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.”
New Report Shows Shape of Urban Growth Underpins Livability and Sustainable Growth
A first-of-its-kind World Bank analysis, of the shape and growth of nearly 10,000 cities between 1990 and 2015, finds that the most successful urban areas are those that connect their growth to economic demand and then support this with comprehensive plans, policies and investments that help avoid uncontrolled sprawl.
The new report, Pancakes to Pyramids – City Form for Sustainable Growth, analyzes the dynamic, two-way relationship between a city’s economic growth and the floor space available to residents and businesses. It finds that a city is most likely to be its best version when its shape is driven by economic fundamentals and a conducive policy environment – namely, a robust job market, flexible building regulations, dependable public transit and access to essential services, public spaces, and cultural amenities.
Ultimately, getting livable space right, hinges on how a city manages its growth as populations and incomes increase, factoring in three dimensions of expansion – horizontal, vertical or within existing spaces (known as infill), the report finds. This will be key as cities, on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, begin planning for a long-term, resilient, and inclusive recovery.
“Cities are at the frontier of development; they are where people go to chase their dreams of a better life for themselves and their families,” said Juergen Voegele, Vice President for Sustainable Development, World Bank. “This report helps us understand why a city grows outward, inward or up. As we support countries with their COVID-19 recovery efforts, this will also help us reflect on what makes a city livable and remind us that well-planned urban growth is good for both people and planet.”
In the average Sub-Saharan African city, 60 percent of the population lives in slums—a much larger share than the 34 percent average in cities in developing countries. The lack of floor space takes a severe toll on livability—with major consequences in times of pandemics like COVID-19. Many South Asian cities face similar issues.
Horizontal growth is inevitable for most cities. People will continue to migrate to urban areas for opportunities and a better quality of life, so it is crucial for cities to plan for this trend. As urban populations grow, one way to create more space per inhabitant is by building up instead of out. This could also help reduce crowding, discourage long commutes, draw more people to public transit and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. But building tall, or accommodating more people in a city, is dependent on economic demand and the business environment as it requires better technology, large investments, and higher returns on capital.
“Understanding the multiple drivers of city growth—a precondition for livable density in cities—can help city leaders focus on the right policy actions,” said Somik Lall, co-author of the report. “If managed well, cities that take a more pyramid-like shape can provide an impetus to accelerate sustainable development by getting people out of cars, cutting commute times, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.”
Today, around 55 percent of the world lives in urban areas. By 2050, this number is projected to surpass two-thirds of the global population, with much of the new urbanization happening in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. While such growth signals opportunities and better livelihoods for millions of people, it also puts immense strain on cities, especially in countries that contend with low incomes and weak institutional and fiscal capabilities.
By describing how economic productivity shapes decisions by households and firms to locate in cities, and how the quantity and spatial distribution of urban floor space respond to these changes in demand, the report aims to help decision makers sort through competing legal and regulatory approaches, evaluate their investments in infrastructure, and mobilize finance for durable urban investments, particularly for essential services such as transport, water provision, solid waste management, and sewage removal and treatment.
First international online forum Smart Cities Moscow
The first international online forum Smart Cities Moscow ended in Moscow. 86 speakers from Russia, China, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, the United States, Sweden, and other countries spoke at the forum’s business program. More than 193,000 people watched the broadcasts of the panel discussions and sessions.
“A modern approach to digitalization is unthinkable without exchange of experience and conversation between cities. Moscow, being one of the world leaders of digital transformation, acted as a platform for such a conversation, and it is important for us that the international community responded with interest to this initiative. Recent years have especially shown how important it is to develop the IT infrastructure of cities and create online services focused on the daily needs of city dwellers. Synchronization and joint efforts will make megacities even more sustainable, smart and comfortable for living,” said Eduard Lysenko, Minister of the Moscow Government, Head of the Department of Information Technologies of Moscow.
The need for global communities to cooperate in creating and developing smart cities was also stressed by Juwang Zhu, director of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Division of Public Institutions and Digital Government.
“We at the UN support universal interaction in terms of the implementation of new technologies. I am glad that the Smart Cities Moscow forum will now be an annual event. This is very important: to encourage cities to exchange practices, to develop digitalization with the whole world, so that there would be more and more smart cities,” Juwang Zhu said, adding that the greatest benefit of using new technologies was seen by countries during the fight against the pandemic.
The business program of the forum consisted of 15 sessions divided into three main directions: “Smart City Infrastructure and Technologies”, “Smart City for Life”, and “Sustainable Development of Smart City”. The experts shared their experiences of using digital solutions in transport, urban planning, tourism, ecology, energy and other sectors important for the cities. Separate sessions were devoted to piloting 5G networks, application of artificial intelligence in urban processes and big data analysis for urban development planning.
Best practices and ecosystem approach to the digitalization of cities were discussed during the plenary session of the forum. Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin spoke about the experience of introducing technologies in the capital and creating digital platforms for residents. He noted that Moscow digital projects cover absolutely all spheres of life, focusing primarily on human needs. Representatives of the relevant departments of the Moscow City Government spoke in more detail about the capital’s IT projects during the panel discussions.
