Can America Replicate Singapore’s Garden Cities?

By Lizzie Tong

In the realm of sustainability and urban planning, Singapore is often hailed as a city-state worthy of envy and comparison – a Garden City. Through 40 years of rapid economic development and a transformation into an international financial hub, Singapore has been mindful to protect its natural environment, developing a reputation as a leader in green design.

As a small island about half the size of Hong Kong, Singapore has limited resources available for agricultural production, clean water, and energy production. Thus, policymakers have been prudent about maximizing resources and maintaining a healthy and clean environment for citizens to live, work, and play. While Americans have the luxury of escaping city limits to a wild sanctuary, the urban island forces Singaporeans to have a heightened incentive to conserve energy use, minimize water waste, and prevent air pollution.

As a result, the city-state contains almost 50% green cover, over 150 acres of rooftop gardens and green walls, and at least 10% of land is set aside for parks and nature conservation. Further,  80% of households are within a 10-minute walk to a park. The Sustainable Singapore Blueprint details even more rigorous environmental targets for 2030, doubling the amount of skyrise greenery to almost 500 acres, creating over 50 more miles of park connector greenways, and cutting harmful emissions of particulate matter (PM 2.5) in half.

Vertical greenery and historically preserved trees along National University of Singapore. Photo Credit: Lizzie Tong

This path has been present since the founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, stated that “the blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift up our spirits.” Since 1967, intentional, careful, long-term master planning directed by the government and the Urban Redevelopment Authority has succeeded in building an environment that citizens are proud of. Singaporeans have an inherent trust in policymakers to succeed in building a livable environment. Simultaneously, by pursuing a green city brand, Singapore has created a one-size-fits-all approach to sustainability.

In Singapore, green roofs, green walls, and skyrise greenery take priority over any other sustainable building solution. Cool roofs, which reflect light that would otherwise be absorbed by building materials, are much less expensive and effective at decreasing city temperatures and mitigating urban heat island. 95% of Singapore’s energy comes from natural gas and yet the Singaporean government has only recently began pushing to increase targets on solar panel coverage. Alternative sustainable building solutions are being pushed to the wayside because of the limited area of rooftops and self-imposed requirements to improve city greenery. In pursuing greenery objectives, nations like the United States overlook more feasible methods of reducing urban heat island and improving other measures, like air quality and overall well-being.

Researchers at the National University of Singapore are developing innovative ways to improve individual well-being in compact, high-density environments. Projects like Cooling Singapore consist of a research team of engineers and climatologists that are determined to collect data on the optimal outdoor thermal comfort (OTC) levels for everyday citizens and create comfortable environments to follow suit. Participants in the research respond to questions on wearable devices, gauging their individuals comfort levels based on temperature, humidity, wind speed, amount of shade, vegetation, and a variety of other factors. The research team then hopes to design indoor and outdoor environments that can be adjusted to individual comfort. For Singapore, improving well-being and livability is the final frontier in urban design – and increasing integrated greenspace is the solution to this challenge.

Yet, this blanket sustainability approach of a Garden City may only be worthwhile in certain areas. Research from the Center for Liveable Cities plots cities on a chart with livability against population density and finds that Vancouver City, Sydney, Melbourne, and Singapore rank the highest. Aside from Singapore, these cities with high rankings are also low-density. Singapore is one of the few high-density, compact environments that succeed in prioritizing well-being and livability. While residents of sprawling American cities have the option of escaping to concentrated areas of greenery, integrated greenery is the only option for a nation with limited resources and finite land.

Cloud Dome in Gardens by the Bay. Photo Credit: Lizzie Tong

The 160-foot tall Supertree Grove, powered by photovoltaic cells, along with the Cloud and Flower Domes at Gardens by the Bay are notable attractions. Designs and developments like these contribute to Singapore’s green city brand, driving the city’s tourism industry. Singapore is now the 5th most-visited city in the world. Although the design is envious, a City within a Garden transformation in American cities is likely less feasible. Unless more American city governments decide to stop developing sprawling neighborhoods and start building denser and higher, maximizing a diverse range of sustainable building solutions – cool roofs, solar panels, green roofs – will be the most low-cost, effective way to mitigate urban heat island, air pollution, and improve city well-being.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. Photo Credit: Creative Commons, J. Philipp Krone

Feature Image: Singapore Changi Airport, The Jewel. Photo Credit: Lizzie Tong


About the Author: Lizzie Tong is a senior studying economics and computer science at UNC, with an interest in applying data science to solve challenges tied to urban sustainability. After graduating, she will be working as a research assistant for the Community Development and Policy Studies Team at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. In her free time, she enjoys trying her hand at oil painting, competitive running. and new Bon Appetit recipes.

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