Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/The evolution of Singapore’s legislative and policy frameworks relating to its natural landscapes

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Modern Singapore's natural landscape has undergone multi-faceted changes since the island city-state's founding by the British in 1819. It went from being covered in lush rainforest, to seeing large-scale deforestation, to seeing rapid urbanisation, to its current state today, of being a "Biophilic City in a Garden". In terms of land use planning, it went from being unregulated, to becoming a core part of Singapore's urban planning because of top-down directives, to its current mix of top-down and ground-up initiatives. Singapore's specific greenery policies have also evolved with the times, from one focused on re-greening, to one that aims to make greenery so pervasive that it is impossible for inhabitants to be excluded from this privileged relationship with nature. While Singapore has matured from third world to first in a remarkable span of time, its land use policies and legislation have also come into their own.


Geographical location, climate and population

Singapore is an island city-state that lies north of the equator, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. The island’s land area, including off-shore islands, is 722.5 km2. It has a population of 5.6 million and a population density of 7,804 people per km2[1]. Singapore's climate is tropical, with a mean annual rainfall of 2,165.9 mm, high temperatures (averaging 28 °C) and humidity year-round[2].

Greenery figures

To date, “more than 40% of Singapore is covered in green, in the form of nature reserves, parks, gardens, roadside greenery, skyrise greenery and vacant lands”[3]. The 40% greenery comprises of 3,347 ha of legally protected nature reserves, 380 gardens and parks, and 110 ha of skyrise greenery. Out of the 7 million trees that Singapore has, 6 million are managed by the National Parks Board (NParks) – with 2 million urban trees planted along the roadside, and the remainder found in parks, open spaces, nature reserves and state lands[4].

History of Singapore’s natural landscape

Rubber plantation in Singapore, 1914
Workers tapping rubber at a plantation in Singapore in 1914.

Singapore was once entirely covered in lush rainforests before Sir Stamford Raffles, a British statesman, founded Singapore in 1819. The small number of locals who were largely living along the coasts, depended on the collection of forest products and hunting for subsistence, with little impact to the forest landscape. The vegetation was characterised by 82% lowland dipterocarp forest, 5% fresh water swamp forest and 13% mangrove forests along the coastline[5]. As the British colonised Singapore, it was quickly developed into a trading entrepot due to its strategic location along the peninsula. This brought on the cultivation of cash crops, which spread rapidly inland.

Primary forest lands gave way to plantations for gambier in the 1800s and rubber in the 1900s. The unregulated process of land clearance was repeated, and by 1935, agricultural lands made up a staggering 40% of Singapore’s total land area[5]. Forests continued to be cleared for other agricultural crops until after the Japanese occupation (1942 to 1945), where the forest landscape was lost mostly to urbanisation and industrialisation. Today, Singapore is dominated by mature secondary forests regrowth and has about 100 ha of primary rainforest[5], comprising around 0.1% of the entire land area. Over time, degraded landscapes have regenerated naturally and the growth of secondary forest has restored links between some of the remnant patches of primary rainforest[6].

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is home to one of Singapore's remaining patches of primary rainforest.

The idea of forest reserves came about in 1884, when the British realised that forest lands were being cleared excessively and too rapidly. Ironically, most of the forest reserves that were initially set aside were not saved, except for small remnant patches of primary rainforest found in Bukit Timah (the largest and least disturbed patch) and around the MacRitchie Reservoir (protected as a water catchment since 1909). It is estimated that only 10-30% of the known flora in Singapore is extinct[5], although 99.9% of the original forest has been cleared. Despite this, there are many more floristic species in Singapore’s forest, which remain to be discovered. In addition, some currently believed to be extinct have also been rediscovered[6].

A case in point, Singapore recently discovered a species of native ginger (Zingiber singapurense) in 2014[7], and two species of Hanguana (Hanguana rubinea and Hanguana triangulate) in 2015, all new to science. The Minister for National Development also mentioned that 30 plant species thought to be extinct in Singapore have also been rediscovered[8]. The remaining secondary forest areas are very species-rich, with a well dispersed subset of the original rainforest flora, consistent with components of lowland rainforest in the region[9]. However, the high conservation status that has been accorded to the forest landscape and the verdant greenery that Singapore is known for did not happen overnight.

