Green petitions a sign of growing civic consciousness

Grace Chua Straits Times 30 Aug 12;

ONE group of Singaporeans has already set the ball rolling for a new national conversation: on how green - or brown - Singapore should be.

This group, or rather several groups of residents, shot to the headlines this year for banding together to save patches of forest around their homes, talking, organising and sending petitions. No radical tree-huggers, they are mostly regular folk upset at new development plans for land they had come to think of as their backyard.

Some may be truly exercised about the loss of habitat for the rufous-tailed tailorbird, civet cat and other species. Or, as some suspect, a few might have stakes no higher than concern for property values or the fear of having to squeeze into trains with more residents in their area.

Whatever the mix of near- or far-sighted sentiments that drove them, these residents' activism raised some legitimate questions about prudent land use in an increasingly crowded city.

How should Singapore decide which areas should be developed and which areas preserved? Surely the "winner" cannot be the one who protests the loudest? Does Singapore's urban masterplan have room for both a larger population and natural forests? Some question whether the City in a Garden, with its plentiful green spaces, isn't already green enough.

Singapore's planners have wrestled with these complex issues long before the residents of Limau estate decided to appeal to their MP to save a patch of land just south of the Tanah Merah MRT station, which is going to be developed into condominiums.

The very development of Singapore has been an act of planning. Even before independence, land use was laid out in colonial town plans.

There have been at least three other Limau-like cases this year. Groups have campaigned to protect areas in Pasir Ris, and Bukit Brown, and at Dairy Farm in Upper Bukit Timah. The pieces of land they wanted to preserve were mostly wooded stretches that sprung up in the last two to five decades on former kampung or plantation land. Bukit Brown is a disused cemetery where people still return to sweep the graves of ancestors.

Urban planners have long had these areas in their sights. They were already zoned for residential use or have been tagged with the mysterious "Subject to detailed planning" in the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) Master Plan - which Singaporeans understand as meaning the land is being left alone until such time as the state decides to develop it.

The masterplan has always been public. But residents like Pasir Ris' Madam Cherry Fong, 54, ask if the zoning has kept up with changes on the ground. Do the planners, she wonders, account for the fact that the fast-growing forests on these pieces of land harbour uncommon species like changeable hawk-eagles and rufous-tailed tailorbirds?

Experts argue that small forest fragments outside nature reserves can have real ecological value. They may be rich habitats in their own right, or help connect one nature area to another. And as they accumulate new plant species over time, the maturing habitat can support a wider array of animals.

"What is clear is that if green areas outside the strictly protected Nature Reserves were to be cleared, Singapore's biodiversity would be lower than it is today - less habitat leads to fewer species, and smaller and thus more vulnerable animal populations," says Nature Society (Singapore) president Shawn Lum.

He sums up a growing realisation - and not just among the experts - that not all greenery is created equal. Nearly half of Singapore's land area is under green cover. But parks and gardens, no matter how gorgeously landscaped, will never offer the same air-cleaning, water-filtering services or block as much street noise as natural forest areas.

Urban planners maintain that their vision has always had healthy measures of flexibility. Land-use plans are reviewed every five years.

"Greenery has an important place in our planning, and we have set aside close to 10 per cent of Singapore's total land area for parks and nature reserves. Beyond that, we do need to strike a careful balance among the many competing needs of a nation-state," a URA spokesman said. Other nature areas, forested state land and military training grounds make up the other greenscape. In all, 47 per cent of Singapore is under green cover.

In this scheme of things, the new turn is that residents like the Limau estate group are appealing for public consultation before development. This seems a perfectly reasonable request. But the next logical question then is: Who should be consulted? Asking everyone within a 1km radius of the site might not be enough. Asking everyone within a 2km radius, too onerous.

But what is clear is, as Limau resident Han Hee Juan, 48, put it: "It shouldn't need to result in a petition every time."

Perhaps it is time for transparent, public environmental impact assessments, as several have suggested. Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh suggested such assessments in June, and long-time conservation activist Ho Hua Chew did so last month, in two separate articles in The Straits Times.

Then, everyone can have a say before a final decision is made.

That could help develop a consensus on which green areas to conserve, taking into account their location, what species are in them and whether they are stepping-stones for wildlife to get to reserves. In fact, Singapore already understands this principle - it is building an eco-bridge between the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Central Catchment reserve for wildlife to move from one to another.

Not all wild patches can be saved from development pressures, but those that are more likely to be ecologically vital could get higher priority.

That residents want to protect their local forests is a good sign. It means they feel that their home is part of a wider neighbourhood community, and that they need to protect that neighbourhood, not just their individual homes or interests.

This is a watershed moment for civic engagement, and Singapore should capitalise on it.

It is a point worth noting and celebrating that conservation groups like the Nature Society - the traditional voice in these matters - have actually taken a back seat.

Rather, an interest in nature already exists among ordinary residents, whose growing civic and social consciousness now propel them forward.

For example, it was Madam Fong who first raised the Pasir Ris forest issue at a Meet-the-People Session last year, teenage children in tow.

And even if the nation's larger green goals override their own, Pasir Ris, Dairy Farm and Limau estate residents at least now know each other a little better.