Singapore airport
An arrival sign at Singapore's airport. Alan Huffman

SINGAPORE -- From the moment you step off the plane at Changi International Airport, this Southeast Asian island city-state reveals its penchant for being green. In stunning contrast to most airports around the world, Changi’s park-like passenger terminals incorporate lush gardens of cactus, palms, orchids and ferns growing under natural light.

Beyond the airport, the boulevard leading downtown is lined by miles of flowering plants and a canopy of carefully pruned rain trees -- a theme that continues throughout the island.
If you’re looking for the Singapore of old -- the seedy port immortalized in movies such as 1940’s "The Letter," in which Bette Davis plays a wealthy murderer betrayed by a mysterious woman from the city’s gloomy Chinese quarter -- you’re out of luck. Singapore is now more Beverly Hills than Bangkok.
The image of Singapore as a dark, dirty and dangerous place was accurate as recently as the 1960s, when the former British colony off the Malay Peninsula was decidedly a developing nation. Even now, it has its share of problems: Tensions revolving around living and working conditions for the nearly one million migrant workers and a government with a tendency toward the totalitarian, which levies huge fines for minor offenses such as jaywalking or littering and still imposes the violent criminal punishment of caning for more serious crimes. The message is clearly reinforced on the passenger declaration forms handed out on international flights, which warn that anyone who enters the country with illegal drugs is subject to death, whatever their nationality.
So there is that.
Yet Singapore is a stunning success story in many ways, and one of the more obvious is its strong commitment to all things green. Environmental sustainability is seen as a way not only to improve the quality of life but also to lure international business and, in a very real sense, to survive.
During the past two decades, the Singaporean city-state has built upon outside investment and its strategically located port to ascend into the upper echelon of the developed world, and is now one of the busiest shipping hubs and wealthiest nations on earth, per capita. In terms of GDP per capita, Singapore ranks third worldwide, at just over $60,000, after Qatar ($102,000) and Luxembourg ($79,000); the U.S., by comparison, ranks seventh, with a GDP per capita of around $50,000. In terms of the volume of traffic through Singapore's port, it was recently surpassed by Shanghai and is essentially tied with Rotterdam for the No. 2 slot. An estimated 140,000 vessels pass through Singapore's deepwater port annually.
Singapore is also fast becoming a global model for sustainability -- a clean, green “city of the future,” as the handouts proclaimed during a recent government-sponsored media tour that included journalists from the United States, China and India, including the International Business Times. Though a measure of skepticism is in order considering that the government paid our way, there's no arguing the fact that Singapore is one of the most physically and philosophically green urban areas on earth.
In terms of environmentally sustainable and green cities worldwide, “Singapore is probably No. 1,” observed Kathryn Gustafson, director of the landscape consulting firm Gustafson Porter USA, which designed part of Singapore's iconic horticultural theme park known as Gardens by the Bay. “The government gives priority of landscape green in front of everything else. I have never seen a parks department with so much power.”
Singapore gardens
Singapore's 150-year-old Botanic Gardens. Alan Huffman
The commitment to green is not only about aesthetics. Singapore, with its intensively developed land mass roughly equal in size to New York City’s, is also actively engaged in an array of conservation, recycling and reclamation measures, striving for environmental sustainability because of -- not despite -- its lack of natural resources and dense population (only fellow city-state Monaco’s population is denser).
It is a pragmatic approach toward conservation, observed Khoo Teng Chye, director of Singapore's Centre for Liveable Cities. “There have been suggestions that only wealthy cities can be green and environmentally sustainable," Chye said. "I think for Singapore, it is the other way round. Singapore is doing well economically because it is environmentally conscious. This consciousness is very much in policy making, land use planning and community engagement, and is essential for Singapore to be a liveable city and sustainable economy.”
More than 7,000 multinational corporations are based in Singapore, and the government recognizes that to support those businesses and attract new ones requires more than parks, greenery and high quality of life. Most large companies need low energy costs and ready solutions to environmental challenges, both of which are the focus of business organizations such as the Singapore Sustainability Alliance, a collaboration of government agencies, industry representatives, NGOs and academic institutions that works with existing companies and new prospects to capitalize on its sustainability programs and to help with the adoption of sustainable practices. The alliance’s business-development programs include sustainable manufacturing practices, sustainable water use, waste management and recycling, and energy efficiency.
Meanwhile, to ensure Singapore’s growth as a communications technology hub, the National Environment Agency partners with new and existing businesses such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and International Business Machines Corp., which have built manufacturing and data storage facilities, both of which needed a way to reduce high energy costs associated with the tropical climate. Toward that aim, the government partnered with H-P to develop a new set of energy-efficiency benchmarks that reduced electric use and provided a template for other businesses -- a crucial measure considering that Singapore still relies largely on imported sources for energy production.
Singapore also offers assistance to businesses that specialize in clean technology through the Cleantech division of its Economic Development Board. The board's director, Goh Chee Kiong, said that business sector experienced “continued robust growth” this year in the areas of renewable energy, energy efficiency, smart grids, green buildings, electric mobility and water conservation.
