Planning January 2016

Ever Green

Vertical City in a Garden

By Timothy Beatley

With growing recognition of the healing power of nature and the need to include flora and fauna in the planning of our cities, few emerging models of biophilic urbanism are as compelling as Singapore. Several years ago this city-nation changed its motto from "garden city" to "city in a garden." This subtle but important change emphasized the desire for a more immersive nature and a view of urban life where nature is not something to occasionally visit, but to be surrounded by and live within.

The city has done many things to nurture nature over the last few decades, including the restoration of the natural hydrology of waterways like the Kallang River that flows through Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. The city's landscaping policies have led to a dense, multilayered tree canopy, and an impressive system of trails and pathways (the Park Connector Network) ties together its parks and nature areas, extending more than 185 miles. One of my favorite stretches is along the so-called Southern Ridges (an exhilarating trek I made in 2012), where much of the pathway takes the form of a tree canopy walk, crossing the spectacular Henderson Waves Bridge and providing connections with nature and unusual perspectives of the city.

Most impressive are the ways plants and nature are being incorporated into the design of the vertical realm in Singapore. It is happening through a number of interlocking policies — financial subsidies, research and development, an annual skyrise greening award — and development regulations. There is a landscape replacement policy that mandates a minimum of one-to-one replacement of ground-level nature with vertical green elements, and now a friendly competition by developers and architects to push well beyond these minimums. One soon-to-be built structure called Oasia Downtown, designed by the firm WOHA, boasts a 750 percent replacement value (or what we might describe in as a Green Area Ratio of 7.5, as companion to floor area ratio).

Another breathtaking example of WOHA's work, and of the emerging Singapore approach to the vertical urban garden, can be seen in the PARKROYAL on Pickering hotel. The hotel includes several levels of terraced skygardens, as well as greenwalls and planters with lush overhanging plants, all integrated into the structure and much of it visible from the street. WOHA partner Richard Hassell says the building has had great success: Occupancy rates are up and room rates have doubled. "People are drawn to the building," he tells me, and "respond very emotionally to seeing this kind of landscape building."

Every guest room in the 367-room PARKROYAL on Pickering hotel looks out onto plant-filled, contoured concrete terraces that were designed to suggest a natural landscape

Every guest room in the 367-room PARKROYAL on Pickering hotel looks out onto plant-filled, contoured concrete terraces that were designed to suggest a natural landscape. Photo by Patrick Bingham-Hall.

Healing powers of immersive urban nature

The Singapore model has also been used in hospitals and health facilities. The Khoo Tech Puat Hospital, opened in 2010, was innovative in many ways, but its ubiquitous nature, from multiple levels of green roofs, gardens and window boxes, to a lush central courtyard with a waterfall, to a working rooftop farm, remains unusual. The hospital understands and enlists nature in the healing process, and in the restoration of urban biodiversity. Its success has led the Singapore government to declare its intentions to build every future hospital with a similar biophilic approach.

Singapore continues to make these nature-ful design and planning ideas a centerpiece of policy and planning. In mid-October, the government organized a remarkable set of meetings to develop biophilic design guidelines that would frame new development. A large public symposium was convened around the topic of Singapore as a Biophilic City, followed by smaller workshops aimed at devising specific biophilic design guidelines for several new growth areas. The results remain to be seen, but few other parts of the world place as much emphasis on nature in design and planning.

Of course, Singapore has many things going for it, including a tropical environment where growing trees and plants is relatively easy. But its ability to demonstrate viscerally and tangibly what it could be like to live in a garden makes it an important model for urban sustainability and resilience — one that emphasizes the important ways that nature can be livable, healthy places where people are connected to each other and their environments.

For years many of us have argued for the importance of viewing cities as spaces of nature, as ecosystems. Hassell believes it is possible. The WOHA approach to vertical nature may not make sense in lower density cities, Hassel notes, but its success in denser places is clear. "The minute we build more than a one story high, we create new space," he says. That's space that can be devoted, at least partly, to nature.

Still, there remains the sense in many cities that we must seek out and travel to nature in cities — the several-blocks walk to the nature trail, the metro ride to the forest preserve. But the new model of immersive nature in Singapore is compelling. Other cities are following suit. Melbourne, Australia, for example, has recently completed a new urban forest strategy with the ambitious goal of doubling its tree canopy coverage by 2040 and becoming a city in a forest, not just a city with more trees.

Singapore represents a compelling model for future urbanism, but shows the limits of this approach in a world where ecosystems are intrinsically interconnected: During the October meetings, the air quality in Singapore was not very good, a result of forest fires and unsustainable habitat conversion in nearby Indonesia. Land clearance and severe habitat loss — largely to accommodate new palm oil plantations — remains a serious problem. It is a fitting recognition of the fact that while every city must strive to grow its own garden, it is no longer possible to ignore the larger Gaian garden in which all the world's cities lie.

Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Biophilic Cities Project.