Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay: Landscape Urbanism or Landscaped Urban?
In a moment of movements such as Extinction Rebellion, environmental and ecological concerns are at the forefront of everyone’s agenda. With 70% of the world’s population living in cities by 2050, it is paramount that we must find sustainable ways of living in and developing our cities that retain their connection with the natural landscape.
Singapore, as a contemporary city has erupted since its independence from Britain in 1965[i]. A labyrinth of high-rise towers and shopping malls, it is easy to see why its residents are missing the relief of green spaces within the city. As a result, Singapore has announced that it would like to move towards developing itself as ‘Garden City’ rather than a ‘City in a Garden’ [ii].
Landscape Urbanism is the practice of developing cities around the design of their landscape rather than the buildings themselves[iii]. From Singapore’s intention of creating a city in a garden, we can assume that this is a method of development that Singapore might like to tend towards, using the landscape of the city as a driver for the buildings which occupy it.
Completed in 2012, the Gardens by the Bay has been used as an example of landscape urbanism[iv]. It is a public garden comprised of a complex system of waste reuse and rainwater attenuation, realised through a network of working landscape, greenhouses and structures inspired by trees.
However, are the Gardens by the Bay Landscape Urbanism or merely Landscaped Urban space?
The Gardens were conceived as a way of providing an intermediate between the developed city and the native jungle spaces[v]. Despite this, its situation at the foot of Marina Bay Sands hotel, one of the most iconic buildings of recent years, suggests otherwise. Instead, it reads as a pleasure garden for the visitors of the city, an icon of leisure next to one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. This combined with being located between the city, the reservoir and the sea, with a major motorway to its circumference means that the Gardens feel as though they are on an edge condition, rather than being fully integrated within everyday lives, the natural and urban landscape.
This lack of integration is enforced through the linear process that the gardens operates through, it’s not a dynamic evolving landscape triggering growth and engagement from new developments that inhabit that landscape. It is instead a device through which the reservoir adjacent to the city is increasing the surface area water can attenuate into it. An impressive system, using green waste as bio-fuel, rainwater for irrigation and any surplus being discharged into the reservoir, however its not landscape urbanism in the understanding that it is a landscape designed for development. While it is a beautifully efficient garden that provides a relief of green space for both visitors and locals from the density of Singapore, it is planned and fixed, isolated from the city as Singapore evolves.
The educational exhibition within the gardens explains the functional systems of the gardens and the importance in acting to reduce the impact that our developing world has on our environments. Climate change and habitat loss are undoubtedly one of the most serious issues that we, as young designers, face. I can’t help but feel there is an uncomfortable contradiction in the educational aspect of the development. The wider area of Singapore is built on cleared jungle land, which can still be read in the urban grain to the north of the city. Furthermore, the land that the gardens itself sits on has been reclaimed from the sea[vi], requiring a huge amount of energy and processing. Both acts are also causing the modification to ecosystems and habitat loss that the Gardens are trying to educate its visitors on. To me this is reflected in the ‘supertree’ structures as they portray the tension between the ghost image of the towering jungle trees and the engineered, smart city the land has become.
I enjoyed my visit to Singapore and even the Gardens by the Bay, they provide pleasant relief from the humidity and intensity of the city, achieving the designer’s intentions. However, I don’t believe that it portrays the ‘City in a Garden’ of landscape urbanism. It is a minimum impact garden system, a green landscaped urban space. It is an area which is intended to exist as we see it today, not the first move in facilitating the continued development of the area. It may be that the area was intended to be a catalyst for the development of areas surrounding the gardens (Marina South and Straits View), but this is yet to be realised and as a result it currently feels like a vast, empty edge space. If this was the intention then it may be several decades before we see the true benefit, intention and integration of the Gardens by the Bay with the rest of Singapore.
To summarise, I think that this move to focus Singapore’s developments around their landscape will undoubtedly be a valuable to visitors and residents of the city. However, rather than being one of the exemplar projects in this change of focus, I believe that the Gardens by the Bay symbolise a move to commodify ecological concerns within urban development rather than facilitate true environmentally sustainable urbanism. One can hope that future urban developments will be forced to evolve now that the true human impact on ecology is becoming common knowledge.
If you’d like to know more about the Gardens by the Bay from Grafton Associates please click here.
[ii] “Gardens by the Bay.” In Wikipedia, November 9, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gardens_by_the_Bay&oldid=925273605.
[vi] “Historical Maps of Singapore, Digitised by Department of Geography, National University of Singapore.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://libmaps.nus.edu.sg/.
[i] “Singapore.” In Wikipedia, November 11, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Singapore&oldid=925579767.
[iii] [iv] [v] Whitten, Geoff. “Landscape Urbanism.” Lecture, Newcastle University, November 7, 2019.
Feature image at the top of the page is not Author’s own, accessed from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/southtopia/28555202873/in/photostream/