New investments in energy management announced in 2013 include the Asian Centre of Excellence, which specializes in developing smart grids and renewable energy; Hanergy, a China company that is one of the world’s largest thin-film solar producers, which established its international headquarters in Singapore; the German company Saferay, which built a global solar project development center; and DHI, a Danish water and environment research and technology consultancy, which announced plans to expand it Asia-Pacific R&D and engineering center in Singapore.
The vision for a green city-state began under former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the outspoken and dogmatic “father” of modern Singapore, who was in office for three decades and now serves in the position of minister-mentor. In 1965, two years after Singapore gained independence from Britain and, a short time later, Malaysia, Yew announced his intention to use greenery to differentiate the vulnerable and largely poor city-state from other Asian countries, in hopes of attracting international investment and tourists as well as to soften the harsh realities of urban life. Among the first to go were the crowded slums, houseboats and pig corrals along the Singapore River, now the site of pedestrian promenades and gleaming skyscrapers.
Yew’s vision paid off and has become increasing entrenched as Singapore’s population has more than doubled since the 1980s to 5.4 million and with increasing international competition for investment. Remarkably, during the population and building boom, the land area of Singapore with “green cover” grew from about 35 percent to about 46 percent, according to Wong Chock Fang, assistant director at the Centre for Liveable Cities. As evidence of how well established the green initiative has become, Singapore recently changed its public-relations moniker from “Garden City” to “City in a Garden” -- a subtle distinction meant to convey that its greenery is no longer a mere adornment.
The impact of the greenery is visually magnified by carefully designed landscape corridors, and about 10 percent of Singapore’s land is protected in some way, including four comparatively large biodiversity reserves. Because Singapore has run out of land and the only way to grow is either up or down, almost all new construction is high-rise or subterranean and designed with environmental sensitivity in mind, including the use of “sky-rise greenery” in the form of vegetated walls and roofs that help improve air quality, lower building cooling costs and add to the overall aesthetics and quality of life. Based on German prototypes, green walls and roofs are a natural idea in Singapore’s tropical environment, where mosses, ferns, philodendrons, orchids and other epiphytes literally grow on trees.
Alan Tan, director of Singapore’s Uniseal Creative Solutions, which designs green architectural installations, said the initial push for vegetative construction came in 2006, when it was seen as a way to beautify buildings. Green installations, whether interior or exterior, quickly took off, and on exterior facades, are easy to maintain, he said, adding, “Nothing is maintenance free -- I get my hair cut every month.” Green walls and roofs are expensive to install -- about SGD $600 (around USD $475) per square meter, though lower cost alternatives are available that rely on cheaper materials and container pots of unirrigated plants, Tan said. So far, 64,000 square meters of green roofs have been installed in Singapore, he said.
Singapore Parkhotel
The Park Hotel in Singapore incorporates liberal use of architectural greenery. Alan Huffman
The green approach encompasses programs and pilot projects involving intensive water, sewage and solid waste recycling, electric mass transit, passive lighting and irrigation systems, and -- though Singapore still lags behind the rest of the world in renewable energy -- solar power, tidal turbines and, a bit ominously, the possible use of floating micro-nuclear plants manufactured in Russia. Part of the electricity at Gardens by the Bay is supplied by a generator powered by the incineration of horticultural waste.
Much of what a visitor sees is more naturalized than natural -- highly cultivated, clearly of manmade design, often with special lighting or other artificial effects. As architect Liu Thai-Ker, who is chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities and was this year’s keynote speaker at the Green Space Asia symposium in Singapore, observed, “We have a rich British legacy, a green heritage, but it’s not jungley.” Outside of a few preserves -- and sometimes within them, nature tends to be heavily pruned and carefully landscaped, the product of design. Tan likewise noted that many of his clients associate biodiverse plantings on green roofs and walls with ants, and opt for more manicured installations.
The natural world, in fact, is a distant memory in urbanized Singapore. The island’s original rainforests were largely cleared in the early 19th century for agriculture, leaving only about three percent in their current pristine state, with the vast majority of the land intensively developed.
But beginning in the mid-60s, under Yew’s administration, more than a million trees and shrubs were planted, along with untold vines and flowers, to soften what would otherwise have been harsh urban infrastructure. On the 150th anniversary of Singapore’s Botanic Gardens, in 2009, Yew, now 90, said he originally saw cultivation of the landscape as a way “to show investors that this was a well-organized place.” This summer, to mark 50 years since the start of Singapore’s greening efforts, he planted a rain tree at a public park.
Yew, who is either loved or reviled for his imperial approach to government, told the New York Times in 2007 that Singapore’s success was all along improbable: “It should not exist … We haven’t got the base, the space, the wherewithal.” Singapore’s striving to become autonomous -- which undergirds its green efforts -- is based on the fact that Singapore is a small island with few resources, vulnerable not only to climate change but also to the political and economic changes that will inevitably result. Along those lines, Yew noted that the Singaporean government was in consultation with Holland about building dikes to reduce expected damage from sea-level rises.
