Clean and Green


The first time I went to Singapore — in April, 2000 — the city state was in the middle of a “Clean and Green: That’s the Way We Like It” campaign. That was nothing unusual, I discovered later, but as I wandered around this densely populated island nation I was impressed by just how green and how clean it was.

I’d gone there to look at the Singapore Botanical Garden for my book Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens, and I didn’t know what to expect. Shortly before somebody had been flogged for marijuana possession and there was much rumbling about what a police state the place was. So I was surprised when I was there for several days before I saw anyone in uniform besides a cop directing traffic. And I was amazed at what a green place this city of high-rises was. When I decided to do a book exploring the ways that people interact with nature in urban settings — Green City People, Nature and Urban Places (Véhicule Press, 2006) — Singapore was at the top of my list of cities to check out. I visited twice in 2005, and I came away even more impressed.

Singapore is an island about 250 kilometers north of the equator, and 13 hours ahead in time of the east coast of North America. It’s hot all year round, and as soon as you go outside you’ll meet the smells and the sights of a tropical paradise. Orchid and bromeliads grow on big trees shading thoroughfares, bougainvillea cascades from pedestrian walkways over roadways, well-tended gardens surround tall buildings where more almost all of the city’s 4.5 million people live.

The gorgeous greenery is the result of 40 years of concerted effort — annual tree planting days began shortly after independence in the mid-1960s, and over the years government agencies have worked out just what grows best in what kind of location. “I have always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle, destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits,” Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, said early on. This push to plant became one of the hallmarks of his leadership, as was the re-housing of Singapore’s population.


In the 1960s, Singapore set out to rehouse its population in Le Corbusier-inspired apartment blocks, and succeeded better than any place else. HDB photo

At independence about a quarter of Singapore’s population — 500,000 of two million — were living in slums, in overcrowded two story shophouses or in shanties built along the waterfront. Using capital from a compulsory retirement saving scheme, Lee’s government built apartment blocks in which people were encouraged to buy their own flats. Initially poor families got first crack at the new housing, but over the years eligibility requirements have been expanded: now even young couples with middle-class incomes are eligible. Today some 85 per cent of all Singaporeans live in flats built and administered by the Housing and Development Board, and of them, more than 90 cent own their own flat.


Toa Payoh, the first Housing and Development Board “new town,” has recently had both its buildings and its landscaping upgraded. HDB photo

Ownership appears to have been one of the keys to the success of the multi-story housing estates. People obviously feel they have a stake in their housing, which has not been the case elsewhere in the world where governments, inspired by Le Corbusier’s urban planning ideas, put up apartment blocks. Nor are the blocks ethnic ghettos, as they became in cities as varied as Chicago, St. Louis, and London. Singapore has three main ethnic groups — Chinese, Malay and South Asian — and each block must contain a representative sampling of each group. Critics say the practice was instigated to make ethnic block voting impossible, but it also has meant that people of different backgrounds live as neighbors. Similarly, each housing development includes some more expensive, privately built: neighborhoods without class or ethnic tension were part of Lee’s vision for Singapore. In order to attract foreign investment, Singapore must become a peaceful city, he wrote on several occasions .

Public transportation is excellent, cars are taxed heavily, and much thought has been given to placing shopping and employment within or next to residential areas. All this has been accomplished while maintaining the small enclaves of original jungle that remained at independence. And, of course, millions of bushes and trees have been planted so that walking down a street is a green experience.

Singapore has many critics. Some say it’s a Nanny State where creativity is stifled. Others point out that dissidents, while not disappeared the way they might have been in Stalin’s USSR or Mao’s China, certainly aren’t allowed to be heard. As for the lack of a uniformed police presence, well, the critics say, there is more than one way to control how people behave: polite indoctrination can be very effective.

But on the whole, Singapore is an experiment that has worked pretty well. Its combination of carefully nurtured green space and high density housing should be considered as a model elsewhere when planners and ordinary folk try to figure a way out of the Green Paradox, where the desire to claim a bit of nature for our own leads to urban sprawl.

I had a good time each time I visited Singapore, too. People were friendly and helpful, and taxi drivers bitched to me about the government the way they do in many other cities. The only remotely bad experience I had actually can be seen as just how well the place is run.

On my first trip I hoped to defray my travel expenses by doing a couple of travel pieces, so I booked three separate hotels in different parts of town before I left home. The first place was a modest hotel catering to middle rank businessmen and was fine, but my plan had me changing hotels the day I was to have dinner with some friends. In mid-morning I made the switch, noticing only that the room I got in this other place was a little bigger than the first, and the decorating scheme ran to red and gold. Then I headed out to a couple of appointments, followed by an excellent dinner in a downtown hotel. It wasn’t until I approached the hotel about 10:30 p.m. that I saw the sign out in front: Four hours for $40.

