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Barun Roy: Urban greening, top to bottom


Barun Roy  |  New Delhi 

Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have ambitious greening programmes, and now even China is following suit.
Having devoted over 40 years of planning and hard work to establish its reputation as one of the world's best-kept garden cities, Singapore is taking a quantum leap to try and become its greenest urban landscape "" top to bottom, literally.
All future public housing in the island republic will have greenery on the ground level, greenery on rooftops, and vertical greenery in between, while a "green roof" movement now sweeping the country has begun to turn barren roofs atop existing or new buildings "" public or private "" into lawns, gardens or even vegetable farms.
To give an idea, a motorcar sales company in the city has laid out an entire multi-terrain show course on top of its six-storey building where lawns flourish, palms and rubber trees line rooftop roads, and there's even a waterfall one can drive through. And the Housing Development Board (HDB) has unveiled the outlines of a new project it describes as Singapore's first eco-precinct.
Called Treetops@Punggol, after the Punggol district in northeast Singapore where it's located, the project will comprise seven 16-storey towers set in lush landscaped gardens on a 2.9 hectare plot and arranged around an "eco-deck." This deck will be an extensive, elevated community garden on top of the complex's car park and serve as a green lung for the proposed 712-unit precinct. HDB expects it will help reduce temperatures within the precinct by at least three to four degrees, thus also the use of air-conditioning.
It will be a green development through and through and completed by 2011. All outdoor and common corridor lights will be powered by rooftop solar panels and rainwater will be harvested through an elaborate collection system to meet all outdoor needs. Inside the individual apartments, all sinks will channel used water to flush toilets.
While Singapore's first major initiative in rooftop greening came in the early 1990s from the Changi General Hospital, which now meets most of its fresh food needs from its own rooftop hydroponics farm, it's only since 2004 that the movement has gained momentum. With an estimated 8 million square metres of roof space available in the city, the green movement sees a big future, and the government has launched a Green Mark incentive programme offering private developers grant to meet part of the cost of going green.
According to Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer Gregory Chow, the man behind Singapore's new-found interest in hydroponics, the suburban areas of northern Singapore alone "" about one-tenth of the total built environment "" have about 212 hectares of apartment and commercial rooftops where at least 38,000 metric tonnes of fresh vegetables could be grown using inorganic hydroponics every year.
Singapore, thus, adds a totally new dimension to the concept of urban agriculture. What currently exists as an activity largely in the peripheries of cities and, according to the United Nations Development Programme, produces 15-20 per cent of the world's food, could now become a mainstream urban activity. The Singapore initiative could also provide an ideal take-off point for other Asia-Pacific cities where innovative urban forestry is either unknown or underdeveloped.
Kuala Lumpur, Asia's other famous garden city, has an ambitious greenway programme, much like Singapore's park connector network that aims to turn all underutilised land, like drainage reserves, road reserves and foreshores, into green corridors. Hanoi has had an excellent record of establishing and preserving well-maintained parks and greeneries. But by and large, cities and towns in developing Asia, unplanned and unregulated as most of them are, have hardly done anything to put a decent green cover around their nakedness.
One country certainly going to be inspired by Singapore is China, which takes the business of urban greening quite seriously. Beijing is fully aware that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China and its plan to observe a car-free day later this month in 108 of its cities only reflects its deep concern. Quite naturally, along with efforts to reduce physical pollution in the atmosphere, China is paying increasing attention to the idea of urban forestry to improve the physical environment and reduce energy consumption. In the next five years, 25 per cent of its public and residential buildings are expected to receive "green" upgrades, including expansion of ambient greenery. By 2020, building energy use could be reduced by as much as 65 per cent through ecological improvements and energy upgrades.
Last year, China announced plans to build six new, ecologically sound and energy-efficient cities as models of what it aims to achieve. One of them will be on a marshy island off the coast of Shanghai, where the London-based design and engineering firm, Arup, has been engaged to develop an eco-city for half a million people. It will be powered by renewable energy, recycle 90 per cent of all its waste and have a network of high-tech organic farms built into its design.

First Published: Thu, September 13 2007. 00:00 IST