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“A city in a garden”: Singapore’s journey to becoming a biodiversity model

MD Staff

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This is the Marina Barrage, a space created by a landfill that overlooks a reservoir and the iconic skyline. Photo by VisualHunt

Biodiversity transformation: Preserving quality of life and urban spaces, Singapore style

You wouldn’t know it today, but in 1965 Singapore was a polluter’s paradise: mucky rivers, polluted canals and raw sewage running rampant. It was a developing country, newly split from neighbouring Malaysia, an island surrounded by waters that now they had to govern on their own.

The incredible journey of Singapore, from a struggling polluted backwater into a global green powerhouse, was not automatic or easy. How it aimed to maintain its environmental momentum, was to take the lessons of history and create a new generation of eco-warriors in its students. The engine behind this is Singapore’s national park service.

The energetic Group Director for National Biodiversity Centre at National Parks Board, Lim Liang Jim, recently shared his vision for Singapore’s future – a future dependent on its students becoming eco-activists and preserving the gains made since the city-state’s gritty early days.

“From 1965 we merely wanted to rise above the region we found ourselves in. Lee Kuan Yew had a plan. Keep us clean. Keep us green.” The city’s pioneer generation, he said, understood that if you make a city “a nice place to live, then people will come and invest. Then we moved up.” Lee Kuan Yew was often called ‘Chief Gardener’ for his belief in the power of plants and biodiversity to transform people’s overall mental well-being, as well as physical spaces.

As a city-state, Singapore had the luxury of a centralized government solely concerned with looking after its citizens’ well-being and future. Biodiversity was not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must-have’ for Singaporeans who wanted to stay in their land and build their new country from the ground up.

The National Biodiversity Centre, for instance, recently developed a high-tech app, the SGBioAtlas. This allows all members of the public (including students) to take a photo of a plant, bird or animal. The app geotags it and uploads it into their central database. Through their smartphones, students as well as ordinary citizens become instant citizen scientists.

Walk around Singapore today, and you will not see smelly, polluted rivers, but plants that literally crawl up skyscrapers, a garden or park in virtually every corner of the city, and teams of eco-volunteers who scour the island nation looking after its wildlife of all stripes.

As Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, stated in his recent Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6) opening address, “in the 1960s, Singapore was like any other developing country – dirty and polluted, lacking proper sanitation and facing high unemployment. These challenges were particularly acute, given our constraints as a small island state with limited resources; we did not even have enough drinking water.”

Singapore, since its break-off from Malaysia in 1965, had no choice but to become one big urban space where its citizens would pack into its urban centre. Less well known, is the difficult and long journey towards sustainable conservation and biodiversity.

With independence came the push to industrialize as fast as possible. According to Minister Zulkifli, “one of Singapore’s transformations involved the cleaning of the Singapore River, which was literally an open sewer in the 1960s and 1970s. The clean-up took ten years and involved thousands of Singaporeans relocating from farms, factories and street-food stalls that were polluting the river catchment. The successful clean-up also set in motion a process to create a reservoir in the heart of the city.”

So how did they manage to become an advanced economy and preserve their environment at the same time? As is the case in many countries, short-term thinking was always going to prioritize economic development over the environment. A mindset shift was needed, said Minister Zulkifli. “Our approach has been to build a liveable and sustainable city, through pragmatic policymaking based on sound economic principles and science; a focus on long-term planning and effective implementation; and the ability to mobilise popular support for the common good.” The message was clear: if Singapore could transform itself from a polluted backwater into a global green powerhouse, so can any city.

For thirty years, the city-state painstakingly cleaned up its polluted areas, created agencies like the National Parks Board, and determined that everywhere one looked, one could find greenery. A concrete jungle was never what the pioneers had in mind. From urban planning to policy inducements to zoning to public awareness campaigns, the successive governments of Singapore have followed this central vision for their nation. They now call it the ‘biophilic City in a Garden,’ and the government calls upon every Singaporean to do their part to keep their city green and clean.

Youth are the key

The current evolution of this vision, says Lim, includes a key component of the Nature Conservation Master Plan (NCMP): outreach. In this vision, they are targeting Singapore’s youth.

“We are going back to history, to ensure that we build from the ground up and ensure that the youth of Singapore don’t take our 50 years of history for granted,” Lim says. With a new generation of Singaporeans who only know clean air and green parks, the lessons of history can easily be forgotten.

“We don’t want that to happen. We want a ground up effort, to appreciate nature more, contribute to the science behind the conservation of nature so it becomes a movement.” A youth movement and a generation which has grown up educated in conservation is insurance, Lim says. “In future if someone says, ‘let’s not think about green, let’s build’, there will be a significant percentage of population” who can act as informed advocates for nature’s conservation and green spaces instead of a modern, first-world city.

