The greening of Singapore

11/12/13 October 2019

Singapore is tiny, a mere pimple at the toe-end of the Malay Peninsula. Tiny, but very, very crowded.

I find the numbers astonishing: Singapore has a land area of just 279 square miles, and yet it has a population of some 5.8 million people. By way of contrast, the figures for the UK are 95,000 square miles and 68 million people. In New Zealand, our final destination on this trip, the numbers are 103,000 square miles and just 4.8 million people.

To put it another way the population densities of the three countries are: Singapore 21,476 people per square mile, against 279 for the UK and just 47 for New Zealand. Singapore is the third most densely populated nation state in the world, after Monaco and Macau. The UK comes in 51st, while New Zealand lags way behind in 201st position.

This sounds like very bad news for Singapore and its residents. Any reasonable person would describe it as chronically overcrowded, with inevitable detrimental impacts on those living in it. It’s a recipe for a wretched environment, an ugly eyesore in which all living things other than humans are marginalised or absent altogether.

And yes, large areas of the city are profoundly ugly, dominated by clusters of utilitarian high-rise apartment blocks all linked together by the inevitable ribbons of tarmac. Yet our main memory from 2016 isn’t of ugliness, but rather of Singapore’s heroic attempt at damage limitation.

Huge efforts have been made to soften the harsh urban landscape with sympathetic planting of trees and flowering bushes. The city is plainly on a mission to do away with the grey and brighten up the bland.

The key objective of our 2019 visit is to delve further into the greening of Singapore, so we hot-foot it to the Botanic Gardens. And ‘hot-foot’ sums it up nicely: this place is steaming!

The Botanic Gardens, just 15 acres in area, is the first and only tropical botanic garden on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It was founded in 1859 and showcases the best and most spectacular of tropical flora set in stunning verdant landscape.

In many cities the Gardens may not generate much interest or support, but here they constitute a natural oasis in a dreary, largely monochrome urban desert. It’s interesting to see how many mums – or is it nannies? – are here, pushing babes around in buggies or walking hand-in-hand with toddlers. In a place like Singapore this has got to be good for the soul, and, just as important, it’s free.

But for us it’s the reptiles that steal the show, including a huge monitor lizard that looks like an extra from a Jurassic Park movie. It’s strangely thrilling to see such ancient beasts in a thoroughly modern metropolis

Located within the Botanic Gardens is a distinct and separately managed entity, the National Orchid Garden. It is claimed to have the largest display of tropical orchids anywhere in the world – there are over 60,000 orchids from 1,000 orchid species and 2,000 hybrids in its collection.

As we explore we spot a few that are familiar from our local supermarket and garden centre, but so many of the others are entirely new to us. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and are plainly thriving here.

The National Orchid Garden brings an extra dimension to the greening of Singapore, and lifts the spirits of residents and tourists alike when they need to escape for a while from the urban jungle.