Preserving Singapore's green heartland

Focus needs to shift from creating more parks to maintaining precious tracts of wild woodlands
Ho Hua Chew, For The Straits Times 14 Jul 12;

THE Singapore Government has achieved a great deal in developing the country into a city-state that wins glowing accolades as not only a garden city but also a city-in-a-garden.

But there is room to shift to a more vital vision of a city in a wilderness, where more green areas apart from the nature reserves are consciously preserved so that Singapore is 'a wilderness playground or park to provide room for fun and the imagination', as the Focus Group on Quality of Life to the Urban Redevelopment Authority Concept Plan Review 2011 suggested.

Sceptics who may ask where wilderness resides in urban Singapore will be surprised.

Contrary to common perception, almost half of Singapore, it turns out, is not a concrete jungle. No less than 47 per cent of its land area consists of greenery. This includes managed green areas like golf courses and parks, as well as forested areas and mangroves. Large portions of the island consist of grasslands and scrublands that have sprung up on the coastal reclaimed lands which have lain fallow over the years, such as the Changi Coast and Pulau Tekong. Overall, only about 10 per cent of this greenery falls under the gazetted areas of nature reserves (4.5 per cent) and public parks (5.5 per cent).

Anyone who drives or walks along the various roads, expressways and MRT lines around Singapore - and any soldier who goes for military training - will know that huge swathes of Singapore contain wild but lovely patches of mature woodlands of varying sizes and shapes. These are outside the public parks and nature reserves, scattered across different sectors such as suburban areas, the remaining countryside and even the heavily urbanised south.

One example of such woodland is at the railway corridor running from the Bukit Timah railway station to Holland Road, its green presence inescapable if you are travelling along Clementi Road. It stands out because of the tall trees emerging from a layer of wild undergrowth.

Another example is the stretch of woodland that runs along Commonwealth Avenue West from Clementi Road to Ghim Moh, part of which has been developed for housing and was a bone of contention with conservation campaigners from the neighbouring residential estates in 2008.

This lush greenery gives Singapore a unique landscape amid the widespread concrete and skyscrapers. It also offers an alternative experience for nature lovers, different from the manicured gardens with regimented trees. Gardens and parks are great for recreation and fitness activities. But the experience of walking in a neat garden and exploring a stretch of wild woodland or forest is different. One evokes appreciation for human endeavour; the other, a wonder for the non-human world and life.

Singapore's good fortune lies in both its tropical, verdant climate that allows such lush greenery to bloom and in its forward-looking master planners who have consciously set aside green lungs while hurtling towards development.

But in the rush for greater economic growth, these patches of mature woodland now risk being rapidly eroded and sacrificed for development. The most glaring of these is Bukit Brown, for which various civil groups have advocated conservation.

There are also other areas where development plans are being questioned by growing numbers of Singaporeans, some of whom are nature lovers as well as others who happen to live in neighbouring housing estates. These areas include various woodlands across the island and the exhumed Bidadari cemetery, popular with nature lovers and photographers.

Even if they have no rare or endangered flora and fauna or lack rich biodiversity, such mature woodlands are worth keeping for a variety of reasons.

In an age of environmental crisis and global warming, they serve as invaluable carbon sinks - free natural air-conditioners and rainwater sponges that help to control run-off and prevent flooding.

They are accessible resources for ecological education, especially for children and adults who may not want to venture too far for such purposes.

These woodlands may not have been prominent at the time development plans were made, but they have matured over the decades, now attracting nature lovers with their burgeoning wildlife.

Preferences and values change as society develops. Growing awareness of the global warming crisis has given a tremendous impetus to the appreciation of nature and green values here, and this must be taken into account.

These woodlands also have a soothing therapeutic value for the psyche, serving as landmarks for neighbourhoods while nurturing a deep sense of place and love for the country. Studies have shown that natural areas stimulate a sense of fascination that elicits spontaneous curiosity and exploration. They help restoreminds jaded or overwhelmed by mental fatigue in an urbanised world.

The urgent and practical question is: Why are degraded or less green areas not being used for development instead, to spare the mature woodlands? These degraded green areas include areas such as open fields already cleared of all standing vegetation and brownfield sites such as the now defunct Turf Club in Bukit Timah. Surely, an environmental impact assessment, or for a small area, a biodiversity survey, can be done to determine the impact of development plans on these woodlands?

