Singapore – The Garden City State

A Licuala palm, probably L. grandis

How to describe the city state of Singapore? Downtown is like an American downtown (with even more malls – yes really!), the suburbs like….well a kind of tropical multiracial version of Sweden with a rather bossy government – the same well-designed but rather bland housing estates of modestly tall tower blocks, all separated by amazing amounts of greenery. Which is why I’m here of course. The place really does live up to its reputation as the Garden City of Asia, or indeed the world. I really think they are the global leaders in integrating planting into urban spaces and in making almost seamless connections between wild spaces/nature reserves and conventional urban parks. Primarily I came to check out green roofs and living walls, but I soon got carried away by the incredible range of plantlife throughout the city, and marvelled at how well cared-for it all is.

This overhead walkway links areas of forest and parks on the island’s southern rides. The view – of forest and tower block is very characteristic. Corridors aim to link areas of jungle and park, integrating nature with urban greenscape.

Singapore is basically Chinese – so its run on Confucian lines; as a Chinese friend once said to me “government is like your parents and knows what is best for you” – public services are very good and there is no obvious poverty but you must behave yourself. So no drinking beer on that park bench, ok! The Chinese tradition of horticulture and respect for public space has been grafted onto a British colonial one of tree planting and parks. Community gardening is encouraged to supplement what the government does – and they do a lot – I have never been anywhere where there is such a clear political commitment to green space. But such a shame they are 133rd on the global list for press freedom! At that level you probably aren’t even allowed to criticise the colour schemes in the parks.

A noticeboard at Hort Park has information for community garden groups (currently 300).

Giant planters on the Ilama mall are an example of a planting style which is increasingly popular.

The Bukit Timah nature reserve – this is what the island looked life before British colonisation in the 19th century. It is now popular with walkers and school parties.

Unusually, nature conservation and public greenspace come under one organisation, the National Parks. Since both benefit bio-diversity and are seen by most people as more or less the same thing (however much that horrifies ecologists) this seems to me entirely logical – stops a few turf wars. One very distinctive outcome of this are the ‘corridors’ which aim to link surviving bits of wild habitat with parks, so you can walk a surprising way through greenery despite this being a very urbanised city-state. You are in what feels like the middle of the jungle one minute and in a manicured park the next.

The more ‘gardened’ areas illustrate clearly the big thrill for gardening visitors – this place has broken the ‘bourgainvillea barrier’; have you noticed how practically every tropical country tends to fill its parks and gardens with the same plants – list headed by the magenta menace? Singapore’s parks are stuffed with never-seen-it-before plants, a lot of which stop you in your tracks.

Aphelandra sinclairiana – don’t try this colour combination at home!

Bauhinia kockiana – I drooled over this slow-growing Malaysian climber, there was masses of it on pergolas in a small public park on top of a multi-storey car park.

The centrepiece for Singapore’s gardening is HortPark, a hub for inspiring and informing home gardeners and trialling plants and planting systems. There a lot of very high quality display gardens, some living wall trials, and a building for meetings with some examples of innovative, and actually quite whacky, ideas for plant use for small spaces.

A trial living wall by the ZinCo company at HortPark. Its about 4m high.

Or planting a picture frame?

An example of a display garden at HortPark. But you gotta make sure you have some fish or frogs in the water otherwise the mosquites will start breeding, which is punishable by a large fine from the mosquito-police.

I’d never seen picture windows for pondlife before – a great way to get kids interested in aquatic nature.

The easiest way to grow orchids is to move here. You get some lovely little sunbirds too (Old World equivalent of hummers).

“Just one more AC unit and we get the temperature we like”. Green building technologies are one of the answers to this extraordinarily unsustainable use of energy.

The green roof at the Art and Design Deparment at Nanyang University. It uses a porous cellular paver to hold a very gritty compost in place with a tropical turf grass - rainfall here can be very intense.

Guess where we are! Yes that’s right, on top of a multi-storey car park. One of many mini-parks maintained by the National Parks authority, providing public green space for local residents and helping keep buildings and the city cool (well cooler, we are near the equator).

The Botanic Gardens are amongst the world’s finest, with particularly good tree collections and for members of the Ginger order, which includes many of the best tropical (and indoor) foliage ornamentals

Some of us complain about having to cut up stems before they go on the compost heap. These are palm leaves being chainsawed.

It’s worth checking out Singapore’s remarkable Green City Places and Policies.

About Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

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7 Responses to Singapore – The Garden City State

  1. Lisa at Greenbow March 14, 2011 at 4:35 am #

    The plants transport you to what seems like another world. I am always facinated by those tropical plants.

  2. Sheila Schultz March 14, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    The colors are magical, the living walls are incredible!

  3. Stan Horst March 14, 2011 at 6:38 pm #

    The green roof at Nanyang University is amazing. Makes me want to take a walk on the roof!

  4. Petra Hoyer Millar March 17, 2011 at 4:08 am #

    I am still giggling at the ‘Just one more AC’ photo. Although, I agree with you, that a greener solutions needs to be found.

  5. Kathy Fitzgerald March 17, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    Mr. Noel–
    Not use magenta and orange together?!? It’s one of my favo(u)rite combinations for eye-popping containers. Give me some Petunia integrifolia integrifolia and a stand of orange Zinnia angustifolius or Cosmos sulphureus, and I’m good to go. If it would survive in southeastern North Carolina, I’d grow a huge patch of Aphelandra sinclairiana in my front yard.
    When I was there years ago, I found Singapore a welcome balm for overloaded Western sensibilities after weeks on the Malay Peninsula, but ultimately felt it a tad too Orwellian for my taste. Ah, the things we give up for the things we get.
    All the best, Kathy

  6. Growing Vegetables March 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    Wow they have come a long way since I was there in the early nineties, or maybe I did get to see this side of Singapore. Only saw the street after street of Malls and their very impressive transport system.

  7. Cris March 28, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    I like how they integrate nature and urban spaces, diffusing the frontier between them. Great tip for an easy way to grow orchids ;)