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