What Is Singapore Doing Differently?

  Singapore, officially known as the Republic of Singapore, is a sovereign island city-state in maritime Southeast Asia. The country's territory is composed of one main island, 63 satellite islands and islets, and one outlying islet, the combined area of which has increased by 25% since the country's independence as a result of extensive land reclamation projects. Today, it is worldwide known as a green city. But how did this country manage to achieve this reputation?

The story behind one of the world’s most sustainable nations

Singapore has the second greatest population density in the world. With a situation like this, you would imagine a chaotic, polluted city, just like the rest of Asian cities. However, this is not the case with Singapore at all. We’re talking about an innovative country, that is always discovering new solutions to the world’s urban challenges.

Gardens by the bay Singapore
Gardens by the bay Singapore

And as such, it has become a living example of how nations should be, and what they can practically do to save and contribute to the environment. All this happened within 50 years of major environmentally friendly decisions, that filled Singapore with plants and vegetation from the ground to the very top of the buildings, as we see green sceneries in terraces, roofs, inside and outside houses or offices. The success story is undeniable!


How did the change start?

There’s an old article available in the National Library Board of Singapore, from ‘The Straits Times’ Newspaper, which involves the communication of 12 May 1967. That day, prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had announced the two-stage plan to transform Singapore into ‘a beautiful garden city with flowers and trees, without waste and as neat and orderly as possible’. This plan actually marked the starting point of Singapore’s transformation, from a dirty and highly polluted city to a majestic model of sustainability.

Sentosa Island Singapore
Sentosa Island Singapore

After this, Singapore started quickly adapting new laws, such as laws that increased taxes for people who generated more waste, cleaning practices, urban regulatory plans. They started implementing projects to clean the streets, to fix the problem of drainage system and the Singapore river, projects that were gradually completed and changed to adapt in subsequent decades in order to increase the number of green spaces within the city.

This project was also known as the ‘Singapore – a city in a garden’ or ‘Garden city’ project. Its main purpose was introducing the concept of vegetation into public spaces. According to SmartcityLab, at the end of 1970, more than 55,000 new trees had been planted and, by 1971, a tree planting day was inaugurated, an annual event that involved huge numbers of people.

With the Parks and Trees Act’ which was enacted in 1975, the government and private agencies were legally bound to reserve spaces for trees and vegetation in their projects and buildings. What followed was a massive increase in the number of parks and natural spaces, throwing of campaigns such as the ‘Clean and green week’ and improvement of the citizen’s ecological education.

“In many countries, short-term approaches have prioritized economic development over the environment. A change in mentality was needed. Our approach has been to build a habitable and sustainable city through a pragmatic policy, based on solid economic and scientific principles, a long-term planning approach and the effective implementation and capacity to gain the support of the people for the public interest.”

Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources of Singapore , Interview for SmartCityLab in February 2020


Cheong-Chua Koon Hean and Urban Development

A great deal of Singapore’s change is also a merit of the outstanding Cheong-Chua Koon Hean, a Singaporean urban planner and architect. The Straits Times wrote that her work as CEO of URA played “a key role in developing Singapore into a distinctive global city”. Cheong was the first woman to lead Singapore’s urban development agency, whereas now she is the CEO of the Housing and Development Board, building and managing public housing for most of Singapore’s population.

Singapore skyline
Singapore skyline

On an Interview with National Geographics, she shared bits of what makes Singapore’s unique brand of building, and what she had in mind in order to expand the city’s green spaces.

“Through an incentive program, we replace greenery lost on the ground from development with greenery in the sky through high-rise terraces and gardens. This adds another layer of space for recreation and gathering. In Marina Bay, all developments comply with a 100 percent greenery replacement policy. The Pinnacle@Duxton, the tallest public housing development in the world, has seven 50-story buildings connected by gardens on the 26th and 50th floors. You can even jog around a track on these levels, which are also equipped with exercise stations”. – Cheong Koon Hean for National Geographic

How’s that for amazing!

Further on this interview, NG asks the veteran architect how she thinks Singapore will be like in 2030. Cheong Koon Hean answers ambitiously and optimistically, saying that the target is for Singapore to have an 80 percent achieve of environmental performance rating called Green Mark by 2030, in order to reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

We can only hope to see this happen for Singapore, also hoping that other cities and countries will adapt the same methodology towards better, greener, and environmentally friendly policies.

Photos: Shutterstock

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