Evolution of policy frameworks

Post-war and independence era: Establishing greenery within the urban fabric for aesthetics, visual respite and softening the built environment (1960s to 1980s)

Combination of policies, backed by institutions, enacting the legislation

Singapore as a "Garden City"
Singapore's "Garden City" initiatives have been ongoing since the 1960s.

Because Singapore has no logging industry, the motivation for greening stemmed from a different objective: Attracting foreign economic investors to the country. The “greening” campaigns started as early as the 1960s, when Singapore just gained independence. At this point in time, the socio-environmental conditions were poor. Slums and litter were a common sight. By planting 10,000 trees annually[10], the government's intention was to create a more pleasant environment for healthy living so as to market Singapore as being a “Garden City”[11], to attract foreign investors. Many similar campaigns such as “Keep Singapore Clean and Green” and “Tree Planting Day” were launched by the government to promote public awareness on the importance of greening the country and to encourage citizen involvement. Greening here also meant a well managed, maintained, and nurtured kind of green, albeit by human intervention, rather than through natural greenery[12]. It is important to note that the policies were driven from a top-down approach during this era, and many of such policies and campaigns, including those mentioned above, are still in effect till the present day.

To achieve the desired greening effect in the shortest possible time, the government carried out mass planting of trees island-wide and on state owned lands. Species selection was done based on “ease of propagation and tree establishment”, hence “instant trees” were used[10]. “Instant trees” are trees that have been propagated in advance at nurseries to about two metres tall, before transplanting them to the desired location. By 1980, the plan to green up Singapore was achieved and the emphasis then turned to other forms of landscaping such as using colours, scent and even planting edible fruit trees to achieve the “Garden City” image.

Moving beyond the greening campaigns, incorporating greenery within a high degree of land use planning and building developments, coupled with strong regulations that are backed legislatively, were used to achieve Singapore’s national strategy of a “Garden City”. After independence, a Garden City Action Committee (GCAC) was formed to strategically oversee and coordinate amongst government agencies to achieve the “Garden City” vision. The committee comprised high level representatives from a variety of government departments that tackled land use, transport, housing and residential planning, industrial planning, and more[13]. The GCAC reported directly to the Prime Minister to ensure government agencies were aligned and ran smoothly to meet the objectives set forth by GCAC, and to keep a close eye on the issues encountered.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens was merged with the Parks & Trees Unit in 1973, and became the Parks and Recreation Department (PRD) under the ambit of the Ministry of National Development (MND) in 1975[14]. In the same year, the Parks and Trees Act was passed in parliament to give the PRD statutory power over the development, protection, and regulation of public parks and gardens, and for the preservation and growing of trees and plants in Singapore[13]. In addition, laws were enacted to set aside land for trees to be planted along roadsides, in carparks, and housing estates, and to enforce planting of greenery. Other land use and planning government agencies such as the housing & residential and industrial agencies were also aligned and adopted these regulations in their respective development planning.

In July 1996, the PRD was renamed as NParks, and it was charged with the administration, development and promotion of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Fort Canning Park and the Nature Reserves as resources for recreation, research, education and conservation. Lastly, many of such committees and departments were set up over the years – some were merged, and some, including GCAC, are still serving its function today – showing Singapore’s commitment to the “Garden City” vision[13].

Trees along Singapore roads
Regulatory policies ensure that greenery considerations are factored into all aspects of Singapore's urban planning, from the development of roads, to housing and more.

Greening of public infrastructure

To mitigate the harsh urban landscape that Singapore was quickly turning into after independence, trees and shrubs were intentionally planted at or along all public infrastructure. For example, trees were planted en masse along roadsides, road dividers and carparks to break the hot and harsh environment. Shrubs were planted along planter troughs along both sides of pedestrian overhead bridges and flyovers. Creepers and climbers were planted to camouflage the columns of bridges and retaining walls. Expressways were purposefully designed and built with gaps in between, allowing sunlight to penetrate onto the plants growing in the gaps. All of the planted vegetation had to undergo strict maintenance regimes and inspections. Trees and shrubs were trimmed and “trained” not to obstruct traffic like double-decker buses, traffic lights, signages, and more[13].

These mitigation measures for visual respite and softening the built environment were so successful that they eventually became a planning parameter for urban planning in Singapore and are used as a standard construction design for all new streets and roads[12].

