Last summer I was extremely lucky to be accepted onto a 5-week study abroad course in Singapore. The exact, rather long-winded title of the course (for those of you who might be interested next summer) is…deep breath…’Science Biodiversity Summer Study Abroad Programme, National University of Singapore’. This was my first time ever in Asia and wow, what an amazing and futuristic place Singapore is! Never before have I been in a place where environmental relationships are at the forefront of the government. In her recent passionate speech to the U.N., Greta Thunberg exclaimed how her “dreams and childhood have been stolen by empty words”. This powerful and profound statement is what is needed for governments around the world to emerge out of their trance-like state and to take definitive action once and for all. However, Singapore is already one step ahead in taking these definitive environmental actions. Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore has gone from having “gardens in a city” to being a “city in a garden” in just 54 years.
First things first though, where on earth is this Singapore I speak of? Well, if you have ever looked at a map of Southeast Asia, Singapore is the miniscule dot at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula, just one degree north of the equator to be exact. This island city-state has a population of 5.5 million people living in a tiny landmass of just 700km 2 (smaller than County Louth). It has the second busiest port in Asia and is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Most importantly, it is a biophilic city. This means that Singapore is not only environmentally sustainable, but also that it lives in harmony with its environment. The word “biophilia” literally means “love living systems”. As soon as I stepped off the plane, beautifully jet-lagged and dishevelled after 15 hours of travel, I was amazed as to how green Changi Airport was. The Jewel of Changi is a brand-new arrivals terminal which is literally an indoor rainforest. As myself and my oversized luggage lugged our way through to find a taxi, cascading waterfalls, sky trains, trees and flowers greeted me as I wondered on by. If this was only the airport, I knew that even greater things were to come!
Another fact about Singapore (one of the last ones I promise), is that for such a relatively small area with an extremely high population density it still manages to have four nature reserves and over 300 parks…mind-blowing! One nature reserve that I was fortunate to visit was Bukit Timah. This is Singapore’s only primary rainforest and holds a wealth of animals and plants. Beware of the macaques though. They are very fond of plastic bags, but that shall be another story! These parks and reserves serve to protect the last remaining wildlife in Singapore. They are also an important tool that the government uses to promote and educate environmental awareness amongst its nation. Gardens by the Bay and SuperTree Grove are Singapore’s biggest tourist attractions. They consist of enormous glass biomes housing flower pavilions and cloud forests. SuperTree Grove consists of gigantic man-made mechanical trees completely enshrouded by all types of plants climbing up along its sides. These impressive attractions are all centred around Singapore’s idea of “City in a Garden” and drive forth the eco-awareness initiative.
What makes Singapore a biophilic city though isn’t only its futuristic attractions or parks and reserves, it is its insightful incorporation of all things green into everyday life of a city. As I slowly strolled around the city (walking was near impossible for me as the extreme humidity and heat clashed with my ill-adapt Irish hereditary), I couldn’t help but notice how I was surrounded by greenery, constantly! Every path, bridge and road were enveloped in a canopy of trees, flowers and vines. Green roofs seemed to be everywhere as well as green walls, green balconies and indoor and outdoor hanging gardens. I was so mesmerized by this cloud of green (Singaporean bridges of all things to be precise), that weeks after I returned home, I was still rambling on about it to my friend while we were travelling back from Cork. Absorbed into a world of green memories, I lost my concentration and missed the exit off the motorway adding on an extra half hour to an already long and delayed journey…sorry! Moving on swiftly, did you know that chewing gum is illegal in Singapore? Strange I know to us, but I swear that I have never seen cleaner footpaths and roads in my life! Drains are everywhere too. I was told that every drop of water that falls on the ground in the city is channelled into these drains, which is then brought to the many lakes, ponds and reservoirs where the water is filtered and cleaned and then pumped and recycled back around for use in the city. So basically, not a drop of water is wasted by this amazing feat of clever engineering.
Singapore is an awe-inspiring and encouraging example of how relatively simple design and thinking can literally make the world a better place. Making urban areas greener have a long list of positive effects on the environment and us as humans. Biodiversity levels rise significantly. The urban heat island effect is greatly reduced as cities become cooler. This in turn reduces the need for air conditioning which decreases our energy consumption and inevitably leads to saving money. Storm water surges are reduced so flooding is therefore also lessened. Human health benefits rise as air quality is improved and or general wellbeing is enhanced. All these benefits from ‘just’ a few plants! Since the Irish government declared a climate emergency this year, almost no definitive environmental actions have taken place. Greening our urban areas is such an easy and simple solution. How many years will it be before we envision our own city in a garden? It’s time we create dreams and childhoods that are fulfilled by meaningful words for a change. What better way to start than from the ground up?