Mr. Chen Jining, Mayor of Beijing, Mr. Bakytzhan Sagintayev, Mayor of Almaty, Mr. Saeed Belhoul, Director of Electronic Government Operations of Dubai Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Mr. Mohamed Salah Eldin, Project Manager for the construction and formation of the smart city Nour (new administrative capital of Egypt) and Mayor of Fort Lauderdale Dean Trantalis also shared their experience at the plenary session.
One of the key events of the forum was the awarding of two certificates of compliance with international ISO standards for sustainable and smart cities to Moscow. “Until now, there has never been a precedent in history when both of these certificates were awarded simultaneously,” said Patricia McCarney, president of the International City Data Council (WCCD).
How Cities Can Take Action to Drive the Energy Transition
The dominance of fossil fuels in the urban energy supply puts cities on the frontline of climate change. Cities account for about 75% of global primary energy use and are responsible for 70 per cent of energy related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making them key actors in both national and global efforts to transition to a net-zero future.
Cities can catalyse the shift to a low-carbon future
A new report published today by IRENA, outlines ways in which cities can catalyse the shift to a low-carbon future – in turn supporting regional and national governments with the achievement of sustainable energy targets and the realisation of global climate objectives. Cities can be target setters, planners and regulators. They are often owners and thus operators of municipal infrastructure. Cities are always direct consumers of energy and therefore aggregators of demand, and can be facilitators and financiers of renewable energy projects.
Renewable Energy Policies for Cities also presents case studies from small- and medium-sized cities in various regions, demonstrating that cities are already stepping up to the responsibility. Examples from China, Costa Rica, and Uganda show that despite limited access to financing and policy support, the clear benefits of sustainable energy in an urban context have inspired action.
Solar Power in Kasese, Uganda
In Kasese, Uganda, for example, the municipality recognised its significant potential for solar energy, in turn leading to the establishment of Kasese’s Municipal Sustainable Energy Strategy in 2017. IRENA contributed to Kasese’s journey in deploying solar energy with its SolarCityEngine, a web-based application to assist homes, businesses and municipal authorities in evaluating the prospects of electricity generation using rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV). The online simulator allowed the municipality to assess the costs of incentive, affordability, and the total volume of investments.
A set of policy measures then followed, which included efforts to attract investments, programmes to train households and small businesses to deploy home-based solar system, and awareness-raising activities to ensure acceptance by residents. As a result, the residents of Kasese embraced the deployment of solar PV in their city, including their homes. The shift from polluting kerosene lamps to clean solar power brought improved health to many and presented new economic opportunities as people saved money on electricity.
E-mobility in Cartago, Grecia and Guanacaste in Costa Rica
In Cartago, Grecia, and Guanacaste in Costa Rica, electric mobility (e-mobility) is the new frontier in achieving net zero emissions. E-mobility is presented as a natural choice for the country thanks to its high renewables share in power supply, the availability of space for infrastructure, the short average of driving distance, and the optimal average temperature for electric vehicles (EVs).
With effective policies in place, the report highlights that Cartago, Grecia, and Guanacaste have all witnessed a positive increase in e-mobility infrastructure. The easy access to facilities, combined with the cost efficiency of EVs, motivates residents to make the shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to EVs, and adopt a more sustainable way to commute. Electric buses also increased in number, not only creating jobs for trainers and drivers, but also reducing demand for private driving, and consequently GHG emissions.
Wind-powered heating in Zhangjiakou, China
In Zhangjiakou, China, residents attested to the positive change brought about by a wind-powered heating system. After abandoning coal for heating, residents found the air to be cleaner, which motivated people to enjoy nature and socialise more in outdoor settings. The wind power also fuelled growth in the city as businesses increasingly sought to base their operations in Zhangjiakou, to benefit from the low-cost electricity produced by the wind power.
Geothermal energy for district heating and cooking in Xiong’an, China
Xiong’an became the first smog-free city in Northern China thanks to the development of geothermal energy. With its low operation and maintenance costs, as well as resilience to weather conditions, geothermal has successfully replaced coal-generated district heating in Xiong’an. Residents enjoy the benefits from reduced heating costs, and the geothermal power plant together with district thermal grid creates jobs for the city.
Geothermal energy for district heating in Bogatić, Serbia
In Serbia, the success of Bogatić municipality in deploying geothermal energy for district heating system has motivated other municipalities to exploit their geothermal potential. After discovering the cost efficiency and the reduced pollution resulting from it, residents and financial institutions are now the advocates for the technology. See the guidelines for policy makers on Integrating low-temperature renewables in district energy systems.
Global energy transformation starts at a local level
Examples presented in the report showcase best practices for other cities working towards a decarbonised energy supply. What they emphasise is the importance of strong alignment between local and national governments, and of proactive local resident, community group and business engagement. For the global race to zero to move at an accelerated pace, the world’s urban environments must be empowered to take meaningful actions.
Read more in the Renewable Energy Policies forCities and related case studies, also available in Spanish and Chinese. The reports and case studies were produced with the support of the International Climate Initiative.
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