Greening within proposed developments (public and private land)

The strong planning regulations also translated into statutory plans for each local area within Singapore, depending on the type of developments, regardless of whether they are situated on private or public lands, or whether they are considered a redevelopment or a new development. The statutory plans dictate how much greenery should be incorporated within and around the buildings. In some cases, existing trees are retained and incorporated into the proposed development plans[10]. For example, a section under the Parks and Trees Act spells out that it is mandatory for any proposed development to meet certain standards in landscaping, tree planting and greenery provision. For planting areas of developments that abut public roads, the respective land owners shall be required under the law to green up the property. At the same time, the legislation also made it an offence for people to wilfully damage trees, plants and turf areas[13].

In other parts of Singapore, tree planting was done vigorously in public residential estates, setting an example for the private sector to follow suit. To complement the above-mentioned policies, the government also threw in incentives through government nurseries, by selling trees and plants at discounted rates so as to encourage people to buy and plant trees[15]. Political leaders also carried out tree planting within their constituencies. Over the years, the planting of trees and shrubs in public places spread from housing estates, to parks and schools, involving students and community groups. Mass tree planting events are often timed with the monsoon and rainy season in Singapore to minimise the effort and cost of watering to achieve tree establishment[16].

Stable economy: Safeguarding green spaces as a refugia for biodiversity (1990s)

As Singapore’s economy developed and stabilised, expectations of a higher quality living environment increased. The paradigm shift in policies focusing on natural conservation happened in the 1990s, as a culmination of a number of factors both nationally and globally. These new policies that were introduced were meant to complement and add on to the greening policies of the 1960s – 1980s.

Tree Conservation Areas

Two areas in Singapore that totaled 4,900 ha, which encompassed both privately and state owned lands, were identified for their large extent of greenery and natural heritage that were worth conserving[17]. The areas, which contain vegetation of around 50 – 100 years old, were gazetted as “Tree Conservation Areas” on 2 August 1991, and are meant to protect mature trees planted during different periods of Singapore's development as far back as colonial days[13]. Trees above 1 m in girth are legally protected, and written approval to fell such trees are required regardless of whether there are development works on site.

Mount Faber
Development policies in the 1990s incorporated natural topographical features into the design and development of parks. Hilltop parks like Mount Faber were used for their vantage point to give panoramic views of the city.

Sensitive design of park development by retaining its natural features

Cookie cutter parks were designs of the past, where the land was cleared, flattened and amenities were introduced alongside planting. Policies during this era moved towards adopting natural topographical features and slopes as part of new park design and development. For example, hilltop parks like Mount Faber were used for their vantage point to give panoramic views of the city. East Coast Park, as its name suggests, retained its sandy beaches and priceless seafront views. In the development of the Bukit Batok Town Park, instead of filling and levelling the abandoned granite rock quarry on the site, the quarry was landscaped to form part of the park's unique differential point from the other parks in Singapore[18].

Forest restoration and rehabilitation

Because Singapore does not have any indigenous timber industry, and historically, neither were the forests used for the commercial extraction of forest products, reforestation and rehabilitation efforts in Singapore's forests are led by the government. The motivation stems from the government’s desire to maintain important ecosystems for recreation, tourism, research, education, and awareness. Meaning, the efforts to reforest and rehabilitate comes with a different emphasis[17], as compared with other "traditional" community forests in the region.

The 1991 tree planting campaign was a turning point as it was the first time tree planting moved away from housing estates and parks and into the nature reserves. The spotlight shone on public restoration efforts to improve the degraded vegetation at Upper Peirce Reservoir Park, where 300 saplings of native species were planted. This was meant to signal the government’s move away from keeping Singapore clean and green, towards restoring biodiversity and greenery, and rescuing Singapore’s remaining natural heritage[13]. Between 1991 to 2005, 15 ha of nature reserves had been replanted with 17,000 saplings of 150 species. The saplings were obtained from multiple sources by raising them from seeds of native stock, salvaging from other forest patches or purchasing from nurseries[17]. The reforestation programmes were not only seen as an opportunity to restore degraded forest landscapes and accelerate succession to a late secondary forest with a primary forest component, but also to raise public awareness on the importance of ecosystems. The forest restoration and rehabilitation programmes often involved volunteers, students, community groups, and employees of corporate sponsors to help with weeding and planting of native trees.

