Re-creating green havens

Neo Chai Chin Today Online 7 Feb 13;

Twice a week on his days off from work, security guard Jason Seah seeks out a tranquil green haven near his home in Jurong East. He cycles to Jurong Lake Park to fish, spending four hours there each time. He enjoys feeling the breeze at a shady spot under a tree and the calm surroundings, saying they remind him of his kampung days as a teenager.

“Green spaces are good for exercise and other activities,” said Mr Seah, 45. “It’s good to feel the earth under my feet.”

Parks, gardens and accessible parts of nature reserves are among the 3,900 hectares — that’s over 5,500 football fields — of green spaces found in Singapore. And the Republic is set to become even greener by 2030, under the Ministry of National Development’s (MND) Land Use Plan.

The target is to have at least 85 per cent of Singaporeans living within 400m of a park, and 20 new parks will be built within the next five years.

And come 2020, the park connector network will span 360km, linking parks, coastal areas and residential estates around the island.

URBAN STRESS REDUCER

Green spaces are important features of an urban environment — besides helping to improve air quality, cool ambient temperature and prevent floods, they also reduce urban stress, improve social cohesion and speed up physical and psychological healing, urban greenery studies have found.

In Singapore, they serve as “vital” recreational and social spaces for residents to relax and interact — “critical to a high quality of living in an increasingly urban and dense living environment”, according to the MND.

The newly spruced-up Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, for instance, was where 12-year-old Muhd Edri and his friends skated almost every day during the last school holidays. All live within walking distance of the park.

“In school there’s stress, but when we are here, the air rushes against your body and face; it’s relaxing,” said Edri, who has lived in Ang Mo Kio since he was born.

The park was also where retiree B C Ng, 66, and housewife Enie Chee, 48, got to know each other. Now running buddies who are part of a larger group of about 20 fitness enthusiasts, they can be found several times a week in the park getting a cardiovascular workout. Ms Chee said she enjoys the “better scenery and fresh air” that the green space provides.

MORE TAKE TO GREEN

More people have been heading to parks and green spaces. Between 2006 and 2011, the percentage of the population aged 10 and above who visited a park at least once in the past 12 months went up from 63 per cent to 69 per cent. Frequent users of parks — at least once a week over the past 12 months — increased from 16 per cent in 2006 to 27 per cent in 2011.

Queenstown resident Oon Say Tee, 64, and his wife, for instance, said they appreciate having a park connector near their Strathmore Green studio apartment. The retired couple walks there every morning and, once a week, Mr Oon also journeys on foot to places like the Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay and even East Coast Park via the connector.

Green spaces in housing estates have evolved over the years — from simple tree-planting in the 1960s to landscaping in the 1990s and, lately, the water-sensitive designs and the infusion of biodiversity into urban spaces, such as the new Rumah Tinggi Neighbourhood Park.

Existing parks have also been spruced up so residents can get closer to nature.

The 62ha Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, for instance, saw its concrete-walled canal transformed into a meandering river. The park’s features now include an artificial wetland with plants specially selected for their ability to filter pollutants and absorb nutrients, maintaining the water quality naturally. Birds like the spotted wood owl and collared kingfisher can be sighted.

Parents and their children were seen barefoot in the river admiring plants and dragonflies on a recent visit.

CALL OF THE WILD

The re-imagining and rethinking of green spaces continues.

The Rail Corridor sparked the imagination of nature lovers in the past year as thousands of joggers, bicyclists and shutterbugs flocked to the lush 26km stretch after the KTM train station at Tanjong Pagar relocated to Woodlands. A competition by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and civic groups between November 2011 and March 2012, to source ideas on what could be done with the former railway land, drew over 200 entries.

A radical idea proposed by one of the winners, Australian landscape firm Oculus, even involves re-introducing tigers back into the strip, as it mirrors the areas inhabited by tigers back in pre-industrial Singapore of the 1800s. Oculus proposed that the tiger habitat — set in a rainforest ecosystem of flora and fauna — be sealed from the rest of the city via “highly designed glass walls and edges”, with humans traipsing through a tree-top walk and arboreal villages.

Another entry, one of two top prize winners in the Youth category, envisioned a “minimum time, maximum experience” cluster of picnic grounds, community bloom projects, natural health spas in wooden huts and an interactive science museum.

Even while parts of the rail corridor may eventually be slated for development, the URA says what is set aside for nature will provide choices for cyclists and joggers, as well as greater accessibility to recreational and World War II heritage sites.

BALANCING NEEDS

Experts are quick to point out that not all parks have the same biodiversity value. Yet each type of green space has its purpose and value, said wildlife consultant and nature guide Subaraj Rajathurai.

Housing estates, for instance, do not have the biodiversity of nature reserves, but multi-use parks in the heartlands provide venues for recreation and exercise. By giving estate residents easy access to a green space, this helps prevent overcrowding in nature reserves on weekends — while maintaining some biodiversity in housing estates, especially when green corridors are created, he said.

Indeed, the National Parks Board notes that studies have found at least 87 species of birds, as well as butterflies small mammals and lizards in the park connectors.

Biological sciences doctoral student Chong Kwek Yan, whose thesis is on the effects of urban greenery on biodiversity, suggested that more be done to determine where the balance between development and nature can be struck.

“Although it is true a city like ours has constraints and there are trade-offs between population growth or specific developmental directions versus the need for green spaces, the phrase ‘trade-offs’ has been bandied about vaguely without any specifics,” he said.

Mr Chong suggested investing in ecological and social science research to quantify any trade-offs, and engaging the public to find out what sacrifices Singaporeans are willing or not willing to make. “Only after we know where our choice of a balance is, can we talk about how to achieve it,” he said.

OTTERS ARE A SIGN

Why redevelop some wild pockets of green into parks, instead of just preserving them?

The MND said NParks’ challenge is to conserve and integrate green spaces while making them relevant to the diverse lifestyle needs of the population. Space is needed to provide recreational facilities to meet these needs, and to provide a barrier-free environment for ageing Singaporeans, a spokesperson said.

The parks board tries to retain as much of the original native vegetation as possible when developing parks, but “some, if not most of the naturally generated vegetation” — such as species prone to snapping like Albizia trees — needs to be removed to ensure public safety, the spokesperson said.

Tampines Eco Green and Bukit Batok Nature Park, however, are good examples of parks where vegetation has been largely retained to create a space for nature-based recreation, he said.

Mr Subaraj said the dead trees in Tampines Eco Green that are out of the way of human traffic are valuable to the birds as roosting and breeding sites, as well as for feeding.

Parks in Singapore that have successfully accommodated nature are those that have largely protected the original vegetation of the area, he said. And in Pasir Ris Park, where areas of natural rivers and mangrove have been preserved, otters are now using the space alongside humans.

“People going for exercise are getting to see something as exciting as an otter. In the old days, you search and search, and only if you’re very lucky will you see an otter. I think it’s great, it shows we’re going in the right direction,” he said.


Neo Chai Chin Today Online 7 Feb 13;

Red-breasted parrots, yellow vented bulbuls, migratory species and other creatures share Tampines Eco Green park with early-morning joggers.

Opened in 2011, the 36.5ha park — bounded by an expressway, a major road and a housing estate across Sungei Tampines — consists of natural habitats like open grasslands and freshwater wetlands. It shows how the development of green spaces in Singapore has improved in the past 20 years.

Trying to blend the needs of people and nature is not an easy task, says wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai: “Nature parks with an eco theme can do both.”

Watch along as Mr Subaraj introduces you to some of the denizens of this eco-haven in the heartlands.

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