The next generation will hopefully buy-in to the vision, he says, that “‘we treasure Singapore’s unique status as a green and biodiverse city and we should work to keep it this way.’” To him, this is the legacy of Singapore’s founding generation he and his team are working to retain and enhance. “We want to ensure the sustainability of our green vision.”

Environmental conservation “has to be something that is driven by the grassroots movement, it has to become in a sense political. You can’t easily turn a nature reserve into buildings, it would require some reasoned discussion with the public. We have to make sure that the younger generation appreciate our nature and biodiversity and not take them for granted.”

UN Environment

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Urban Development

Melaka a model green city

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In the last five years, Melaka has made great strides toward building a sustainable, green city.

By 2020, the government-run 7248ha Melaka World Solar Valley aims to power most of the daily activities of manufacturers, housing developers, farmers and other stakeholders.

Recently, a public-private partnership installed 100,000 LED street lamps along the Alor-Gajah-Melaka Tengah-Jasin Highway, which will improve road safety and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The urban landscape has also changed. Walkable neighbourhoods with mixed-use development have increased foot traffic and reduced car use.

The Melaka River, long a polluted backyard drainage canal, is now a popular gathering place and tourist attraction.

Melaka’s transformation is the result of meticulous planning, a comprehensive approach supported by government policies and projects, private sector engagement and citizen initiatives.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is proud to have worked with Melaka to develop its roadmap, the Green City Action Plan.

In addition to a technical assistance grant to underwrite the plan, which was completed in 2014, ADB also helped Melaka implement it, including by structuring bankable projects for solar energy and street lighting, setting up a database to track indicators in environment and economic growth, and conducting training in urban development, environment planning and knowledge sharing.

The Melaka projects are the first to be implemented under the Green Cities Initiative of the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT), an ADB-supported sub-regional cooperation programme focused on the development of 32 provinces in these three countries.

It aims to help states and provinces discover and use their relative comparative advantages to work together in the sub-region.

So far, four other cities – Songkhla and Hat Yai in Thailand; Medan and Batam in Indonesia – have developed similar plans.

A “green” city means an area that is resilient and inclusive, manages its natural resources well, promotes low carbon growth to remain competitive and improves the livelihoods of all citizens.

With each green city plan, countries are moving away from business-as-usual economic growth models to forge a clear, concise vision for a city’s future based on factors such as comprehensive analysis and consensus among key stakeholders.

These plans present a paradigm shift, where cities pursue integrated urban development and environmental planning as they make a transition to a cleaner, greener and more prosperous future.

The initiative is very relevant, because cities are the primary drivers of economic growth across countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), producing about 70% of the region’s gross domestic product.

Almost 300 million people in Asean already live in cities, and another 90 million people are expected to move in by 2030, pushing up the urban share of the population to nearly 45%.

Urbanisation is placing a growing environmental strain on cities, such as air, water and noise pollution, traffic congestion and inadequate solid waste management.

Tackling these challenges will require city governments to integrate social and environmental considerations into locally customised economic development plans.

It will require innovation, testing and application of new ideas, learning and sharing of lessons, and development of new approaches to emerging challenges.

The Green Cities Conference, to be held on Oct 1 in Melaka, will bring city leaders together to collaborate on green growth strategies.

It also seeks to continue to support the Green Cities Network established under the IMT-GT and the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area.

ADB strongly supports the network of Asean green cities, which serves as a platform for knowledge sharing.

Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of IMT-GT, the conference also provides a window for action following Melaka’s success in transforming into a green city.

It’s time now for policy makers to make their own Green City Action plans a reality. The implementation process requires strong coordination between multiple government agencies, the private sector and communities.

It will also require a management approach easily adaptable to project monitoring, data analysis and citizen feedback.

ADB stands ready to provide knowledge and financial support to further develop competitive, inclusive and green cities across Asean.

ADB

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Urban Development

Urban Tourism: We Need to Build Cities for Residents and Visitors

MD Staff

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At the 7th UNWTO Global Summit on Urban Tourism in Seoul, Republic of Korea (16-19 September), the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Zurab Pololikashvili, laid out a vision looking to 2030 for urban tourism that contributes to sustainable and inclusive cities.

“A vision of urban tourism for 2030 needs to be inclusive, resilient, innovative and smart”, Mr. Pololikashvili said at the conference, which was held in partnership with the Seoul Metropolitan Government and engaged 900 participants from 50 countries in how to build cities for both residents and tourists.

Key amongst the conference conclusions was that technology and innovation will play a key role in this vision, but only if cities invest in the right infrastructure and skills, set an enabling regulatory framework and break the silos that exist among data sources. Speakers also stressed the role that tourists themselves play in respecting the local communities, traditions and values of cities.

The conference was opened by Park Wonsoon, Mayor of Seoul, who stressed that “Seoul has improved its tourism because we have been able to predict changes in tourism, technology, society and environment to follow trends and react appropriately to challenges”.

