Singapore: City in a Garden
Before we moved our family to Singapore a few years back, we knew very little about it, but a few quick Google searches consistently came back with a title that would win us over instantly: The Garden City.
A city state spanning over 718 square kilometers (about one tenth the size of Lebanon), this tiny land is home to 5.5 million people. When you do the math, it’s pretty hard to believe how such a densely populated Singapore earned its name.
Having grown up outside Lebanon myself, I can’t help but think of public green space as something a citizen of the modern world should be able to take for granted. I shouldn’t have to worry about my kids not having a place to run and jump and play. Malls should not even be on the list of options. I shouldn’t have to settle for some playground with old, rusty (and most likely unsafe) equipment about an hour’s drive away. Parks and playgrounds, or the lack thereof, should not be another source of stress in an already stress-ridden life.
But when you open up this particular subject with a fellow Lebanese, you’ll be sure to hear the classic excuse for why I should just let it go because my concern is unimportant, pathetic even: We have more important matters to take care of first.
How could you be thinking about grass and trees when we don’t even have electricity? Water? A president?!
And if I were to take this further and tell someone that one of the major reasons we left our home country was because of this ridiculous absence of green space, well they’d just think I’ve lost my mind.
Not long ago, Singapore abruptly gained its independence through a unanimous vote to expel the island from Malaysia. Overnight, the city found itself alone and very uncertain about its future. So fifty years ago, the country’s first president, Lee Kuan Yew, had quite a few pressing matters to take care of: sovereignty, unemployment, housing, civil unrest, education, military protection from much larger neighbouring countries. And the list goes on.
In his memoir, From Third World To First, Mr. Lee writes:
“After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore.”
All that other stuff we argue is more important than green space didn’t stop him.
Most people who have come to visit us here in Singapore, no matter where they’re from, will point out how surprisingly green the country is on the drive home from the airport. It’s something they’ll notice from a tiny airplane window before they even land.
You don’t have to go far to be able to enjoy your lunch or a book in the shade of a tree. And around every corner there’s a playground for the little ones to enjoy. But that didn’t keep Singapore from taking it one step further.
Singapore currently has 417 parks spread out over its tiny and very densely populated landscape, all of them accessible to anyone, free of charge. A lot of these beautiful parks will offer some additional attractions at a cost, but no one will charge you a penny for walking in with your family and a picnic basket.
As much as my family and I love the outdoors, we have only been to a handful of these beautiful parks. And yet, in just the few number we have visited, we have had the chance to take walks through rainforests; feed fish, turtles and ducks (using special food available in park dispensers); bike through endless alleys of majestic trees; watch outdoor concerts while having a picnic and tossing a ball around; watch butterflies as they go about their business of laying eggs and drinking nectar; learn about trees and vegetation; take strolls through trees along elevated steel bridges that connect several different parks; play in all sorts of playgrounds and water playgrounds; and so much more, all absolutely free!
One of the more extravagant parks in Singapore is Gardens by the Bay. Built on reclaimed land, this park spans over 101 hectares (about 3 times the size of Horsh Beirut) and is said to have played an essential role in Singapore’s plan to become the City in a Garden.
Gardens by the Bay has so much to offer, it can’t possibly be enjoyed in one day. Or two. Or three for that matter. The first thing you notice upon walking in is a cluster of giant, beautiful tree structures called “Supertrees”. The first time I saw these metallic trees, I had mixed feelings about them. I wasn’t sure if I loved or hated them. Why does Singapore need to build trees when it has so many real trees? I asked myself. But once I’d visited the park and understood just what these Supertrees are capable of, I couldn’t help but be completely fascinated by them.
The Supertree Grove is made up of 18 Supertrees ranging from 25 to 50 meters in height. These trees are essentially made up of concrete and steel, but their ‘skin’ is in fact alive thanks to the planting panels they are covered with. Thanks to these panels, the Supertrees are home to over 162,900 plants made up of about 200 visually appealing and easy to maintain species.
Visitors can enjoy a stroll through the grove on an aerial walkway linking two of the Supertrees. This mystical forest becomes all the more enchanting at night when the trees light up and the music starts to play.
As impressive as the Supertrees may appear, what impresses me more is their functionality. Eleven of these Supertrees are equipped with energy harvesting canopies that make them environmentally sustainable. While some have photovoltaic cells capturing energy from the sun and providing the park the electricity it needs, others serve as air exhaust receptacles which help to keep the two domes of the park cool.
The bio-domes at Gardens by the Bay are beautiful inside and out. While they have become one of the most popular architectural landmarks of Singapore, one can only truly appreciate them after having walked in (here, charges apply, but they are so worth it).
The Cloud Forest, the taller of the two, holds a 35 meter tall “mountain” structure, the world’s biggest indoor waterfall, and vegetation that is naturally found in tropical highlands up to 2,000 meters above sea level.
The Flower Dome is a magical showcase of flowers, plants and trees from different parts of the world.
The Flower Field features a different theme every few months, with flowers and structures so beautiful they will leave you in awe.
Finally, for those looking for something a little more “normal”, the park holds four gardens that guide visitors through the history and culture of Singapore’s main ethnic groups.
And finally, what is a park without something for the kids? Gardens by the Bay offers young visitors a sensor-activated water play area for children of all ages, and two playgrounds featuring sensory playtime elements.
Every time I visit one of Singapore’s parks, or simply walk down its green streets, I can’t help but think about our beautiful Lebanon, a country with so much potential. I can’t help but feel a little sad every time I think of all the excuses we’ve come up with that have stopped us from asking, nay, demanding, more for ourselves and for our children.
When I read statements like this one:
“Beirut, as a city, is characterized by a complete lack of safe greens and public spaces, such as gardens, parks, playgrounds and sports fields which may have direct repercussions on the lifestyle of children and adolescents such as decreased physical activity, increased screen time and television watching and consequently sedentary behavior.” (1)
Or this one:
“Further analyses of data provided by the 1997 and 2009 national surveys showed that sedentary behavior among Lebanese children and adolescents (defined as ≥ 10 h sitting time per day) increased from 19.9% in 1997 to 60.5% in 2009, a finding that may mirror the increased reliance of youth on satellite TV, computers and computer games, as well as telecommunication technology.” (2)
I can’t imagine what might possibly be more important or more pressing than meeting our people’s and children’s basic needs and civil rights by greening up our country.
I’m not asking for Supertrees and bio-domes, just some playgrounds and regular ol’ trees under which I can cozy up with a book and a cup of coffee while my kids do what they were built to do.
(1) Ebbeling C.B., Pawlak D.B., Ludwig D.S. Childhood obesity: Public-health crisis, common sense cure. 2002;360:473–482
(2) Nasreddine et al. Trends in overweight and obesity in Lebanon: evidence from two national cross-sectional surveys (1997 and 2009). BMC Public Health 2012; 12:798
#1month1park is Beirut Green Project’s latest blog section, where we will be featuring one park a month from across the globe. These blog posts are written by residents of cities around the world who enjoy using their parks and are eager to share their experiences with us.
The purpose of this activity is to showcase some of beautiful parks from around the globe, to get inspired by some of their unique features and solutions, and to highlight the significance and vital need for these spaces for a healthy city life.