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Sacred Sustainability: Singapore, Greening, and Biophilic Design

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Sacred Sustainability: Singapore, Greening, and Biophilic Design

Singapore’s sustainable development strategies have played an important but unheralded role in the country’s economic success.

Sacred Sustainability: Singapore, Greening, and Biophilic Design

The Rain Vortex, the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, at Singapore Changi Airport.

Credit: Flickr/Lezlie

As one of the four “Asian tigers,” Singapore has experienced significant levels of economic growth since its independence from Malaysia in 1965. The city-state is one of the largest financial centers in the world today, embracing its uber-cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and punching far above its weight in terms of its political and economic influence.

Singapore has also long been a poster child for sustainable urban development. The country has been lauded for its proactive incorporation of environmentally conscious initiatives that have been integral in its much-lauded journey “from third world to first world.” Thanks to these measures, it is now a key global hub for major multinational corporations and a haven for businesspeople from around the globe.

Rewinding 50-plus years to examine how Singapore was back then only underscores how impressive its evolution has been. Still a fledgling nation in the late 1960s, Singapore was rich in cultural diversity but poor in infrastructure. Slums and shanty towns covered several parts of the island, rivers were open sewers, and unemployment was rampant. Facing challenging diplomatic rhetoric from neighboring countries, the Lion City was largely left to fend for itself and faced considerable challenges in kick-starting its then-stagnant economy.

To help spur recovery, highly influential founding father and first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set out to transform Singapore into a tropical garden city by heavily promoting greening. His vision of a green and clean Singapore helped usher a series of sweeping directives over the years – from instilling a sense of public awareness about cleanliness to carrying out massive cleaning projects – that have supported the creation of a lush urban landscape that is now ingrained in the country’s collective psyche.

Greening has played an important role in propping up Singapore’s economy. As the city-state’s economy grew, so did its population and green cover, which sat at 36 percent in the 1980s and has since risen to around 50 percent. In the first few decades after independence, greening was what distinguished Singapore from other countries in the region, with Lee describing it as the “most cost-effective project” he ever launched.

Given its land constraints – the country measures just 50 kilometers from east to west and 27 kilometers from north to south – Singapore has had no choice but to adopt high-density development. The focus, then, is placed on livable density and creating a high quality of life within these confines. Adopting innovative design methods has lessened the feeling of claustrophobia that density can often induce and fostered a healthy synergy between the people and their surroundings.

At the forefront of these greening measures lies the concept of biophilic design, a building industry term that seeks to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment through the incorporation of nature into architectural designs.

Singapore’s integration of biophilic design principles as a sustainable development strategy has experienced significant success. Skyscrapers and everyday spaces are built as sustainable ecosystems. Having made green building mandatory since 2008, the city-state aims to have 80 percent of its buildings certified as sustainable under its Green Mark scheme by 2030.

Such structures overflowing with greenery project a calming, bucolic picture that reaffirms the positive effects of nature-inspired urban planning. There are numerous noteworthy examples of biophilic architecture in Singapore, but two of the most prominent examples are Jewel Changi Airport and Gardens by the Bay.

Jewel Changi Airport is a first-of-its-kind structure. Incorporating the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and verdant gardens into an airport mall, it is the centerpiece of Singapore’s world-class aviation hub, greatly relieving traveler and shopping fatigue with its revolutionary design. Despite being open for just two years, the terminal is already a major tourist attraction, thus redefining airport concepts by making it a must-see spot in its own right.

On the other hand, Gardens by the Bay exemplifies biophilia in the form of a futuristic nature park studded with “supertrees”: steel-framed trees rising up to 50 meters high, with more than 150,000 real plants embedded on their sides. Since its opening in 2012, the park has not only been a focal point for domestic and international visitors but has also emerged as an important platform for biodiversity conservation.

Biophilic principles are also exemplified by several other prominent buildings, including (but not limited to) the hotel Parkroyal at Pickering, Oasia Hotel Downtown, and the mixed-use development Marina One, all of which are structural oases filled with gardens and terraces.

As such, one of the largest economic benefits that greening has brought to Singapore is the positive effect it has had on tourism. In a world ever-cognizant of sustainability and the environment, Singapore has grown into a thriving eco-tourism destination, with tourist arrivals to the city-state having increased every decade since independence. From MacRitchie Reservoir and East Coast Park to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Singapore Botanic Gardens, more and more people are drawn to the country to see how a small island with the world’s third-highest population density manages to harmonize urbanization and biodiversity.

Notably, Singapore has not differentiated between middle-class and working-class areas when it comes to its greening initiatives. In an island largely devoid of green and spacious suburbs and where many live, work, and play in the same place, it has been necessary to maintain a clean and serene environment for all, irrespective of income level.

Since 1992, the Singapore government has released a number of “green plans,” each of which has helped chart the country’s path towards a more sustainable future. The most recent of these plans is the Singapore Green Plan 2030, released last February, which aims to outline green targets to strengthen the country’s economic, climate, and resource resilience throughout the course of the next decade.

Singapore has fully embraced other innovative programs to support its greening as well. The development of the Park Connector Network (PCN), which utilizes underused linear spaces by converting them into landscaped footpaths and bicycle lanes that link the country’s many parks, has also been key in facilitating access to these recreational spaces for Singaporeans. First started in 1991, PCN has been tremendously successful in essentially bringing nature to people’s doorsteps, with 340 completed kilometers currently and 500 kilometers envisioned by 2030.

And with some seven million trees currently in Singapore, the government has pledged to plant one million more over the next ten years through the OneMillionTrees movement to improve habitat quality for local wildlife and continually enhance living conditions for its residents.

These initiatives promise to make a country already swathed in green even greener.

Greening has also been contagious in Southeast Asia. Largely inspired by Singapore, former leaders of nearby countries have promoted greening projects in their own cities and amicably pushed each other to see who can become the greenest and cleanest in Asia. Other densely populated cities like Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila have made significant strides in improving their standards of living as a result. As in Singapore, these undertakings have been beneficial for tourism, investors, and thereby for economic growth.

Greening raises the spirits of people and gives them pride in their surroundings. And the continued commitment to “green and clean” Singapore today is possible in large part due to the strong morale and discipline of Singaporeans. As Singapore continues to transform, it will undoubtedly continue to innovate in the way it reimagines structures and spaces, putting nature at the heart of construction and making its “garden city” title a befitting one.