Singapore was long considered a stiff, sterile city-state, but the opposite is true: The Asian metropolis is alive with tropical greenery. Can its longterm plan for balancing nature and technology succeed?
Beside the pale-brown river, a saltwater crocodile basks in the sun. Gray herons stalk along the shore, keeping a safe distance from the predator. A sea eagle circles overhead, ready to swoop in on the fish teeming below the water’s surface. “This way,” says Subaraj Rajathurai, a huge man with a white beard, sporting a blue bandanna. We feel our way into the mangrove forest, its leafy roof blocking out the midday sun. “Stop!” Rajathurai suddenly whispers. A black band snakes across the path five meters in front of us. “A spitting cobra,” he explains,” “it spits poison into your eyes!” We feel a surge of adrenaline, but the snake soon vanishes into the underbrush.
This scene took place in Sungei Buloh, a nature reserve in northwestern Singapore. Here on the watery border with Malaysia, the Asian city-state reveals its lesser known side: wild, green and secluded. The famous glass-and-steel skyline is nowhere to be seen, and instead of skyscrapers, there are towering trees. Flocks of birds create fleeting patterns in the sky. “This area is particularly popular for birdwatching,” says Rajathurai, who also organizes tours of the more than 200-hectare reserve. He has counted 126 different species of bird so far, including many migratory birds on their way to Australia.
Plants cool the building, reducing the cost of energy
“I love this place,” says Rajathurai, using his x-ray vision to scan the surroundings for signs of wildlife. This is easy to believe, since the man is, after all, an environmental activist, and one of Asia’s best known. For more than 30 years, he has been fighting for flora and fauna, campaigning to preserve Singapore’s jungle and leading school groups into the wilderness. He also acts as a wildlife consultant. A what? “I advise builders and developers. They usually have no idea what’s creeping and crawling on their land.” His services culminate in an expert report listing all wildlife living on a given site – from butterflies to pythons. “But most important is my recommendation, in which I seek to answer the very difficult question of how to align Singapore’s urban and environmental interests.” It’s a question that will ultimately decide Singapore’s future.
The city-state has an area of only about the size of Hamburg, Germany, but it’s growing rapidly in terms of population. Experts expect it to swell from about 6 to between 6.5 and 7 million by 2030. So Singapore is building, mostly vertically, to save space. British colonial architecture and Chinatown’s old commercial buildings are fast being replaced by residential towers. But the city fathers don’t want the development boom to adversely affect people’s quality of life, which is why nature has to keep pace. The vision: to dress new buildings in green.
One of the dressmakers is Shirin Taraz-Breinholt, a German architect from Cologne who has been in Singapore with WOHA, one of Asia’s most progressive green building firms, for 14 years. We meet her on a picturesque roof terrace downtown. “Hmm, what do we have here today?” says Taraz-Breinholt, roaming the green beds in a blue designer dress. “Limes, passion fruit – and spinach!” Some 100 people work at WOHA’s headquarters on the Singapore River. They could pick their own lunch snacks here.
The complex is not just an office, it’s also a lab. There are plants growing all around the lightwell at the center of the six-story building. “Vertical gardens are an integral element of many of our designs,” explains Taraz-Breinholt. “In this lightwell, we’re testing which plants can flourish even in difficult light conditions.” The greenery proliferates on trellises and beds that are integrated into the walls. The result: no mustiness and very little in the way of plant care. “Our clients are increasingly looking for green ideas, but none of them wants to employ a dozen gardeners,” says Taraz-Breinholt with a laugh. That’s why care has to be kept to a minimum.
The WOHA team hails from all over the world. Australians, Indonesians, Chinese and of course local architects work side by side in the light-filled studios, reflecting the ethos of melting pot Singapore. In 1967, only two years after the city-state gained its independence, its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, launched an initiative aimed at turning Singapore into a “garden city.” Countless trees were planted during his 31 years in office, and roughly two million are said to provide shade throughout the city today. Ninety-five percent of Singaporeans now live near a park. They appreciate the greenery because it’s a part of their history.
Taraz-Breinholt, 45, gazes out of the window at one of her firm’s most prestigious projects: Parkroyal On Pickering, a luxury hotel with 367 rooms and suites. Green terraces reminiscent of Vietnamese rice fields – an association very much at odds with Singapore’s sterile cliché – for cascades between the three sections of the building. “It’s never just about design,” Taraz-Breinholt stresses, “it’s always mostly about function. The plants cool the building, reducing the cost of energy. The same is true of our wind tunnels.” In western Europe, people tend to associate drafts with discomfort, but in a tropical city like Singapore, they are grateful for every little breeze.
The greenery filters air and noise, Taraz-Breinholt tells us, considerably shrinking a building’s carbon footprint. And then there’s the matter of “biophilia,” a term used by the German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm to describe human love for all that is alive. But what does this have to do with green building? “To put it simply, people are better off in apartments and houses surrounded by plants,” the architect explains. “They experience less stress, their blood pressure falls and they get sick less frequently. This is what many scientific studies show.”