Do Jonghwan, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea, commended the summit for producing “an array of suggestions on cities’ function and role in tourism, the value and significance of cities to be shared with travellers, and how tourism can bring financial benefits with added values for residents.”

Memorable experiences were discussed at length as a major shift in motivation for tourists. “Tourism is a top sector in the experience economy, which is now becoming the transformational economy – cities, to be competitive, need to be authentic and provide transformational experiences,” said the conference’s keynote speaker B. Joseph Pine II, author of the best-seller ‘The Experience Economy’.

The conference stressed that tourism can and should contribute to the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 11 on safe, resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities.

For that, participants called for tourism to be included in urban governance; led by cooperation among public, private sector and civil society; planned and managed considering local community needs and benefits; and smart in using technology and innovation to promote authentic experiences, monitor tourism impact and promote dispersal policies to spread benefits to the whole city and manage congestion. These four key areas of action will be taken forward to the 8th UNWTO Urban Tourism Summit, to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2019.

On the occasion UNWTO released the report ‘‘Overtourism’? Understanding and managing urban tourism growth beyond perceptions’, produced in collaboration with the Centre of Expertise Leisure, Tourism & Hospitality (CELTH), Breda University of Applied Sciences, and the European Tourism Futures Institute (ETFI) of NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences. The report proposes eleven strategies and 68 measures to help understand and manage visitor growth in cities.

The 7th UNWTO Global Summit on Urban Tourism was organized by UNWTO and the Seoul Metropolitan Government with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea, the Korea Tourism Organization and the Seoul Tourism Organization.

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Urban Development

Creativity, Entrepreneurial Spirit to Form the Blueprint of Innovative Cities of the Future

MD Staff

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Even as new technologies inspire amazement and awe, revolutionizing the way we live our lives, technology leaders from around the globe who have gathered at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions agree that the key elements to the innovative cities and nations of the future are something much more low tech – creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.

Yossi Vardi, Chairman of International Technologies, Israel, argued that creative human beings are the secret to successful businesses and innovative societies. “The most important thing is the human being, the person. The person is number one, number two and number three. The rest is almost irrelevant,” Vardi observed, “If you find someone that is top talent, hire them … This is really the scarce resource. It’s like in Hollywood and every other industry – there is a creative element. Technology is the enabler, but the real offering is creativity.”

Speaking on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Tianjin, industry experts and technology leaders argued that the foundations of innovative nations – entrepreneurs – are built rather than bred.

While many cities and countries are looking to create their own versions of Silicon Valley and emulate its extraordinary success, Christine Tsai, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, 500 Startups, USA, emphasized the importance of capturing its entrepreneurial spirit instead.

“I don’t think it is realistic to say you want to recreate Silicon Valley, because Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley,” noted Tsai, “I think it is more important to think about what are you are trying to bring from Silicon Valley into your market, to help spur entrepreneurship and build the ecosystem that will help start-ups thrive.”

From manufacturing to medicine and agriculture, Qin Jun, Chairman of Junzi Capital, People’s Republic of China, said that new technologies would allow companies in many traditional industries to enter “uncharted waters”, leveraging data to improve their efficiency. Jun stressed the importance of a conducive environment for the business creatives of tomorrow in China, a country working to foster a new generation of creative entrepreneurs.

“The power of capital will facilitate people down this road,” noted Jun, “Having a dream. A sense of responsibility is also very important; I think that is part of the entrepreneurial DNA.”

Envisioning the innovative societies of the future, Liu Xiao, Senior Vice-President of China Vanke, People’s Republic of China, offered some examples of how new technologies are impacting traditional sectors in significant ways.

“New technologies definitely have an impact on real estate. On several different fronts we are already using artificial intelligence,” remarked Xiao, “We are looking at ‘smart gates’ with sensors that have facial recognition. In real estate there are also wind-, sun-, light- and noise-proof calculations and now there are artificial intelligence (AI) applications that can do these calculations for us.”

To democratize the advantages of new technologies – to ensure the positive impacts of technology are far-reaching and effective, pointed out Ryu Jung-Hee, Partner and Chief Executive Officer of Futureplay, Republic of Korea, technology and artificial intelligence can also be leveraged to solve social problems.

“The biggest problem in South Korean society is that we are facing an ageing society and a lack of labour,” he said, “So I think AI can help solve those problems. In medical services too, [we can use] AI features to fight cancer. Our intelligence can be extended by AI, which means our inequality problems can also be helped.”

Today AI is touted as a magic buzzword, but in the innovative cities and nations of the future, technology leaders believe the technology will become a seamless part of our global existence.

“There have already been a lot of practical applications that happen around AI that we probably don’t even realize, a lot of things to do with curation or smarter services that are tailored towards you and your interests,” pointed out Tsai. “As our technologies develop, AI will become like mobile is already; now, you won’t say you are a mobile company because everything already is mobile, it is just part of the infrastructure.”

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