A case study of Singapore: A garden city that is not so green


by Gwendolyn Tan, GLOBUS Correspondent

Back in 1967, just two years after Singapore’s independence, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew introduced his vision for Singapore to become a “Garden City”, aspiring to “integrate greenery into the built environment” and Singaporeans’ daily lives. This involved planting many trees and creating new parks.  Today, in 2018, walking down the tree-lined streets of even the busiest shopping lane, Orchard Road, it is undeniable that Singapore has become the Garden City he envisioned (HistorySG, 2015).

Here’s the big question, though: can Singapore also be considered a green city? There are quite a few definitions of what a green city is, but what they all agree on is that it is eco-friendly, has a low carbon footprint and has green spaces.

The last requirement of green spaces is probably the easiest to fulfil. Since 1986, Singapore’s green areas have increased by 50%, while population grew by a whopping 70% (Solidiance, 2011). These green areas include green buildings, trees and forest areas, so in a way, it is not surprising that Singapore is faring well in that aspect. After all, Singapore has a National Tree Planting Day, which first started way back in 1971, and has grown from just 158,000 trees in 1974 to 1.4 million trees in 2014 (HistorySG, 2015). Additionally, Singapore has incentive programs to replace lost greenery on the ground with greenery in the sky through vertical gardening. For example, all Marina Bay developments comply with a 100% greenery replacement policy (Kolczak, 2017), the National Parks Board subsidizes rooftop and vertical greenery by funding up to half of their installation costs through its Skyrise Greenery Incentive Scheme (National Parks, n.d.), and Singapore aims to have 80% of buildings achieve their Green Mark scheme by 2030 (Building and Construction Authority, 2018). Those may seem like big dreams, but Singapore is already making good progress on that front.

With regards to being eco-friendly and having a low carbon footprint, renewable energy is usually one of the first steps countries take in order to divest from fossil fuels. However, Singapore’s unique geographical position renders them unable to effectively utilise these alternative energy sources. Singapore can’t build wind turbines because they would take up too much space and cast shadow flicker, which would affect residents’ lives. In addition, commercial wind turbines require an average wind speed of 4.5 m/s, and Singapore’s average is a mere 2.0 m/s. Our small size also means that Singapore cannot productively grow biomass domestically and sustainably. This small land area means that if Singapore were to build a nuclear plant, and if there were to be a nuclear meltdown, it would spell disaster for the entire population of Singapore and could also impact Malaysia and Indonesia since they are so near Singapore. Other alternatives like generating commercial tide power and hydroelectric power also have limited potential since Singapore has calm seas, a busy port, and slow-moving rivers (National Climate Change Secretariat, 2018).

Despite all these incompatibilities, Singapore is still aiming to be the greenest city in the world (Kolczak, 2017). The government is aiming to increase provision of solar-powered electricity to approximately 350 MWp by 2020, which would contribute around 8% of Singapore’s peak electricity demand. This is not a lot, as Singapore has limited land for a solar panel farm in addition to high cloud cover and urban shading (National Climate Change Secretariat, 2018). Nevertheless, Singapore is trying to improve its environmental impact, particularly through green technology.


Supertree in Singapore by Kieren and Gwendolyn Tan

If you have seen the film Crazy Rich Asians (2018), you might have seen a skyline with a few huge metallic-concrete tree-shaped structures with plants growing on it. These “supertrees” can be found at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, and they’re just one example of the green technology Singapore is pursuing. They are beautiful artificial trees in the midst of the concrete jungle, and are seemingly sustainable – after all, they have photovoltaic cells to provide energy for the light shows at night and collect rainwater to water the plants (Gardens by the Bay, n.d.). However, these supertrees are made out of reinforced concrete and are built on reclaimed land, whereby sand had to be shipped in from other countries in order to extend the coastline at Marina Bay for more development (Seng, 2017). Even if supertrees were self-sufficient for their own processes, it is highly doubtful that they break even with the environmental cost of land reclamation.

According to the Global Footprint Network, Singapore has the largest biocapacity deficit (percentage ecological footprint exceeding biocapacity). Second is Bermuda at less than half of Singapore’s, a meagre 4810% compared to Singapore’s 9890% (Global Footprint Network, 2018). Despite Singapore’s improvement in green construction projects and number of trees planted, there was a further decline in their ranking on the 2014 World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report due to the increased carbon emissions (Philomin, 2014). To put it into perspective, if all seven billion people on the world were to live like an average Singaporean, 4.1 planet Earths would be required to sustain such a lifestyle. However, as with all indexes, they have to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, if you look at the biocapacity deficit index by the Global Footprint Network, the worst five nations all have so little land that they are smaller than Hong Kong. They did not really have that much biocapacity to even begin with, thus bringing about a larger biocapacity deficit.

Solidiance ranks Singapore as the 4th greenest City in the Asia Pacific region (Solidiance, 2011), so becoming the greenest city in the world seems like a longshot, but it is this sort of optimism and determination that our world needs today. Singapore wasn’t blessed in the geographical lottery. She’s a tiny country that’s just over 700km2 big (that’s smaller than London and New York City alone), and it’s rather nascent considering she just turned 53 in August. To have made it this far both economically and environmentally is truly impressive, and that’s not just the patriotic Singaporean part of me talking. She has grown into a beautiful Garden City, and there is so much potential for her to become an even greener city. Singapore overcame the odds, transforming an inherent disadvantage into an economic opportunity, and is trying to be accountable for her actions. Other countries can too.


Building and Construction Authority, 2018. About BCA Green Mark Scheme. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bca.gov.sg/greenmark/green_mark_buildings.html
[Accessed 25 November 2018].

Gardens by the Bay, n.d. Supertree Grove and OCBC Skyway. [Online]
Available at: http://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/en/attractions/supertree-grove-ocbc-skyway/facts-and-figures.html
[Accessed 24 November 2018].

Global Footprint Network, 2018. Ecological Deficit/Reserve. [Online]
Available at: http://data.footprintnetwork.org/#/
[Accessed 25 November 2018].

HistorySG, 2015. “Garden City” Vision is Introduced. [Online]
Available at: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/a7fac49f-9c96-4030-8709-ce160c58d15c
[Accessed 24 November 2018].

Kolczak, A., 2017. This City Aims to Be the World’s Greenest. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/urban-expeditions/green-buildings/green-urban-landscape-cities-Singapore/
[Accessed 24 November 2018].

National Climate Change Secretariat, 2018. Singapore’s Approach to Alternative Energy. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nccs.gov.sg/climate-change-and-singapore/national-circumstances/singapore%27s-approach-to-alternative-energy
[Accessed 24 November 2018].

National Parks, n.d. Skyrise Greenery Incentive Scheme 2.0. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nparks.gov.sg/skyrisegreenery/incentive-scheme
[Accessed 25 November 2018].

Philomin, L. E., 2014. Lion City’s green ranking worsens. [Online]
Available at: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/lion-citys-green-ranking-worsens
[Accessed 24 November 2018].

Seng, L. T., 2017. Land from Sand: Singapore’s Reclamation Story. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nlb.gov.sg/biblioasia/2017/04/04/land-from-sand-singapores-reclamation-story/#sthash.wb3jjRxe.dpbs
[Accessed 24 November 2018].

Solidiance, 2011. Asia Pacific’s Top 10 Green Cities. [Online]
Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/dduhamel/top-10-asia-green-cities-asian-green-cities-wwwsolidiancecom-2011
[Accessed 25 November 2018].

Other references:

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/how-will-singapore-power-the-future by Warren Fernandez (2016)



Main Image: Reflections At Keppel Bay, Singapore by Victor Garcia on Unsplash 

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