Singapore is an architects’ playground, home to Ole Scheeren’s much-discussed The Interlace, Daniel Libeskind’s Reflections residential towers and Harvard professor Moshe Safdie’s luxurious Marina Bay Sands hotel. For cities, prestigious buildings are a distinguishing feature in the race for global prominence, but more and more people, well-educated expats in particular, are looking for a sustainable as well as a beautiful place to live. This is partly why Singapore is working to reduce carbon emissions drastically by 2030 and why 80 percent of new building has to conform to strict standards, something that it benefiting the specialists at WOHA, whose Kampung Admirality just recently opened its doors, a publicly funded, 11-story complex housing public facilities and services, including award-winning multigenerational housing. Bushes and trees on terraced roofs overlook children’s play areas and foodcourts, a clinic and a gym for seniors.
Tourists don’t generally get to see projects like this prizewinning development the north of the city, but visitors will also notice the greening downtown, particularly in the Gardens by the Bay, one of its biggest attractions, where 18 steel supertrees tower 50 meters into the sky, their “trunks” covered with hundreds of thousands of plants. Two giant greenhouses complete the picture, one of which contains a waterfall more than 30 meters high. The site looks like a cross between Dubai-esque giganticism and an Avatar-inspired jungle utopia.
Dressed in a white polo shirt, the lord of this domain purrs up s in an electric golf cart. “Hop in,” says Ng Boon Gee, 49, and we do. Not in the least averse to exercise despite his choice of vehicle, he says: “I go jogging in the park every morning. I like it when the gardens are still sleeping.” That’s when he encounters lizards and wild chickens, and sees otters cavorting in the marina. Last year, the Gardens by the Bay drew some 10 million visitors, but at night, they belong to the animals. Gee smiles. An engineer, he began his career in the old botanical gardens that were laid out in the Tanglin district in 1859, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015 and are world-famous for their orchids. The Gardens by the Bay are regarded as a legitimate successor. Except for the greenhouses, entry to this public prestige project is free.
1 SUNGEI BULOH WETLAND RESERVE
2 KAMPUNG ADMIRALITY (RETIREMENT HOME)
3 ISLAND PULAU UBIN
4 BOTANC GARDENS
5 HOTEL PARKROYAL ON PICKERING
6 GARDENS BY THE BAY
We take an elevator up a supertree. On a steel platform 22 meters above the ground, the director explains why Western urban planners would be wrong to dismiss the Gardens by the Bay as nothing more than a recreational park, saying: “This site has three components: architecture, technology and nature. The future of Singapore will be defined by all three.” With an engineer’s pride, he continues: “There’s a giant solar module on top of some of the trees. We use it to power the laser show.” Another tree acts as a funnel. “It catches the rainwater with which we irrigate the premises.” Finally, he points to the crown of a nearby supertree with a chimney on top: “We burn the weeds to produce the energy that powers the ventilation system in the greenhouses.” A group of Chinese tourists wanders by in search of the perfect selfie shot. Form and function are simply a matter of perspective.
Our story ends with Subaraj Rajathurai, who has one more thing to show us. “A place that might soon cease to exist.” So we board a wobbly bumboat at the Changi Point ferry port, pay two-and-a-half Singapore dollars and cross over to Pulau Ubin. The crossing to the tiny island is like a trip back in time. “This is the Singpapore of my childhood,” says Rajathurai. The island has no power grid, just generators humming in front of the houses and huts. Dogs lie sleeping in the middle of the village road; there are no cars, and everyone rides bicycles, but slowly, because most of the residents are ancient. “The young people left the island long ago,” Rajathurai says pensively.
Four years ago, investors began reaching for the gem, wanting to develop the thickly wooded island and build condos for the wealthy, residential towers with a sea view. The city fathers were surprised by the fierce opposition they encountered. “So the plans were shelved,” says Rajathurai, raising an eyebrow, “for the time being.” Now, in an attempt at gentle development, the national park service is planning to restore 70 old houses, or kampungs. A soft form of ecotourism could follow. Most people on Pulau Ubin work on offshore aquafarms, but some already rent bicycles to weekend visitors.
Dusk falls swiftly while we are standing on the pier. Over on the mainland, the lights of the big city twinkle brightly. The island is enveloped in silence. Well, not quite – there’s still the chirping of crickets, the sound of the waves washing up on the shore and the call of a drongo as darkness descends. The wild side of Singapore still exists.
A day in green Singapore
10 AM: Caffeine
Treat yourself to green pandan pancakes and the best coffee in the city.
11:30 AM: Monkeys
Fend off the long-tailed macaques while picnicking in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
3 PM: Shopping
The vertical gardens on Orchard Road almost outshine its exclusive stores.
7 PM: Fusion Food
Canadian chef Oliver Truesdale-Jutras uses ingredients he has grown himself.