Paradise once lost, can't be regained

Paul Gilfeather Today Online 7 Sep 11;

While major cities around the world search for the money and means to establish quality green spaces for its population, Singapore appears to have hit the jackpot with the closure of the Malaysian railway line.

As the last train pulled out of Tanjong Pagar Station in July there was an outpouring of sadness as Singaporeans young and old turned out to mark the end of another chapter in the country's history.

Now, as the planners and politicians fix their sights on the future of the now-defunct track, the environmental lobby has stolen a march by unveiling their "green corridor" concept. The genius and beauty of the proposal is in its simplicity. The plan is to do absolutely nothing to the stretch of natural beauty and I can't help but feel excited at the prospect.

With four-fifths of Singapore being created within the last 25 years, campaigners say the Government has a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to maintain an existing site, as opposed to creating or developing a new one which would not function as it's supposed to. They point to the recently-developed public spaces around Marina Bay and argue that they do not serve their intended purpose of providing quality, open space for ordinary Singaporeans to relax, engage with nature or take part in leisurely activities.

Professor Steffen Lehmann is the current Chair in Sustainable Urban Development for Asia and the Pacific and he is lending his expert voice to keep the KTM tracks as Singapore's "green spine" for nature and leisure. As a consultant to Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority, he is suggesting a passage which connects to the city while providing quality space for walking and cycling.

Prof Lehmann, a former visiting lecturer at NUS who has written a book called The Principles of Green Urbanism, said: "There is a moral obligation not to build on this land, but to preserve it in its full scale as public green space. The increase in liveability and positive impact will be immense but we now need to establish the principles of this green corridor, before designs are developed.

"In the last decade, Singapore has been too much focused on the design of individual buildings to make them 'landmarks'. But the space between these buildings is much more important. Unfortunately, very few of the many new public spaces, for instance around Marina Bay, are working at the level they should.

"Place-making is primarily not about design - it's about people and empowerment of communities."

There is an old railway line near my home town in Scotland and that was never developed. There probably wasn't the money or inclination. That inaction proved to be positive and now it is used daily by cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers and nature lovers.

It's hugely popular and provides the people of Aberdeen with a link to the countryside. The stretch of line running through central Singapore has the potential to provide the same service for its residents.

Very few cities around the world have a natural corridor of greenery and, as I mentioned earlier, many town halls are desperately looking at ways of developing stretches like the one we already have. The difference is they would have to draft their plans on a drawing board and then, in most cases, build it from scratch.

Of course, there will be a powerful lobby arguing the case for major restructuring of the site. They will say that with Singapore being so land-scarce, chunks of the corridor should be sold off for development and the money poured into the public purse.

However, at his National Day Rally address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke enthusiastically about the idea and his appeal for grassroots' campaigners to work closely with the Government on any future plan, was very encouraging. In particular, he highlighted proposals put forward by Ms Regina Koo, a graduate of the NUS Architecture Department. She suggests building a "Velo-Park" with bikeways, bike rental stalls, bike club and cafe.

This idea chimes with Prof Lehmann's push for the lane to be used for electric-aided bicycles, which would include measures to prevent the width of a new green corridor being reduced below 10 metres at any point. "We now need to establish the principles of this green corridor before designs are developed," he said. "Better connection of existing precincts can now be achieved, but if this connectivity is lost to private developers, it cannot be regained. It should be legally decided not to sell off this land but keep it in public ownership."

The green lobby insist Singapore's former railway could prove to be the most important urban development issue to face the country in years. And it's hard not to be tantalised by talk of an uninterrupted stretch of track with authentic former railway structures, urban jungle and unique wildlife. The only development should be, they say, state-of-the-art solar canopies, cafe pavilions and media points.

Last week it was announced that a 1.4 km stretch of railway track from Bukit Timah bridge would be opened for walking from Sept 16. This is a positive first step but campaigners are calling for the eventual corridor to stretch much further.

Prof Lehmann said: "We can't have anything less than excellence for this stripe of land. Leaving it as nature intended would be better than any building or development which could possibly be created."

Paul Gilfeather is the Principal Correspondent at Today.

Urban planning focused on creating vibrancy
Letter from Ho Moon Shin Deputy Director (Corporate Communications), Urban Redevelopment Authority
Today Online 12 Sep 11;

We refer to Mr Paul Gilfeather's commentary "Paradise once lost, can't be regained" (Sep 7).

It is heartening to see the keen public interest in the future plans of the former railway lands. The Urban Redevelopment Authority is currently conducting a comprehensive review to chart the development plans for the rail corridor and its surrounding areas.

This includes studying the possibility of marrying development and greenery, such as applying innovative strategies to maintain a continuous green link along the rail corridor without affecting the development potential of the lands.

Members of the public have been sharing their visions for the rail corridor with us, which we will study carefully and, where feasible, incorporate into the development plans. We welcome the community to continue to offer feedback and ideas at

Mr Gilfeather also quoted Professor Steffen Lehmann on his views on Singapore's place making efforts.

Notably, Prof Lehmann said that "Singapore has been too focused on the design of individual buildings" and that "very few of the many new public spaces, for instance around Marina Bay, are working at the level they should".

On the contrary, URA's urban planning is done holistically and considers the broader vision of each precinct.

In the planning for Marina Bay, which is envisioned as a precinct where people live, work and play, the Master Plan focuses on encouraging a mix of uses to ensure the area remains vibrant 24/7.

Much effort has been put into the urban design of Marina Bay, such as incorporating green and open spaces like the Gardens by the Bay, to ensure it becomes a distinctive and delightful place to visitors and users.

Key streets and the waterfront promenade have been planned to be lined with activity-generating uses to ensure the public realm remains vibrant all the time.

Developments in Marina Bay will be seamlessly linked to Mass Rapid Transit stations via an extensive network of underground pedestrian links, covered walkways at street level and elevated walkways, to make walking from building to building convenient and comfortable.

It takes time to build up new places such as Marina Bay and for these places to find a place in the heart of the community. URA is currently partnering the community to bring more activities and vibrancy to the Bay.

The number of large-scale community events held there, including runs and family-oriented ones like the Singapore Kite Festival, has been growing.

We are optimistic that we will eventually bring to fruition our vision to make the area the people's bay.

Prof Lehmann claimed to be "a consultant" to URA. We would like to clarify that he is not as we have not engaged his services.