How Singapore built a culture of sustainable outdoor spaces

From a disorganized township to a sustainable city, Singapore has indeed come a very long way. Increasing pollution, lack of sanitation methods, and high unemployment rates made the 1960s Singapore a typical developing country in East Asia. It was against such a backdrop that Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew felt the dire need for a cleaner, more sustainable environment. According to him, “a blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit” and so “we need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits.” So, on 11th May 1967, PM introduced the vision of ‘Garden City’ - the first big step towards the goal of sustainability in Singapore.

Today, almost half of Singapore’s land is under green cover as it stands first in Asia, and second globally, when it comes to sustainability.

Sustainability in Singapore: the blueprint

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was sustainability in Singapore. Singapore’s continuous efforts to build a culture of sustainability always tied back to one of the following outcomes:

  • a competitive economy that invites investment and offers jobs

  • a sustainable environment, even with limited natural resources

  • a high quality of life for the citizens of Singapore

  • Singapore’s approach to achieving the above outcomes was founded in new and innovative technologies, dynamic governance, and integrated planning and development.

Sustainability in Singapore: the journey explained

Garden City Program

The ‘Garden City Programme’ initiated in the year 1967 by the PM, not only had the aim to transform Singapore into a green and lively city, but also make the city a tourist destination. Embarking on the pursuit of sustainability, the PM planted the first tree himself in the year 1967. And by the end of the year 1970, the city had 55,000 new trees. Later in the year 1971, the tree plantation program was introduced back so that the residents do not forget the big picture. Soon, the Parks and Trees Act, imposed in the year 1975, mandated constructors to reserve some space for trees prior to constructing homes, roads, and parking lots. As a result, Singapore saw a significant rise in the number of trees, from 158,600 in 1974 to 1.4 million by June 2014.

Keep Singapore Clean Campaign

The month-long program named, Keep Singapore Clean, was initiated in the year 1968. The prime aim was to make Singaporeans understand the importance of having a clean city. Several measures were taken to tackle the problem of inconsiderate litterings, such as imposing a fine when someone was found trashing publicly. By the time the program ended, “first-time litter-bugs were fined up to 500 Singapore dollars, while repeat offenders were fined up to 2,000 Singapore dollars.”

The civic authorities shifted the street hawkers, local industries, and other pollution-causing sources to someplace else. Various mass media platforms, such as radio, TV, and magazines were utilized for popularizing the aim of the campaign. Posters reading the slogan ‘Keep Singapore Clean’ were set up in different parts of the city.

Furthermore, there were educational training for citizens, organized by the health authorities. Regular inspections were conducted by the authorities to check the overall impact of the campaign. Besides, competitions were organized to find the cleanest shops, offices, hotels, government offices, and other such public places. The announcement of the winner was made publicly to encourage Singaporeans to keep their city tidy. Pictures of those caught littering were taken and put up on mass media platforms to endorse the seriousness of the campaign and the repercussions of not supporting it.

Another important initiative undertaken for sustainability in Singapore was cleaning up the Singapore river. This endeavor took a decade, but 250 tons of waste was removed from the river. Today, the Singapore river is perfect for aquatic life to thrive and is also a vibrant tourist attraction.

Clean Air Act

This act was sanctioned by the parliament in 1971. The Act aimed to make Singapore pollution-free while the city was in its early phase of industrialization. After a thorough survey, a set of anti-pollution guidelines were published. The report includedsetting up an air pollution control unit, requirements for monitoring efforts, air pollution legislation, future consultancy work as well as general public education.”

Pollutant-causing factories were scrutinized. Stringent laws were imposed to ensure factories installed air pollution control units. Fines were imposed on industries that didn’t follow the laws. The 1972 announcement, which stated that there was no instant danger of smog in Singapore clearly indicated that the campaign was a great success!

Strong leadership and strong legislation in the 1960s set Singapore down the path to become a sustainable city. In addition to that, the citizens were constantly educated. Following the set policy portfolios, Singapore pursued its long-term goals of making the city-state a hub of economic growth while maintaining the ecological sustainability.

Such efforts set the foundation for Singapore to become a sustainable city, and initiatives, like Housing and Development Board powering homes with renewable energy, continue to ensure the city has a low carbon footprint. In fact, the Housing and Development has set an ambitious goal of powering 5,500 blocks with solar by 2020 and further meeting 25% of HDB blocks’ energy needs through solar power by 2025. As Priya Choksi (Co-Founder, ThinkPhi) described during an interview with Channel News Asia, apart from reducing the reliance on fossil fuels, it is also critical for Singapore to focus on energy efficiency initiatives and green building design to reduce overall energy consumption.

Taking inspiration from the success stories of sustainable Singapore, countries across the world, that aspire to become sustainable can carry out similar campaigns, given their disposition.

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Technology for Sustainable Outdoor Spaces