The clerk on duty looked at me curiously — after all I’m a quite respectable-looking middle-aged woman and I was alone. As I went upstairs I didn’t see anyone else, but as soon as I got ready for bed I began to hear noises coming from the rooms on other side—interesting noises, VERY interesting noises. Obviously the hôtels de passe are so well run in Singapore that at first glance you can’t tell them from ordinary modest hotels.

I lasted until 7 a.m. when I called the third hotel I had a reservation for, to ask if I could come over right away. No problem, I was assured, so I had a cab called for me and fled in the early morning light.


Much of Singapore’s traditional housing has been razed over the last 40 years, but some shophouses have been renovated.

Next up: Kochi, Kerala State, India. Urban sprawl of a different sort.

This entry was written by Mary Soderstrom , posted on Friday August 10 2007at 07:08 pm , filed under Asia Pacific, Environment, Politics, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

11 Responses to “Clean and Green”

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Although the Singaporean/Corbusian model for living certainly works for Singapore, I disagree with the suggestion that it could be successfully implemented in most Western societies.

    Singapore is a Confucian society, 75% Chinese, where people democratically vote for strong-handed governments BECAUSE they suppress all forms of dissent and value the collective good. The state has the highest per-capita execution rate in the world–almost three times more than Saudi Arabia, which comes second. The Corbusian model works because most Singaporeans don’t think outside the textbook and want to live in the same kind of pastel mausoleum high-rise as their neighbour.

    There is too much of a strong individualistic streak in Western Society for the Corbusian model to work. Freedom of thought + expression are too deeply anchored in our societies for the majority of the population to accept living in large anonymous pastel tower blocks. People want their own plot of land, their own private yard, or something that they can decorate and set up according to their own personality and taste.

    The only Western societies where the Corbusian model has worked moderately well are the Scandinavian countries. That’s because Scandinavians are more orderly and respectful than the rest of us (and, thankfully, a lot more creative than Singaporeans!)

  • Patrick Donaovan writes:

    “People want their own plot of land, their own private yard..”

    And that is a large part of the problem facing the world. I call it the Green Paradox, that by claiming our own bit of nature we destroy it, both by paving it over to build the roads suburb an development requires, and by becoming so dependent on fossil fuels. It was to explore this paradox that I wrote Green City: People, Nature and Urban Palces (Véhicule Press, 2006). The Singapore model is one of sseveral I look at–and I found it far more humane that I expected.

    Partily this is because people do have”something that they can decorate and set up according to their own personality and taste,” as Donavon so nicely puts it. Because so many people own their own flats, they have a great stake in where they live, and it shows in the city.

    As for the execution rates: I find them shocking, and I’m trying to follow up to see just how accurate that estimate is. The figures appear to come from an Amnesty Internationial report made in 2004, but where the AI figures come from is not immediatelly apparent. Just for the record, I’ve written Urgent Action letters for AI for 25 years.

    But I wouldn’t use this unpleasant fact about Singapore to damn everything that has been accomplished there in tackling problems of housing and green.

  • Patrick, what about Hong Kong? It’s even more Chinese than Singapore, but it’s also much less traditionally Confucian. There is a stronger individualistic streak there and less tolerance of heavy-handed governance — witness the huge protests in support of full democracy. Yet, despite being the most “Westernized” city in Asia, HK is also a society where most people live in vast highrise complexes. As a result, most of Hong Kong’s land remains undeveloped and most of its is protected greenspace.

    I’m cynical about Lee Kwan Yew’s brand of “Confucianism,” which seems designed chiefly as a convenient excuse for Southeast Asian autocrats to quash dissent and cultivate an oppressive papa-knows-best approach to governance. What holds true for Singapore does not necessarily apply to other Chinese societies. Confucian principles inform Chinese culture, yes, but so do many other things, and the ideology of “Confucianism” as promoted by Asia’s conservative elites is really just a way to assert control.

  • Steve Boland says:

    HDB housing is banal and mechanistic, but covenant-bound North American subdivisions aren’t?

    When I visited Singapore, I was struck by just how lively public spaces could be in a city where so much of the built form is Corbusian–and that extends to some of the most egregious tower-in-a-park settings, in the new towns. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, although I tend to chalk most of it up to culture–both S’porean culture, and Western cultural biases. I suspect we sometimes make too much of the impact of architectural models on human behavior.

  • Jay says:

    I’m sorry but am I the only one who finds the not-so-subtle book plugs obnoxious? I just thought I’d ask since I’m currently doing research for my upcoming work, “Why I’m an asshole.”

  • Dear Jay

    Sounds like a terrific book.

    But seroiusly, you touch on two of the big problems with the Internet and the blogosphere.

    1) How do you evaluate the credibility of interventions?


    2) How can you make sure that people who have something carefully considered and well-researched to say can afford to spend the time necessary to make posts worth reading?

