The greener Wow.
When it comes to sustainability, Singapore is already leading in international comparisons, but it wants more: it aims to become an almost climate neutral “city in nature” by 2030. We visited people who are working towards this goal every day.
MINI Cooper SE: Energy consumption in kWh/100 km combined: 17,6-15,4, fuel consumption in l/100 km combined: 0, CO2 emissions in g/km combined: 0, electric range in km: 203 - 232. All values based on the combined WLTP test cycle. Further information: www.mini.com/disclaimer.
On the left, the beach and the sea, on the right, the lush green of tropical plants. In between, our MINI Cooper SE is cruising towards the city centre on a wide highway. There are almost five-and-a-half million people living here in Singapore, an island city-state spanning just 730 square kilometres. Asia’s smallest country in terms of footprint, Singapore is crowded, but at the same time also incredibly green: a third of Singapore is covered by parks and urban forests; the jungle seems to spread right into the city centre. Through the large panorama sunroof of our all-electric MINI – in Rebel Green, a perfect match for the location – we look up into dense treetops; hanging gardens are draped over the skyscraper facades like green robes. However, the city-state intends to go further: by 2030, it not only wants to be greener on the outside than any other city of millions, but also the first in the world to be almost climate neutral. Is that a wildly ambitious vision – or a realistic one?
Where sustainability and urban densification meet.
Someone who can explain to us how Singapore intends to achieve its “green miracle” is the architect Yann Follain. We meet the 43-year-old in the Parkroyal Collection Pickering, a luxury hotel with verdant green terraces, climbers cascading down into the foyer like waterfalls, and palm trees and ferns in the grounds. Follain, tall, vivacious and with an impressive mane of curly hair, admires this kind of architecture – his own, however, differs from Singapore’s long-since iconic skyscrapers and palatial hotels. Follain’s company WY-TO primarily strategizes various scales of built environment projects. Their so-called “people-places approach” emphasises using nature as a connecting channel in optimising social engagement values. “As cities progress, Mother Nature should also flourish alongside them,” says the Frenchman, who has lived in Singapore for the past fourteen years. “Extensive research worldwide has shown that cities which integrate nature as a development strategy report higher well-being levels.” Today, he wants to show us Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. He explains how its vast green spaces showcase perfectly the rewards of nature-embedded urban densification. “Time after time, this project has inspired me in my own work,” says Follain.
As we set out on our excursion with Follain in the all-electric MINI, we talk about the city-state’s history. It would certainly not be wrong to say that the connection between people and nature is in Singapore’s DNA. Shortly after Singapore became an independent country in 1965, its first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, launched an initiative that was to transform Singapore into a “garden city”. His intention was to encourage foreign investment and climatic response for the year-round tropical country. Although millions of trees were planted and extensive green areas created, for a long time Singapore’s dynamic growth meant that gigantic building projects took precedence and entire new districts took shape, some on land reclaimed from the sea.
A first paradigm change began in the 1990s – the vision of the “garden city” developed further into the “city in a garden”. New skyscrapers were to be more sustainable. “Living facades” characterized more and more the city-scape, resource-efficient operation becoming mandatory. New parks were also created. Since 2019 the city has pursued yet another new approach. Now that rising temperatures and climate change can no longer be ignored, Singapore plans to transform itself into a “city in nature” – with the aim of being largely climate neutral in only a few years’ time, it has framed and adopted the Green Plan 2030, which defines milestones for this. These include the planting of a further million trees, a dramatic reduction in energy and water consumption – and the renaturing of unused land. Making nature come to life again – that is precisely what characterises Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, one of Singapore’s showcase projects, which was implemented by the architects of “Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl” to which Follain is now taking us in the MINI.
Gardens by the Bay – the landmark of sustainable Singapore.
Snuggly nestled here, amid high-rise affordable public housing monoliths, there’s a green oasis extending over all of 65 hectares. Its life-giving centre is a river which, while seeming to have formed organically over the course of time, is actually a naturalised concrete irrigation channel that was sensitively civic-engineered ten years ago to address flooding challenges and to increase natural biodiversity. And indeed, since its renaturing, many animal and plant species have settled here. A purple heron is perched on a rock waiting for prey as turtles paddle past. The most important thing, though, according to Follain, is that the park has become a beloved, vibrant, outdoor rejuvenation place for the surrounding communities. Today, the district is considered a model project for living close to nature in an extremely densely populated urban area, and what is particularly important to the architect: “Bishan Park proves that integrating nature can increase well-being, and build towards sustained and all-round prosperity.”