If environmental sustainability is a way to defend against current and future threats, it has also been a boon to investment and tourism. The centerpiece of Singapore’s green tourism effort is the Gardens by the Bay, built on reclaimed land, which mixes lush tropical plantings with manmade attractions such as 18 towering “supertrees” -- steel monoliths shrouded in vertical gardens of flowering plants and lighted for dramatic effect at night. The monoliths, meant to evoke rainforests, look more like Las Vegas or Dubai, particularly given the absurdist architectural towers of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel towering nearby, yet they, along with the park’s massive, domed greenhouses, themed gardens, landscaped outdoor performance venue and educational displays, make their point: Singapore has hitched its wagon to all things green.
The Gardens by the Bay is also intended to be environmentally self-sustaining, which might seem a bit of stretch given such installations as the lighted supertrees and massive, air-conditioned greenhouses for temperate-forest and floral plantings. But as a guide on the recent media tour was quick to point out, there's that generator burning horticultural clippings from Singapore’s landscape maintenance program, and basins contained in the canopies of the supertrees collect rainwater for passive irrigation.
Also: J.Lo played there.
Singapore greenhouse
Singapore's Gardens by the Bay eco-park includes massive greenhouses used for temperate-climate horticultural displays. Alan Huffman
Elsewhere on the site, “heritage gardens” pay tribute to Singapore’s multicultural history through Malay village plantings, Indian flowers and gardens interpreting Chinese philosophy and colonial style. And not far away is the prosaically named HortPark, with 20 more botanical gardens, including some developed specifically for rooftops and parking lots. Elsewhere across the island are 300 parks linked by landscaped roadside greenery; the oldest one, the Botanic Gardens, includes more than 10,000 kinds of trees and plants.
Singapore is also incorporating conventional conservation measures such as motion-activated lighting and escalators, household and commercial recycling and electric public transit, alongside innovative ideas such as restoring manmade canals to meandering streams and consolidating utility conduits, sewer and water lines and pneumatic garbage conveyors inside a network of underground tunnels. Recycling, though much-touted, remains a work in progress: 57 percent of Singapore’s solid waste is recycled and the remainder incinerated, with the ash -- which can be toxic -- deposited on a manmade offshore island surrounded by manmade mangrove swamps.
Water -- specifically, fresh water -- represents an abiding challenge for Singapore despite abundant rainfall, due to its large population relative to the land available. Nearly half of its water is piped in from Malaysia through agreements set to expire in mid-century. The government is attempting to become autonomous through retention reservoirs, desalination plants and the reclamation of sewer water, marketed as NeWater, mostly for nonpotable purposes. An estimated 70 percent of Singapore’s sewage is recycled, and the remainder is retreated and discharged into the sea.
The efforts are guided by a 2002 master plan for environmental sustainability, the application of which continues to evolve. Fang, the assistant director at the Centre for Liveable Cities, noted that Singapore was seriously polluted a half-century ago and is still testing new ideas about sustainability. “We like to think of Singapore as a living laboratory,” she said.
In some cases, the results of the experiment won't be known for 50 years or more, and in the meantime many challenges remain. Singapore’s migrant workers, for example, often live in squalid conditions that are anything but green; its wide boulevards offer comparatively few pedestrian crossings -- a particular problem given that jaywalking is illegal; and public buildings are uniformly over-air-conditioned. Even ever-expanding Changi airport, with its environmentally friendly park areas and conservation programs, is directly dependent upon booming air travel -- a major culprit when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Singapore meanwhile continues to import sand and rock from Malaysia to reclaim land from its shallow coastal waters, though there's recognition that the filling has taken an environmental toll on wetland habitats and coral reefs. In some reclaimed areas the government has recreated mangrove swamps, and it has established a coral nursery to help mitigate the loss of 60 percent of the original reefs. It has also cleaned up the once-fetid Singapore River, and increasingly includes green components in the construction of public housing, in which 80 percent of Singaporeans live (90 percent of whom “own” their apartments through 99-year leases). Clusters of high-rise apartments -- known as “towns” -- usually include parks, supermarkets and, in some cases, communal gardening areas, food being another challenge that Singapore hasn't yet overcome. Nearly all of the food is imported, with only an estimated 250 acres on the island remaining in farmland. When possible, the high-rise towns are built to catch breezes, with windows facing north and south to minimize heat from the eastern and western axis of the equatorial sun.
The government of Singapore hopes its development of sustainable technologies will find a lucrative export market as global populations becoming increasingly urban, and the country has developed what it purports to be the first urban biodiversity index for evaluating conservation efforts. It is also advising other countries about environmentally sustainable practices, including China, India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and plans to showcase its greenness when it hosts the World Cities Summit next year.
The abiding goal, as Yew explained in a speech he gave three years after independence, is to build upon adversity, and to anticipate and deal with whatever threatens.
“We have built,” he said. “We have progressed. But there is no hallmark of success more distinctive and more meaningful than achieving our position as the cleanest and greenest city in South Asia.”
Singapore tree
Bird's nest ferns, orchids and other plants grow on trees throughout Singapore. Alan Huffman