Singapore: A city in a garden

By Meg Liptrot

Meg Liptrot is overawed by the efforts being made to turn Singapore green.

The Supertree Grove is lit against Singapore's skyline. Photo / Getty Images
The Supertree Grove is lit against Singapore's skyline. Photo / Getty Images

As we walked across the Garden Bay bridge from Singapore's waterfront, the vision before us was unexpected and overwhelming.

As we're used to not much more than the highlife on Ponsonby Rd, the first view of 18 Supertrees (some up to 16 storeys high) and two giant glasshouse biomes (the largest the size of a couple of football fields) caused a physical reaction akin to that freaky first scene of the alien tripods emerging from the earth in War of the Worlds. The frequent forked lightening, thunderclaps and heavy skies of a tropical rainstorm only heightened the effect.

We were in Singapore last November, the same week the Bay South section of the enormous Gardens by the Bay development opened for a public preview. The Flower Dome, the size of two football fields, is the largest of two glasshouse biomes and was available for a sneak peek. It has a changing flower exhibition space surrounded by a permanent botanical museum of plants from Mediterranean-type climate regions.

The Cloud Forest dome is a smaller but taller glasshouse. It showcases Tropical Montane plant species, has a vegetation covered "mountain" and a 30m waterfall at its heart.

Outside, themed tropical Heritage gardens celebrating Singapore's ethnic diversity are on permanent display and free to visit. We could see the last stages of the Supertrees being built as welders gave finishing touches to the huge, funnel-like structures.

These will be home to more than 162,900 bromeliads, orchids, ferns and tropical climbers and are designed to provide a shaded canopy for visitors during the heat of the Singapore day. One of these giant trees will have a cafe on top, complete with an aerial boardwalk, and 11 will have solar panels to power their colourful night lighting.

The Gardens by the Bay idea was developed by the Singapore National Parks Board. An international design competition was held and architects were invited to submit their design concepts for the project.

A total of 70 entries were submitted by 170 firms from 24 countries. In 2006, two British architectural firms were chosen. Bay South, the largest garden at 54ha, is designed by Grant Associates, which had previously worked on the famous Kew Gardens' glasshouses in London. Bay East, a 32ha aquatic garden is under development, designed by Gustafson Porter.

Kenneth Er, CEO of Gardens by the Bay, explains that the greening of Singapore was started in the 1960s, by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

"Over the years, the challenge was to take the greening effort to the next level. The idea was to transform the whole of Singapore into a garden, where urban development is nestled within and integrated with gardens, parks and lush streetscapes," says Er.

The gardens are built on newly reclaimed land at Singapore's waterfront. The concept for the biomes was to represent ecosystems under threat from habitat loss and climate change. It is a giant plant museum, but also much more; a likely rival to the Eden Project in Cornwall, England.

Plants are inherently fascinating and it is unusual to have such a huge collection from six continents in one place. Bay South features mature specimens, including gnarled olive trees brought in from Spain and huge Dr Seuss-like baobabs from Africa.

Singapore defines itself as a destination rather than just a stopover, and hotspots such as Sentosa Island offer plenty of entertainment options in Disneyland style.

Gardens by the Bay will make Singapore a serious international destination for garden lovers. Even if you're not into plants, the gardens make a jaw-dropping first impression.

A Brazilian botanist, also formerly of Kew Gardens, is employed to advise on the management of the exotic specimens. She said it would be interesting to see how some of the plants handle the length of Singapore's long days and reduced seasonal variation as they are much closer to the equator than their original habitats, particularly for flowering and pollination.

The "edu-tainment" aspect of the gardens will be valuable for locals and visitors alike.

The Flower Dome includes a corridor with floor-to-ceiling interactive digital panels teaching their willing participants how they can help prevent deforestation and climate change. It had us and a bunch of kids entertained, waving our arms as fast as we could to create gardens on rooftops and walls to green a city, or chopping down a forest to find out the resulting consequences.

As the sunset faded and the darkness of the night sky enveloped the dome, lighting illuminated the eerie sculptural forms of the baobabs. I chatted to one of the architects from Grant Associates, responsible for the vision before us.

When questioned on the sustainability of this huge project, particularly in relation to transporting exotic plant material from around the world and the inevitable energy costs, he said it was a question of bringing nature to the people to make it real and tangible versus not doing it at all.

In the balmy Singapore evening, we wandered around the gardens and down to the water's edge. The boardwalks and natural planting offer an escape from the visual overload.

This natural area feels more like home and is a peaceful aside to catch one's breath and take in the reflections of the dramatic lighting and city skyline. Jagged channels cut knife-like down the stepped access way to the water and are an intriguing landscape feature, providing the unexpected sound of rushing water as we meander along the boardwalk.

This month, following two weekends of opening festivities for Gardens By The Bay, the Singapore Garden Festival will open. Christchurch-based landscape architects Danny Kamo, and Andy Ellis have entered a kinetic "cave and quake" creation, based on the Maori God of Earthquakes, Ruaumoko. I'm sure their eccentric vision will be popular.

Singapore will be abuzz with these gardening delights, and there's even more to look forward to as Bay Central and East are developed in years to come, taking the city further toward its goal to become a "city in a garden".

THE GARDENS AT A GLANCE

Gardens by the Bay will eventually comprise three gardens covering 101ha. The first, Bay South, opened on June 29, 2012.

Bay South: This 54ha development features two cooled glasshouse biomes, the largest the size of 2.2 football fields at 1.2ha.

* Around 226,000 plants will feature in the two biomes.

* The Flower Dome is made from 3332 glass panels, each 34mm thick.

* A Combined Heat Power (CHP) biomass steam turbine will produce electricity from horticultural waste from the gardens to cool the conservatories. l Outside the biomes are 18 Supertrees, ranging in height from 25m-50m.

* Four Heritage gardens celebrate the history and culture of Singapore's ethnic groups, and six themed gardens showcase plant biodiversity.

Bay East: A 32ha aquatic tropical garden.

Bay Central: Will cover 15ha and have a 3km waterfront promenade.

Getting there: Bay South Garden is on Marina Gardens Drive, and is linked to Marina Bay Sands by the Garden Bay Bridge. Or catch the MRT train to Bayfront station.

Opening hours: The outdoor gardens are open daily 5am-2am (free entry). The Cooled Conservatories and aerial walkway are open daily 9am-9pm (entry charge).

- Herald on Sunday

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