Singapore's first Green Plan as part of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit

Singapore launched its first Green Plan in 1992, in line with the fact that the nation state was a signatory to the Convention of Biological Diversity, June 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The plan explicitly set aside 5% of land (forests, marshlands, mangrove swamps, and areas of ecological merit) for nature conservation. The purpose was to conserve the diversity of Singapore’s flora and fauna and protect their natural habitats[13]. 19 sites covering around 3,130 ha were identified based on landscape and wildlife and had to meet the criteria of an ecologically stable natural environment, capable of supporting and sustaining a large variety of wildlife[10]. To further signal the government’s intention to support nature conservation, the Green Plan was captured under the Parks and Waterbodies layer within the Master Plan, which is the statutory land use plan in Singapore.

Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Sungei Buloh was gazetted as a nature park in 2002, growing the list of Singapore's nature reserves.

The Sungei Buloh Nature Park, one of the 19 sites identified, was completed in the later part of 1993 and opened to the public. It is a 87 ha wetland site made up of a variety of landscapes including mangrove swamps, coconut groves and remnants of prawn and fish ponds. It is Singapore's first nature park and the haunt of some 141 species of birds as well as other wildlife[13]. This nature park was subsequently gazetted in 2002, adding on to the list of Singapore’s nature reserves.

Later versions of the Green Plan evolved to include environmental sustainability practices in development and included consultations with environmental non-governmental groups (ENGOs) and citizens[19]. One of the critical components of the Singapore Green Plan 2012 was to conserve nature by replacing natural areas wherever development has disturbed it, providing information on indigenous flora and fauna through biodiversity surveys and creating new parks and Park Connectors (islandwide network of linear parks that link major parks and other nature areas, taking on an integrated approach of ‘greenery, conservation, education and recreation’). A new division within NParks called the National Biodiversity Centre (NBC) was also set up in conjunction with the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). NBC launched the Singapore Biodiversity Index[19], which is being used to benchmark the extent of biodiversity conservation in cities across the world[20]. At the 2012 World Cities Summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong introduced the concept of “biophilia” and explained that “in the next phase, our aim is to build a ‘City in a Garden’, to bring green spaces and biodiversity to our doorsteps”[11].

Present day policies: Biophilic City in a Garden

The concept of a "city in a garden", or a biophilic urbanism[21], goes beyond the simple landscaping design of green spaces, parks and nature reserves, and points to a more complex network of green connectors (above ground and at-grade), criss-crossing all over the city, making it so pervasive[19] and impossible for the inhabitants to be excluded from this privileged relationship with nature. Greenery is “infiltrated” at all levels along with green sustainable processes related to storm water management[20], and green roof insulation is combined with renewable solar energy to reduce energy requirements and to combat the urban heat island effect. As part of the Singapore National Climate Change Strategy, greenery continues to be acknowledged as having a critical role to mitigate climate change, and hence is included as a continuing strategy in today’s context[17].

Hotel Parkroyal on Pickering
Accessible green spaces at the Hotel Parkroyal on Pickering.

Green buildings to create microclimates

The policies implemented today exploit the three dimensional use of high-rise buildings in the Singapore urban fabric, turning them into urban ecosystems containing microclimates that aid additional habitat creation opportunities. These include green walls, green roofs, and sky gardens, and incorporate buildings as part of the forest landscape. Playing up the third dimension can also create an environment with higher biodiversity, compared to the traditional parks and gardens that are one-dimensional[11]. Policies like the NParks Skyrise Greenery Incentive Scheme 2.0 (SGIS) help fund up to 50% of installation costs[11] of rooftop greenery and vertical greenery, and it applies to all building types, whether new or retrofitted[22]. Others include the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises (LUSH 3.0). LUSH 3.0 requires buildings (new or refurbished) to replace 40% of the entire development footprint or floor plate coverage of a building with accessible green spaces for people to use and enjoy in exchange for bonus gross floor areas i.e. these must be done with green roofs, green walls or green balconies. Recently, rooftop urban farming has also been included and supported under the scope of this policy[23]. In this way, the whole city is designed to have access to nature, no matter how dense the built environment has become.

Nature Ways to enhance ecological connectivity

Nature Ways essentially enhance the existing roadside planting verges into green corridors, using a series of planting palettes that replicate the forest structure. A combination of trees, shrubs and ground cover are used to mimic habitats found in natural forests. These corridors are typically extended out from places of high biodiversity[19], like the nature reserves towards urban communities, creating immediate habitats and bringing nature closer to the public. They comprise of the emergent, canopy, understorey and shrub layers – providing nesting sites for birds, shelter and food for birds and butterflies, or acting as host plants for butterflies, habitats for insects and spiders that birds feed on[24].

Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park
The biophilia concept was integrated at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, where a concrete canal was converted into a 2 mile meandering river. The naturalised waterways act as a playground and also serves to manage storm water.

ABC water management strategies

The ABC (Active, Beautiful, Clean) master plan aims to treat water using natural processes[19], ensuring good water quality in the waterways, thereby benefitting the community. They also improve biodiversity and are an important biophilic feature. An example is in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, where a concrete canal was converted into a 2 mile long meandering river park[20], showing how biophilia can be introduced and achieved[19] through water-sensitive urban design. After the canal walls were demolished, the waterway was widened to create gradual slopes. Trees were planted back on the slopes to filter rainwater, before it flows back into the riverbanks. In this way, the naturalised waterways provide a water playground for families and naturally slow down the water flow, emergency lights and sirens attached to a smart control system along the catchment enable clear direction to be given to the public whenever storms threaten to flood the waterway, and significant increases in biodiversity have been measured.[11].

Ground-up initiatives to drive nature conservation

As part of Singapore’s strategy to conserve the natural heritage, NParks developed the Community in Nature (CIN) initiative[19], which aims to synergise all nature-related events and activities, to better reach out to the community, encouraging them to bond over and with nature. This is meant to be a bottom-up initiative by introducing programmes to foster community stewardship, raise public awareness and involvement in biodiversity conservation[25]. The target audience varies across the slew of programmes that are run. Families can choose to experience nature through programmes like “Families for Nature”, where families bond over nature appreciation as a social activity. For schools, they can nurture students by including nature-related themes into the school curriculum. “Every Child a Seed” is a programme where every student is provided with a plant starter kit to grow their own plant, and greening of school premises can be carried out through programmes like “Greening Schools for Biodiversity”. The “Community in Bloom”[26] programme was launched in 2005 to help foster enthusiasm by residents, workers, and students, to contribute towards gardening in the community. The programme is largely a response to the demand from community groups for a closer daily connection to nature. Increasingly, the groups are working on food production, often on the rooftops of buildings[11]. For passionate volunteers and conservation groups, NParks provides them with relevant information and resources in their conservation efforts. To the general public, who could be just starting out to venture into nature, they could participate in the nationwide BioBlitz, Intertidal Watch, Butterfly Watch, Dragonfly Watch and Bird Watch programmes, which are just some of the citizen science programmes to equip the public with biodiversity identification and conservation knowledge[27].

Technology for research and management

With the proliferation of smartphones, NParks is also promoting long-term wildlife monitoring through citizen science[19]. The SGBioAtlas app allows users to take photos, record, geo-tag, upload, and identify biodiversity through the app. The information is collated and stored in an online Biodiversity and Environment Database System (BIOME). The SGBioAtlas is intended to become a database of biodiversity distribution that can be used as a management and research tool[28]. NParks also manages the 6 million trees under their care by using drones and resistographs to carry out the inspection of trees and monitor forest fires, using Light Detection And Ranging (LiDAR) and the geospatial information system (GIS) to do analysis and modelling, and using camera traps and sensors to gather data on wildlife monitoring and coral dispersal[29].


The policies related to Singapore’s natural landscapes have undoubtedly evolved over time. Again, all of such policies in themselves, are purposefully formulated to be complementary to one another. This has been done systematically and intentionally across all levels and sectors, institutions and legislation, to drive home Singapore’s goal of a biophilic city in a garden, ingrained with biophilia, sustainability, biodiversity, technology, conservation planning, environmental stewardship, community support, and citizen science at the heart of it. Singapore has demonstrated that a mixture of top-down and bottom-up approaches are all part of the mix for empowering innovative change, and having a strong governance system is paramount.

The need to balance between development and conservation has constantly pushed the nation state to adapt, and explore ways on how sustainable development can be achieved while continuing to conserve nature and biodiversity. In this sense, the forest landscape in Singapore is seen as a political product.


Environmental conservation has to be driven by the grassroots movement, so that the greenery Singapore has so painstaking conserved will not be taken away so easily. It is even more dire that the future generations of Singaporeans do not take this for granted and should act as erudite stewards who champion for nature's conservation. In the words of Baba Dioum, an African forestry engineer who made this famous statement in 1968, when he presented his paper on natural resource management to the General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), "In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."[30]


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Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Lu Jilun.