    Saying that the observations to follow are drawn from the research that went into a book is one way to flag the post as being considerably more serious than hastily drawn impressioins presented without reflection.

    Similarly, doing all that research, taking the time to reflect on what one has seen, heard and read, and then writing something that is interesting for others to read is an expensive proposition in terms of time and foregone income from other sources. In the case of Green City, the research took three years more or less and the writing, another 10 months. I’m not an academic, I’ve never had a grant for my non-fiction (although I have for my fiction), and my income basically comes from various sorts of journalism –and book sales. Hence the plug in the post. I’m scheduled to do three more essays–on Kochi, India, Shanghai and São Paulo–and the only way I can justify taking the time to write them is to include the name of the book and who published it.

    Sorry if you find it annoying, but that’s the way it is.

    Best wishes


    Urbanphoto, like most other Internet forums doesn’t pay anything.

  • As Mary explained, her series of contributions to Urbanphoto are based on the research and experience that went into her book, so I don’t find anything particularly obnoxious about her plugs.

  • Zvi says:

    Patrick, Vancouver has done quite well with their own brand of ‘clusters of glass buildings around communal interior green spaces.’ Perhaps it is the ‘confucian’ influence there as well, although I don’t know too many BC planners or politicians who are Chinese…. Perhaps it is the idyllic surroundings (the mountains and the sea) which encourage peaceful contemplation of the universe, perhaps it is the good herbs…. The biggest criticism there is that they are not building for diverse needs – they are basically creating efficient well-designed vertical suburbs!

    Personally I think that private ownership may be the key to maintaining public order. Whatever the reason, it is worth keeping in mind that the percentage of households which correspond to the ‘nuclear family’ ideal (ie those most suitable for suburbia) is not getting any larger. In fact, as our populations age, we will need more and more smaller apartments which don’t require a lot of maintenance!

    Mary- I am going to Malaysia in a few weeks! I won’t have much time for wandering around, but it will be interesting to contrast KL with Singapore.

  • Zvi, you’re right that Vancouver is often criticized for “not building to diverse needs,” but I’ve thought about that on both of my recent trips and I think that criticism is misguided. It certainly applies to the condos being built in Toronto more than those in Vancouver.

    In Yaletown and the Concord Pacific lands, where the bulk of Vancouver’s recent downtown condo construction has been, there is actually a very diverse array of apartments. One of the things that really strikes me is how many kids there are: the playgrounds always seem to be full and a new elementary school was built there in 2003, the first new inner-city school in several decades. The demographics of many condo towers seem to be more diverse than some let on: they’re not all grey-haired retirees or wealthy expatriates.

    Of course, Vancouver’s real Achilles heel is the relative lack of social mixity: there is social housing scattered around the new developments but not nearly enough to achieve a proper income or class balance. Still, though, Vancouver does much better than most other North American cities in this regard.

    Now I’ve taken this discussion really off-track…

  • Donal Hanley says:

    In response to Steve Boland, who wrote”I suspect we sometimes make too much of the impact of architectural models on human behavior.”, I would point out that, assuming choice is available, different models appeal to different types of people so that the type of person living in a place may differ by model. Further, although the model may not impact people’s desire to behave in a given way, it may well impact their ability to do so.
    For example, I used to live in Tokyo and was struck by the lack of public gathering places, such as great sqaures, and the lack of places to sit – whether deliberately or not it makes large scale demonstrations difficult.
    Another example – I live midweek in Orange County, CA – there are few sidewalks so walking is rarely an option. Most places to drive to are shopping malls – on private ground and thus with limited free spech rights. And no welcome for the homeless! This is by design.
    I myself was in Singapore this year for the first time and was struck by the cleanliness, greenness and orderliness of the place – it reminded me of Orange County!
    Finally, and not in response to Steve, I did not take Mary’s references to her books as plugs (tho she admits they are) – they gave a context to her posts.

  • Evan Druce says:

    “…assuming choice is available, different models appeal to different types of people so that the type of person living in a place may differ by model. Further, although the model may not impact people’s desire to behave in a given way, it may well impact their ability to do so.”

    Exactly. Anyone (like that blowhard Joel Kotkin) who argues that the beige subdivisions of today’s America exist because people prefer them to real cities is WRONG. Americans didn’t choose suburbia (at least not in the form it currently exists in), suburbia chose them. When they were priced out of San Francisco, driven from the Bronx by gun crime, or forcibly relocated from Buffalo by a CEO wanting to rake in a little more profit by shifting his disposable workers to North Carolina, they were forced into suburbia.

    Why has no revolutionary or radical thought been able to take hold in the United States (or if it has, it has been relegated to a few minuscule pockets of urbanity on the country’s fringes, like San Francisco, Portland, or Chicago) in the past 40 years? Because it’s been suburbanized out of us. By making it impossible for people to organize freely, to exchange ideas, to protest, suburban sprawl has made this nation a monocultural mass reveling in the status quo.