The Government recently also announced a plan to create 20 new parks over the next five years, with one already initiated for Coney Island. Rather than create new parks from scratch, why not turn some existing mature woodlands into nature parks, given their dense greenery and wildlife, some of which are uncommon or even endangered?

Nature parks are different from public parks like the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, as the former give more emphasis to conservation of greenery as wildlife habitats and to other ecological roles like carbon sinks, while allowing for human access and activities that are eco-friendly.

Land is not simply a blank slate, an abstract space to be simply calculated in area and imprinted for economic development. It has inherent values derived from what are naturally in place - like the resident flora and fauna - that can nurture and promote a wholesome way of life.

A holistic approach to land that promotes a rich array of values for the benefit of all Singaporeans, as well as the non-human denizens of the land, should be embraced for a nation that is already in the First World.

The writer is a conservation activist and council member of the Nature Society.

By Invitation features leading writers and thinkers from Singapore and the region.

Wildlife in woodlands

THERE is rising concern over some stretches of woodlands around Singapore threatened by development. Such areas will likely be overwhelmed or curtailed in size, given the Government's recent announcement that 39 more new development sites, comprising residential, commercial, hotel and mixed use, will be released for sale.

Most of these mature woodlands have rich and interesting wildlife. Here are some examples:

The woodlands at Simpang/Khatib Bongsu

PARTLY cleared for housing development under the Simpang Development Guide Plan (1993). The Nature Society has submitted to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) a conservation proposal for the area in 1993 and has recorded 185 bird species (2009) - resident as well as migratory. Three species of eagles nest or breed in the area: the White-bellied Sea Eagle, the Changeable Hawk Eagle and the Grey-headed Fish Eagle. The latter two are endangered. The endangered snake, the Banded Krait, is also recorded in the area.

Dairy Farm Crescent

THREATENED by plans for condo development. Forty-two bird species, migratory and resident, have been recorded so far by the Nature Society. This area is a foraging ground for many forest-associated bird species, such as the Banded Bay Cuckoo and the Long-tailed Parakeet, from the nearby Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. There is also a nesting site of the endangered Changeable Hawk Eagle. Other wildlife such as butterflies, reptiles and amphibians have yet to be explored.

Pasir Ris at the junction of Elias Road and Pasir Ris Drive 3

THREATENED by plans for condo and school development. Thirty-three bird species have been recorded so far by the Nature Society. This woodland is a refuge for many forest-associated bird species along the dwindling belt of woodlands on the north-eastern coast. They include the Greater Coucal, the Rufous-tailed Tailorbird and the endangered Oriental Pied Hornbill. There is also a nesting site of the Changeable Hawk Eagle and the White-bellied Sea Eagle. Other wildlife have yet to be explored.

Lorong Tawas/Dragon Kiln Woodland off Jalan Bahar

SEVERELY tattered by the development of JTC's Jalan Bahar Clean Tech Park. This was also the nesting site of the endangered Changeable Hawk Eagle, which has abandoned the site. JTC was informed of this nest site prior to the development. The Leopard Cat and the Large Indian Civet, both critically endangered in Singapore, are recorded in the area. The spectacular and now vulnerable Common Birdwing butterfly is common in this woodland.

The Bidadari area

THREATENED by residential development. Migratory woodland bird species such as cuckoos and flycatchers have found a haven here.

Jurong Lake near the Science Centre

THREATENED by development conceived in the Jurong Lake Master Plan. The only natural patch in the whole Lake area, which is surrounded by parkland on the western flank and a golf course on the eastern side. The haunt of the Stork-billed Kingfisher (uncommon), Greater Coucal (uncommon), Changeable Hawk Eagle, Black-crowned Night Heron (critically endangered) and Grey-headed Fish Eagle (critically endangered). Feedback on the Jurong Lake Master Plan was submitted by the Nature Society to URA in 2008.

Bedok Reservoir at the Tampines Avenue 10 junction

SOLD for condo development. The only wild woodland on a hillock around the reservoir, a green and soothing landmark for joggers and strollers as well as commuters. Biodiversity unknown.