Is Singapore ‘green’ enough?

By Michael Lim / The Edge Property | December 8, 2015 10:00 AM SGT
Planning for the future of any city is not just about having tall high-tech buildings with futuristic designs, says Liu Thai Ker, chairman of Centre of Liveable Cities and senior director of RSP Architects Planners & Engineers. “It is also about usability, liveability and sustainability as well as being environmentally and ecologically friendly,” he says. Liu was speaking on the topic of “Future Cities” at Julius Baer’s Next Generation Summit on Nov 6.
Liu: I commissioned a study and found that it's more ecological friendly to put a 900mm
sunshade than to have vertical greenery
Singapore is well ahead in its planning for the next 30 years with the release in 2013 of its population white paper, land use plan and the URA master plan for the next 30 years, which also included the transport master plan. In mid-2013, URA also said it was exploring the possibility of large-scale underground developments. Last year, it called for a tender for consulting, seeking to “develop a comprehensive and holistic framework to enable more extensive use of underground space in Singapore”.
Going underground Singapore is already using underground spaces for shopping malls, underpasses as well as 12km of expressways and almost 80km of MRT lines. It has also used subterranean spaces for storage, for instance, JTC’s Jurong Rock Caverns, an underground storage facility for oil and petrochemical products. The Singapore Armed Forces has also relocated its Seletar East Ammo Depot to an underground ammunition facility in 2008. The Public Utilities Board (PUB) is currently building the Deep Tunnel Sewage System (DTSS), a massive integrated project to meet Singapore’s long-term clean water needs through the collection, treatment, reclamation and disposal of used water from industries, homes and businesses. Still, former National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who is now Transport Minister, says, “There is scope to do more.”
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Liu, on the other hand, does not believe that going underground is the answer for dealing with land scarcity. He reasons, “Even if people are willing to work or live underground, it would have to be developed at great expense. And it could take a while just to ventilate and cool the space. So it is not eco-friendly at
The 77-year-old former urban planner adds, “If you are short of land, the solution is to find a better way to create a liveable environment above ground, like increasing the density. In my view, going underground is not innovation. Don’t plan according to your ability; plan according to the needs of the city.” Underground shopping centres work because people are not staying there for extended hours, says Liu. “But it is certainly not for offices, schools or residences.”
Peter Edwards, director of Singapore- ETH Centre, says underground storage, for instance, hydro-carbon storage or freight transport “would very sensibly belong underground”.
Even though he is not in favour of increasing the use of subterranean space, Liu is a crusader for planning for a future population of 10 million, which is even more ambitious than the government’s target of 6.9 million by 2030. “If we start planning now, we will know where to allocate future higher density developments such as residential and commercial centres,” he says. “We can also ensure a good-quality environment so that we can still keep our green area, historical districts and landed properties.” By not planning for a population of 10 million now, he warns, “we will run out of space”.
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‘Garden City’ Another challenge for land-scarce Singapore is in upholding its name as a “Garden City”. Developers are encouraged to construct sustainable buildings by incorporating energy and water-saving features. The government has also encouraged developers to explore vertical or sky gardens.
Some developers have already done so. The Tree House, a residential development by City Developments and designed by ADDP Architects, is an example of a private condominium with “the world’s largest vertical garden” of 2,289 sq m, built in 2014, according to the Guinness World Records. Meanwhile, UOL Group’s Parkroyal on Pickering, designed by leading Singapore-based architectural firm WOHA, is considered one of the most environmentally friendly local hotels, with its “hotel- in-a-garden” theme. CapitaLand’s 40-storey CapitaGreen office building, designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, is also considered the most sustainable, with its green façade of living plants and a rooftop wind scoop, which is said to help cool the building naturally.
Liu is sceptical about the actual benefits of such vertical greenery, though. “I commissioned a study and found that it’s more ecologically friendly to put a 900mm sunshade than to have vertical greenery,” he says. “You need a lot of manpower to maintain these vertical gardens. For now, it’s hard to justify vertical greenery as being ecologically friendly. We need more research into this area.”
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According to Edwards, this is one of the studies that the Singapore-ETH Centre’s Future Cities Laboratory is currently undertaking. “It’s an architect’s vision to make beautiful green buildings,” he says. “How would you sustain these green buildings? How do you ensure they actually deliver the full benefits? That is what we will need to study.”
‘A bread oven’ Even as Singapore plans for the future, Edwards suggests that the city needs to look into being liveable, sustainable and environmentally and ecologically friendly. “Singapore has to reduce its carbon footprint, create a natural ecosystem and look into how to reduce the ‘urban heat island’ effect,” he adds. “Urban heat island” refers to a densely populated city or metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas, and Singapore is a classic example of that.
“The reason is that these concrete buildings, roads, pavements and so on hold on to heat like a sort of bread oven, and at night, when the sun goes down, the heat re-radiates from these buildings, and you feel the heat,” explains Edwards.
This article appeared in the City & Country of Issue 703 (Nov 16, 2015) of The Edge Singapore.