This may sound banal but it isn’t once you know that more than fifteen million guests (pre-COVID) descend on this already crowded city of six million people every year. What they mostly see of Singapore’s sustainability efforts are the Gardens by the Bay – a tourist magnet, and at the time a huge sustainability laboratory. The peninsula it stands on was actually reclaimed solely for the purpose of creating this local recreational area. As we rolled towards the lush greenery in the MINI, we could already see the attraction’s famous landmarks from far away, the Supertrees. These 18 steel “trees”, the tallest of which reaches towering heights of up to 50 metres, form the park’s backbone. Hundreds of thousands of plants climb up their “trunks”. Addison Goh, 46, slender and keen-eyed, and sort of the park’s technology and sustainability director, leads us up to the 22m high aerial walkway that connects two of the Supertrees. From here, we have an amazing view of practically the entire grounds, including the two cooled conservatories that tower above the park, like gigantic glass turtles. “The gardens are designed to be more than a recreational area; they are also an important element of Singapore’s sustainability strategy,” explains Goh and points towards the green and purple tops of the steel trees. “For example, with the Supertrees, we demonstrate how clever technology can mimic nature. Some of them are equipped with solar panels. We also have a renewable energy plant on site with which we generate energy for the cooling systems in the conservatories by burning dead leaves and weeds gathered both from the Gardens and from around Singapore.”
Back on solid ground, we weave our way through the city traffic in the MINI Cooper SE to our next date. It’s pretty busy here. Hardly surprising, as the population has more than trebled since Singapore was founded. Almost all of the food consumed by its population has to be imported. The plan for the future envisages that up to 30% of its requirements will be covered by locally grown food by 2030. But isn’t that a rather utopian aspiration in a city-state without farmland? Not as far as Bjorn Low is concerned. We meet the 42-year-old at a rooftop farm which he and his staff operate on top of a hotel skyscraper near the harbour. Low set up Edible Garden City, an urban farming startup, in 2012. The company now farms on almost 300 areas in the city. It also shows restaurant owners, hotel operators and the local citizens how to create and maintain urban gardens. However, the harvests from these are currently so low that they only cover a fraction of what is needed. But for Low, it’s about more than just growing food; it’s about awareness. In his previous life, he was a marketing manager in London. “At some point, I realised I was selling people things they actually already owned enough of.” At the same time, he began to become interested in farming. “I was completely fascinated by it, because as someone who had grown up in Singapore, I didn’t actually know where our food came from.”
Rooftop farms as a solution for urban food supply.
Low walks around the rooftop farm with something akin to reverence. He has a careful look at the spinach and the herbs, assesses the ripeness of the aubergines and inspects the automatic, solar-powered irrigation system. He says that Edible Garden City is a business run with the aim of making a profit, but that his personal motivation goes beyond this, because: “Gardening also has a social dimension that we want to promote.” That’s why, besides these micro farms, Low and his team also run a small farm in the Queenstown district, where they hold gardening courses for pre-school and school children. They have also started offering workshops in high-rise residential estates, and growing vegetables with active senior citizens on community land. Smiling, he recalls meeting an old man. “He didn’t speak a word, at first, but after while, there was no stopping him,” Low says. “In the end, he got into gardening so much that he even went down to the plants at night when he couldn’t sleep.”
Passion as a strong driver of a green transformation. This also applies to the fashion designers Gin Lee and Tamir Niv, whom we visit in their bright and airy flagship store in a shopping centre. In 2011, the Singaporean-Israeli couple launched their own fashion label, GINLEE Studio, which specialises in resource-saving fashion – and therefore matches Singapore’s vision of the future perfectly, in its very own unique way. “We intentionally use durable materials and classic cuts that never go out of fashion,” says Lee, 44. “Our pieces are not designed to be discarded again after only a few months in someone’s wardrobe.” They are “slow fashion”. However, there’s yet another dimension to their idea of sustainable fashion: the label’s signature pleated pattern that is steam-pressed into the textiles. What does this have to do with sustainability? Simply this: in the flagship store’s workshop, customers can actually become involved in the design process themselves and can customise blouses or bags by choosing the colour of the fabric and applying the pleated logos. The idea behind this, according to Niv, 40: “You will appreciate a piece of clothing you have helped to make more than an anonymous product, and will therefore also take better care of it.”
Our tour of discovery in the MINI Cooper SE ends as the sun sets behind Singapore’s skyline. The little green rebel can now rest and recharge itself at one of the city’s numerous EV charging points. In the city-state that is already a green role model for many of the world’s most populous cities, we met all sorts of interesting characters full of ideas and pioneering spirit. We have learnt that although a place can make sustainability easier, it is ultimately down to the people who live there to decide exactly what their active role must be and carry it through - not just until 2030, but far beyond.