ours, this is a significant percentage of land to dedicate to non-residential and non-commercial use.
Furthermore, the National Parks Board has taken greening the city, quite literally, to a whole new level, by creating rooftop gardens in commercial and residential buildings all over the country. These rooftop gardens have both aesthetic and environmental benefits, as they help reduce the air temperature in cities, and the amount of heat absorbed via solar radiation by rooftops. This reduces the need for air-conditioning within the buildings, thus conserving energy. Green Rooftops also improve air quality in cities, according to ‘A Study of Rooftop Gardens in Singapore’, a handbook published by the National Parks Board.
The standards of gardening excellence in Singapore were taken to even greater heights by the recently concluded Singapore Garden Festival. With elaborate horticultural and floral displays, as well as an array of educational, recreational and commercial activities relating to gardens, the festival set a new benchmark for urban and residential horticulture in Singapore, and the region. By literally bringing the best of the world’s gardens and landscape designs into the heart of the city, the Singapore Garden Festival was an exemplary instance of Singapore’s success in achieving the status of a garden city, as well as a center for horticultural excellence.
BIODIVERSITY AND THE CITY
While carefully cultivated urban greenery in the city thrives, much of our natural biodiversity has been destroyed in the early stages of our industrial and economic development. According to Mr. Lim Kim Seng, chairman of the Conservation Committee of the Nature Society (Singapore), only about 4% of Singapore’s original forest cover remains today. Approximately 25% of the 91 mammal species and 34% of bird species originally found in Singapore are extinct. A large proportion of remaining species are endangered, their habitats threatened by urban development and land reclamation. A similarly alarming trend is reflected in the region – according to Professor Navjot Sodhi of the National University of Singapore, if current rates of deforestation in Southeast Asia continue, the region will have lost more than three-fourths of its forests by 2100.
While it is important to conserve biodiversity for future generations to learn about and appreciate, there are also tangible, material impetuses for the conservation of whatever little remains of our natural heritage today. In the face of the rapid growth of Asian economies, and the dominance of profit as the key motivating factor for decision-making, it is important to re-assess the ecological and economic importance of biodiversity. Flourishing ecosystems help maintain air and water quality, thereby reducing the need for expensive purification and detoxification processes. An ecosystem that is in equilibrium also keeps pest epidemics at bay – this reduces the damage to agricultural crops, and helps stabilize food supplies and increase global food security.
Plants and animals are also an invaluable source of medicinal products – of the 150 most widely sold drugs in the USA, 118 of them are derived from natural sources. To date, the medical breakthroughs discovered from natural sources include the possibility of a painkiller that is up to a thousand times more effective than morphine, but without morphine’s addictive properties, and even plants that significantly slow the progress of cancer. Given that such momentous breakthroughs have emerged from such a small percentage of the earth’s biodiversity, the medicinal benefit of preserving yet-undiscovered species is priceless.
Despite the commonly known long-term benefits of a healthy and flourishing ecosystem, societies continue to exploit natural resources indiscriminately for short-term economic benefits. A key reason that the lush, verdant rainforests in the region are destroyed is to provide space for factories, and timber for the construction, furniture and paper industries. This process can only be slowed when all major stakeholders – government, non-government, national and global organizations – collaborate and undertake conservation efforts and enforce environmentally sound policies. However, individual efforts are just as important in ensuring long-term environmental sustainability in the region.
Indeed, the every day practices of individuals can pose a threat to Southeast Asia’s ecosystems. Excessive consumption and waste, inadequate recycling, and the demand for exotic animal products are just a few of the ways in which the urban lifestyles of Singaporeans have a negative impact on the environment. A change in these harmful lifestyles and habits can only materialize from a change in mindsets of Singaporeans. A shift from a consumerist, convenience-based lifestyle to an awareness of the need to respect and conserve nature is a crucial change that needs to be made. By bringing greenery and biodiversity right into the heart of Singapore, the Garden City concept is a key means of inculcating in Singaporeans a sense of love and respect for nature.
Indeed, recent projects serve not only to beautify the city, but also edify it in terms of environmental awareness. The Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden, for example, allows children to learn about photosynthesis, and even life-sciences in a fun and interactive manner. For older audiences, the gardening and educational workshops conducted at Hort Park makes knowledge and expertise about gardening accessible to the everyday Singaporean. While the knowledge about the environment gained at these workshops is useful in promoting more environmentally aware lifestyles amongst Singaporeans, the innate affinity towards nature and the sense of ownership and protecting it that is inculcated in visitors during these visits is far more important.
With continued efforts to maintain a symbiotic balance between socio- economic development and environmental protection, Singapore’s efforts at preserving and replenishing existing biodiversity, and achieving the status of a ‘city in a garden’ will surely bear the fruit of a greener tomorrow.