What started five decades ago as a government-led project to build Singapore into a clean and green city, has today become a dialogue between the state and its citizens.
A Straits Times photo of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launching Singapore’s first-ver tree planting campaign in 1963 best depicts how the idea of building Singapore into a Garden City first took root. As Mr Lee bent over to dig a hole with a changkol to plant a Mempat tree in Farrer Circus, Singaporeans stood around and watched — none of them offering a helping hand.
Fast forward to 2012, and one finds a different landscape of Singapore’s Garden City. In August, a group of residents in Limau estate petitioned the government to conserve a stretch of greenery near their homes instead of selling the land for development. This was not an isolated case. In that year alone, residents in Dairy Farm, Pasir Ris and Clementi also clamoured for green plots near their estates to be preserved, using what has since become a tried-and-tested method of engaging the government: banding together to write petitions and meeting their Members of Parliaments to convey their thoughts and concerns.
Gardens and greenery are probably one of the least controversial elements of a city. They are seen as the counterpoint to the urban plaque of grey buildings and concrete. Greenery — parks, plants, rooftop gardens — is a handy symbol for any city keen to show it understands and cares about the impact of urban development, that it can build in a more sustainable fashion.
But what we often forget is that greenery in a city needs to be maintained. Unlike nature where trees, plants and animals are left to grow as they like, a city’s greenery is a carefully constructed element no different than a building. After a seed is planted (or tree transplanted), a whole maintenance system needs to be developed to keep greenery alive and not in the way of a city.
The picture above is Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, the city’s latest green initiative to rebrand itself from a “Garden City” to a “City in a Garden”. In this carefully manicured landscape are two conservatories of plants that would never have survived in Singapore’s tropical weather without carefully controlled climates. The garden itself is also built on land reclaimed from the sea. One can only imagine how much water and labour it takes to keep the Gardens prim and proper.