Our CBD is losing its green edge

As parks disappear, Singapore's downtown loses part of what makes it so attractive
Richard Hartung Today Online 23 Sep 11;

"Great cities are defined as much by their parks and open spaces as they are by their architecture," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said when plans for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation were announced in 2003. The city spent more than US$100 million (S$129 million) on 20 parks in that downtown area.

In Seoul, the government spent about US$280 million on the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project and created a new park in the middle of the city.

In contrast, patches of green here in Singapore seem to keep disappearing. One of the latest is Robinson Green, in the heart of the Central Business District.

At the end of June, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced that it had launched the commercial site at Robinson Road/Cecil Street for sale. A sign invites companies to submit a bid to the URA so they can turn the park into an office building.

While Robinson Green is tiny, it's an oasis of trees and flowers that brings a brief respite to workers pausing for a break or rushing past. And despite plans for small "pocket parks" in the urban centre, Robinson Green's demise seems emblematic of a continuing loss of greenery in the CBD.

Singapore used to seem more focused on greenery. Indeed, the National Parks Board states that "Singapore's development into a Garden City started four decades ago with the establishment of the greening programme. The driving force behind this was the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who identified a green Singapore as a key competitive factor in attracting foreign investments to the country".

New plans, however, have brought change. The end of Robinson Green is part of Master Plan 2008, which the URA says will guide Singapore's development "over the next 10 to 15 years".

The Master Plan is in turn part of the Concept Plan, a "strategic land use and transportation plan to guide development in the next 40 to 50 years".

When the URA released the Master Plan in 2008, few other than developers may have looked seriously at what would change in the coming decade. The Plan shows that Robinson Green, along with nearby Telok Ayer Park, are among the "interim green" areas slated for redevelopment. The lawns above Tanjong Pagar MRT station, in contrast, are "park/open space" areas. Even some of that greenery seems to be disappearing, though, following the sale of land at Peck Seah Street earlier this year.

It is easy to sell off green spots and build buildings. It's far harder to retain the greenery that differentiates Singapore's downtown from the many drab valleys of skyscrapers elsewhere in Asia.

By eliminating these pocket parks, Singapore seems out of sync with trends in other cities and risks losing the greenery that makes it so attractive. The Sustainable Cities database says that Copenhagen and Chicago, for example, are among a number of cities actually acquiring more land to create small parks.

An increasing body of research also shows the importance of urban parks. Georgia Institute of Technology professor Joe Hughes, for example, found that "parks play a role in market restoration, value creation, job creation, green space development and neighbourhood stabilisation". Other research shows that urban parks are part of what attracts everyone from Fortune 500 companies to knowledge workers.

Admittedly, it can be hard to prove the value of these green spots. As former mayor of Bogota Colombia Enrique PeƱalosa said, "we cannot prove mathematically that wider sidewalks, pedestrian streets, more or better parks make people happier, much less measure how much happier. However if we reflect, most things that are important in life cannot be measured either: Friendship, beauty, love, loyalty are examples. Parks and other pedestrian places are essential to a city's happiness".

Studies by Rotman Research Institute researcher Marc Berman do, however, help demonstrate that parks benefit people. The Wall Street Journal reports that Mr Berman found "performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20 per cent after study subjects paused for a walk through an arboretum" whereas "no cognitive boost was detected" when they strolled down a busy street. Even "a quieter city street with interesting natural elements to look at" can help, Mr Berman found. A stop in a place like Robinson Green might actually improve performance.

Rather than losing the tiny parks and open spaces in the CBD that help make Singapore green and bring so many benefits, perhaps it's time to re-examine the headlong rush into building and consider how to preserve or expand what makes Singapore so attractive.

Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.