From ‘Garden City’ to ‘City in a Garden’

The concept of ‘green lungs’ has become a part of Singapore’s argot. National Parks has done a spectacular job with the greening of the island, and the ‘park network system’ – when complete – will allow an enthusiast to explore Singapore through an uninterrupted corridor of green, some 360 kms long.

NParks today manages 1,763 hectares of parks, connectors and open spaces, including some 300 parks and playgrounds … 3,326 ha of nature reserves, 4,278 ha of roadside greenery and vacant state land. Under the Concept Plan 2001, 4,400 ha of parkland will be set aside when Singapore’s population reaches 5.5 million … (

It is a universal, daily iteration – whether you are a resident or a visitor – those times in a day (and especially in summer) when you pause to appreciate the luxury and abundance of ‘green’ in Singapore, the oases within the concrete, the magic of sun filtering through foliage onto asphalt, the pleasures of walking beneath a verdant canopy of leafage.

These simple pleasures are just heartbeats away from traffic and high rises, glass and steel, minutes from homes and schools, malls and restaurants, hawker stalls and supermarkets.

I took a visiting friend on a drive the other day, down the supposedly haunted, greenly cocooning and looping road of Mount Pleasant, with enduring, stately Black & White homes on either side, past the Polo Club to my ‘secret gardens‘ those fascinating, sprawling nurseries along Thompson Road. On the way back, we whizzed down a surprisingly empty Lornie Road, a greenly green experience accentuated by lowering storm clouds and Gold 90 FM on the radio, and then, a short cut through the cemetery and jungle of Sime Road, past the Chinese grave sites nestled in grasses and ferns, sheltered by the ranging trees; a palpable coolness and mystery suggested by the emerald translucence.

This is beautiful, she remarked, how did Singapore achieve this ?

Indeed. What is the story behind this ‘Garden City’, one which not only provides shade along walkways and roadsides, but also fruit trees and flowering and fragrant plants in residential areas, community centres, schools and hospitals … even police stations ?

It began with an articulated ‘greening policy’ strongly supported by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who saw a green Singapore being a competitive advantage in attracting foreign investments into the country. A Tree Planting Campaign was launched in 1963, beginning the greening of a un-green island.


Quick-growing indigenous trees were identified and the drooping, dome-shaped Angsana, with its yellow flowers (that carpet the ground with blossoms in the mornings) became a favourite; it provided extensive shade, grew fast, was easily available and is relatively easy to maintain.

The most common tree in urban Singapore – defining many roads and motorways – is the Rain Tree with blossoms (when it blooms) of clusters of pin-white flowers resembling upturned brushes.

Proud and prolific in various parts of Singapore are the drought-resistant Yellow Flame (with crinkled yellow flowers that look like crumpled bits of tissue), the Trumpet Tree (thick with pink and white blossoms in April-May and August-September), the Sea Apples (which used to serve as firebreaks when Singapore had large fields of flammable lalang grass), the Sea Almonds, the Tembusu (with branches low to the ground and redolent – in season – with creamy white flowers), the Senegal and the Broad-leaf Mahogany, and the Saga which offers shade and played an important part in the precious metal markets of yore – four of its seeds (which weigh a gram) were used as weight measures for gold and silver.

Flowering shrubs such as the ubiquitous, eternally blooming, riotously colourful bougainvillea – embellish the free-flowering trees (there cannot be a single person who has not commented on this on a drive to – or from – the airport), and planting areas – verges – line the roads (new, minor and major), verdant with flora.

Mitigating concrete and asphalt

Paved areas (such as car parks) are required to provide land for trees to offset the asphalt surfaces and concrete structures like flyovers, overhead bridges and retaining walls are covered by creepers (ficus pumila and other climbers) or screened by shrubs and transplanted trees.


Spaces in urban commercial areas are set aside for parks. Developers of residential areas have to incorporate open spaces in their plan and design, besides planting verges with trees. The planning of parks takes population and accessibility into account; each is innovatively designed to both use and enhance its natural assets, and each tries to offer a unique identity – perhaps installations of sculpture or challenging playgrounds or by just creating a habitat that attracts certain wildlife such as birds.

Skyrise Greenery

Like other highly dense cities in the world, Singapore is adopting a three-dimensional approach to urban greening: landscaped rooftop gardens, green balconies, façade greenery (the sides of buildings) and podium gardens (think Marina Bay Sands SkyPark, think School of The Arts, corner of Bras Basah and Selegie Roads).

Anyone who has experienced the past few summers will welcome the fact that rooftop gardens can reduce ambient air temperatures by 4°C and surface temperatures by up to 31°C.

Heritage Schemes

Initiatives such as the Heritage Trees Scheme and the Heritage Roads Scheme protect majestic, mature landmark trees as well as roadside treescapes that contribute to Singapore’s physical landscape.


The seamless green infrastructure of parks and streetscapes will soon extend to the island’s flora and fauna : a new Eco-Bridge, 50m wide, over the BKE, will link the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve with the Central Catchment area around the reservoirs. When the BKE opened in 1986, bisecting the land, animals trying to cross over to the other side in search of food or mates often ended up as road kill.

This green bridge will be planted with grass and native shrubs and trees (like the Senegal mahogany, tembaga, jambu and durian), creating a habitat for wildlife when animals and insects move in, and offering creatures from both fragmented forests the opportunity to colonize and propagate.

Back to policy and focus.

Preserving Natural Habitats

Singapore is home to more than 2,000 species of plants and 800 species of animals. It is also home to one of the only two primary rainforests in the world to be located near a city (the other is the Tjuca Forest in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). This is the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve & Central Catchment Reserve, which together contain more trees than the entire continent of North America.

Singapore’s Nature Reserves include wetlands, mangroves, grasslands and tropical forests that are home to a variety of wildlife – migratory birds from Russia, North China, Japan and Korea; smooth otters, stork-billed kingfishers, tree climbing crabs, flying lemurs, long-tailed macaques, clouded monitor lizards and pangolins, butterflies, mudskippers, ospreys, black baza birds and Japanese sparrowhawks … to name just a few.

To experience Singapore is to live, work and play against a backdrop of living green. I now know why I can open my door to the swoop of the kingfisher and vibrant bird calls – the strident cuckoo, the argumentative mynah, the screeching cockatoo and the squawking parrot, alongside quieter hummingbirds, sun birds, golden orioles, green pigeons and bulbuls.

Singapore’s ‘green lungs’ offer not just a lavishness of flora, but much more – unimagined encounters with winged residents (and serpents), endless opportunities for recreation, relaxation, sport and idling, neighborhood socializing and other respites in the course of an ordinary day.

Photographs by Anita Thomas (except the photograph of Marina Bay Sands, which is from 


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