This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure
“The park’s real purpose was the creation of rural scenery that evoked a poetic mood, lifting one out of everyday care and ennobling the spirit with intimations of the divine. This kind of scenic contemplation was therapy for the overworked paterfamilias, a healthful occupation for women, a positive educational influence upon children, and a means of acculturation for the masses.”
Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History, 2001
In the 1850s New York City had reached a point where its rapid growth could not be sustained by its infrastructure.
The construction of Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857, was both a symbolic gesture and a functional requirement for the remediation of that situation. The most pressing issues were public health (due primarily to problems with water supply) and the provision of public amenity, which in the early 21st century does sound rather familiar. The recent explosive growth of Asian cities has been built upon the prioritisation of fiscal opportunity. Alongside that is the tacit agreement between government and citizens that presumed wealth will eventually fund the remediation required for the inadequate urban infrastructure that had facilitated the economic miracle.
The Kallang River, as it wends through Bishan Park: once a charmless industrial canal, now a charming public creek
In Singapore the presumed wealth has well and truly arrived after 47 years of tireless work, in which the country (or city-state) transformed itself from a run-down, resource-free remnant of a dismantled empire into one of the world’s most significant cities. Singapore is now the new New York, but what does that mean for the residents, particularly those in the great swathes of tower blocks that comprise the new towns built incrementally from the 1960s?
The urban landscape of the Singaporean heartlands is by no means as impoverished or rudimentary as that of other Asian high-rise communities (and by the standards of any western city, it is exemplary). However, extended lifestyle beyond apartment and shopping precincts is undeniably limited.
The park has been quickly colonised by wildlife, wildflowers and appreciative locals
Few Singaporean residents would compare their predicament to that of a mid-19th century tenement dweller, but the absence of public amenity or a readily accessible natural environment was coupled with a problem that has historically bedevilled many rapidly expanding cities: the need for water.
Singapore is in a uniquely invidious position as it is currently dependent on Malaysia for 40 per cent of its water supply. Despite the extraordinary amount of rainfall the island receives, Singapore has no natural aquifers, and the last 50 years of urban development has exacerbated the run-off process, with much of the rainfall heading straight out to sea through a network of concrete canals built in the 1960s and 70s to alleviate flash-flooding.
The park’s biotope is a cleansing micro-environment for water regeneration
In 2006 the Public Utilities Board (PUB) implemented a grand plan, which aspired to complete water-supply self-sufficiency for Singapore by 2061, when the existing agreement with Malaysia expires. Basically, Singapore is to become one large reservoir by closing off all its rivers to the sea, by recycling and storing water through pumping stations and existing reservoirs, and by creating new reservoirs where rivers have been dammed at their mouths (most notably at Marina Bay in the city centre).
The Kallang River is Singapore’s longest river, but it has recently wended a charmless course as a concrete canal, through industrial and housing estates from Lower Peirce Reservoir to the sea. The first three kilometres of its path flow through Bishan Park, which separates the new towns of Bishan and Ang Mo Kio. The park was nothing special – swampy and effectively unusable, as are all wide-open spaces for much of the day in a tropical city. However, the precinct was seen as an opportunity to accomplish something special within the framework of the PUB masterplan.
The new, return-to-nature look of Bishan Park
In 2007 Atelier Dreiseitl was approached for advice and proposed a return to nature, whereby the canal was to be torn apart and replaced by a meandering creek. This would perform as a natural cleansing mechanism for the water and reduce the speed of its flow.
Six months of testing followed, to assess which methods of soil protection and combinations of plants would be appropriate for the various conditions within the park.
Construction began in October 2009. The canal was demolished and the smashed concrete fragments were used throughout the park as construction material, and to create an observation mound (prosaically named Recycle Hill). The slopes of the riverbanks were cambered to contain floodwaters and covered by plant cuttings, laid down as a carpet of twigs that would sprout into life during the wet season so that the landscape was completely greened when the new park opened in March 2012. A cleansing ‘biotope’ – a micro-environment or natural habitat that filters and regenerates water through layers of plants, roots, sediments and earth – was installed in the upper half of the park, with a children’s water playground included within the cycle.
Former canal fragments, now construction materials throughout the park
The designers, engineers and public authorities have been at pains to emphasise the infrastructural role of the project (mindful of the bigger picture, as outlined by the PUB in 2006), but the residents of Singapore are, understandably, focused on a landscape and an environment they have never had before. The park is popular, particularly in the mornings and the late afternoons, and it is also quite beautiful, in what might be seen as a return to the ‘picturesque’ landscaping of Olmsted.
It is an idealised micro-environment, deliberately employing viewpoints that gaze over romantic vistas created by the contours of the landforms, the existing treescape, the banks of reeds and grasses, the placement of rock formations and most overtly by the course of the river itself. It is a pastoral landscape and its ‘back to nature’ intentions have been reinforced by nature itself, as the park has been quickly colonised by wildlife and wildflowers.
Singapore is sufficiently cashed up to pay to go ‘back to nature’, and its government is (as ever) resolute in its commitment to self-sufficiency. Such grand schemes can form part of citywide plans deemed necessary, and are therefore achievable. As a prototype for improving quality of life in other Asian cities, the reinsertion of nature into a concrete jungle can hardly be bettered, but can the wheels be put in motion?
On this occasion, Singapore has decided that water is the key to its remediation and survival. With Bishan Park, it has quite blatantly found one method for facing up to the problems of the 21st century, while providing its citizens with a wonderful city park in the 19th-century tradition.