Singapore Seeks Public Input on Parks Makeover

Wall Street Journal
March 21, 2012

Singapore Seeks Public Input on Parks Makeover

Public parks have always been a microcosm of life in Singapore’s oldest government-housing estates; where the elderly would treat their feet to a barefoot walk on a “reflexology” pebble path, where couples would idly pass time and where children and their minders would play for hours on colorful, kitschy rocking horses or in sandboxes.

Even when the government Housing Development Board was first tasked to build affordable housing in the 1960s–when Singapore was still crowded with squatter settlements–the body was equally focused on creating little pockets of fun for the 80% or so of the population who lived in these government-planned estates.

In the fast-upgrading city-state, though, structures rarely remain permanent. Now, residents in some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods can expect jazzed up community parks – featuring canals turned into small, meandering rivers and possibly giant slides and climbing terrains. Three public parks across Singapore will be redesigned as “destination parks,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking at the opening of the first of these newly revamped spaces, 24-year-old Bishan Park which now benefits from a river – complete with real fish – that runs through it.

Considering the soon-to-be opened Gardens by the Bay project, Singapore’s S$1 billion investment in a huge garden on prime real estate featuring plants from six continents, the planned “destination gardens” are nothing really new or surprising. The “city in a garden” vision – 40 years in the making, according to park authorities – was inspired by the modern Singapore’s founder and first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Mr. Lee came up with the concept that Singapore would be a “garden city,” with well-tended trees and bougainvilleas sprinkled liberally throughout the city-state to convey a sense of beauty – and order – for foreign visitors.

Three parks have been initially picked for redevelopment, with the possibility of more to come: Admiralty Park, East Coast Park and Jurong Lake Park, located in the island’s North, East and West. They will be developed within the next five to 10 years, and could include playgrounds integrated into restaurants, slopes built out of naturally hilly terrain and adventure playgrounds linked by little islands — all contingent on what residents actually want.

That, perhaps, is what makes this latest undertaking different. The “destination parks” will incorporate a level of public consultation that is rare in Singapore, and communities will have a hand in deciding what they want out of their public parks. Following a session with the public last August, the National Parks Board will be organizing more dedicated group sessions and outdoor road shows to get feedback from members of the public, allowing them to “co-create” the spaces. People can also share their suggestions via a website that  includes ideas like converting roofs of multistory car parks into gardens with jogging tracks.

“Our parks are havens where Singaporeans can all come together to play, celebrate, reflect and connect. We want to rejuvenate our key parks, and develop them into leisure destinations that attract visitors from all over the island,” said the National Parks board in a statement.

The announcement from Singapore’s most powerful voice in government, its prime minister, comes just as authorities are in a tussle with activists over a number of other green spaces around the island – notably, a historic cemetery known as Bukit Brown. The cemetery, dating as far back as the 1920s, has been the final resting place for many luminaries from Singapore’s colonial past and notable businessmen – but the government now plans to build a road across the cemetery, effectively splitting it into two.

On Tuesday, officials held a meeting with activists insisting that road works across the land be stopped, calling for a moratorium on all works at Bukit Brown. Seven nongovernmental organizations, including the Nature Society (Singapore) and the Singapore Heritage Society, released a statement that also criticized the way the consultation meeting was held, chaired by the Minister of State for National Development and Manpower. Activists have also set up a Facebook group, campaigning to “save” the cemetery.

The government, for its part, has committed to building an “eco-bridge” that will reduce the impact on nature and the graves at the site. According to a report from the Straits Times, 3, 746 graves will have to be exhumed from early next year – fewer than the 5, 000 estimated when the project was announced last year. The government has finalized plans for a “four-lane carriageway,” a road authorities say will minimize the impact on the existing terrain and environment.

While Bukit Brown is a rare historical treasure in Singapore, some say that the case for preserving it is different, since the space — infrequently visited, except when relatives pay their respects to their dead ancestors — probably does not do much to enhance the prices of property around it. In Singapore, where land is at a premium, some analysts say that spending millions on new parks and green developments – such as the “co-created” parks – may have a more pragmatic purpose, ensuring that an old estate stays competitive price-wise.

Citing Bishan estate, where the new park with a meandering river was just launched, property analysts say that its location near Bishan park, as well as the presence of transport links helped to push prices up compared to that of government housing in other nearby estates.

“Certainly if there are attractive amenities and facilities like that, it would probably raise the interest of prospective buyers of properties in the area,” said Chia Siew Chuin, director of research at Colliers International, with the caveat that it would depend on what is offered within that park.

– Chun Han Wong contributed to this article