Dover Forest case: Levelling the playing field between development and conservation

22 Feb 2021

Straits Times, 22 Feb 2021, Dover Forest case: Levelling the playing field between development and conservation

SINGAPORE - In WhatsApp texts, Facebook messages, e-mails and face-to-face meetings with residents in his Ulu Pandan ward, MP Christopher de Souza found a vast majority in favour of retaining Dover Forest - with only "very few" requests seeking its clearing.

"The forest has been adopted by many of the residents and made to become part of Ulu Pandan's green and natural landscape," he said.

Residents' views aside, in the wider debate over whether to conserve the 33ha green space, real estate and land planning experts said larger questions lie over the Government's priorities.

The consensus, among several observers The Straits Times spoke to, is for the authorities to redefine developmental goals at a minimum - and at best, to place a greater premium on the place of nature and conservation in Singapore.

In recent weeks, the public, nature groups and MPs alike have raised concerns over the potential clearing of Dover Forest to make way for Build-To-Order flats this year. Several proposals for alternative BTO sites in the vicinity followed suit, from Mr de Souza as well as the Nature Society (Singapore), which also urged the Government to consider old industrial sites, roads, carparks and transport hubs for development purposes.

In Parliament, MPs Rachel Ong and Leon Perera also singled out Singapore's 17 golf courses - which add up to 1,500ha of land - as potential sites for development.

At that sitting on Feb 1, National Development Minister Desmond Lee sought to address the Dover Forest issue as he stressed that Singapore's physical constraints necessitated a constant balancing act between various land use needs.

Still, the Republic has always taken a long-term view towards such planning, and is committed to stewarding and protecting its green spaces, he said.

Research assistant Lisha Raghani, 29, a resident of Ghim Moh estate close to Dover Forest, said the issue was an opportunity for the Government to demonstrate the meaning of stewardship.

But ERA Realty head of research and consultancy Nicholas Mak noted that it was also a matter of weighing the economic opportunity cost of not developing the forest.

"If the Government keeps the forest, it is forgoing billions of dollars in potential revenue either from selling the land off parcel by parcel, or building something itself and selling it - like HDB flats or commercial developments," he said. "Every square metre of existing forest in that area that is conserved is one square metre the Government could not sell and monetise."

In Parliament, Mr Lee reeled off a list of spaces kept green even after initially being designated for other uses - from the Dairy Farm and Rifle Range areas to Sungei Buloh, Chek Jawa, Khatib Bongsu, Bukit Batok Hillside Park, Hampstead Wetlands Park, Tampines Quarry, the Rail Corridor and more. He said approximately 7,800ha of land has been safeguarded as key green areas, with the Government looking to add 1,000ha by 2035.

This amounts to around 12 per cent of Singapore's land area, a figure smaller than that of other highly dense territories like Hong Kong and Japan, which respectively allocate over 40 per cent and 29 per cent as protected areas, said architect and urban planner Sheila Conejos from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

The tussle between development and conservation is set to continue. More recently, it emerged on social media that large swathes of Kranji woodland along the Rail Corridor had been cleared. Developer JTC Corporation has said the "erroneous" clearing started last December before environmental assessments were complete, and that it is still investigating the matter.

Putting a value on nature

Lessons from Covid-19 on the urban experience should be factored into planning and policymaking deliberations, said observers like Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong, also of SUSS.

"We could work within neighbourhoods and travel a lot more within towns, rather than go to the traditional city centre or CBD (Central Business District)," he noted.

Assistant Professor Jeffrey Chan from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) said the trend of re-appreciating green spaces in cities during the pandemic is likely to persist and grow, even when the worst of Covid-19 is over.

"To have a little sliver of growing and evolving forest in the middle of high-density urban living is a precious boon, and not a liability in the post-pandemic age," added Prof Chan. He said it was time to revisit Singapore's definition of "development" in a way that could render obsolete the development-conservation binary often presented in arguments.

"The goal of urban planning usually has to do with some form of human flourishing. But if this flourishing is also dependent on the integrity of natural ecosystems… then the dilemma (should be) about development that can reinforce or foster values that are consistent with conservation," Prof Chan argued.

Savills Singapore's executive director of research and consultancy Alan Cheong said any redefinition of development should include a primary objective to be carbon neutral or even better, negative.

"Reducing CO2 emissions is going to take centre stage in a post-pandemic world," he suggested. "Conservation alone does not do enough because it merely translates carbon emission to another form or to another location."

Professor Stephen Cairns, director of the Future Cities Laboratory at the Singapore-ETH Centre, noted that cities were increasingly shifting from concentrating on economic capital and driving growth, towards thriving on other kinds of capital such as natural and socio-cultural capital.

Said Prof Cairns: "In places like Singapore, where availability of land is limited and development pressures are high, putting a value on nature - even if only for strategic reasons - makes good sense. It would be one way to level the playing field between development and conservation."

Engaging with meaning

Prof Cairns said the ideal outcome from the ongoing debate over Dover Forest would be to undertake systematic studies both ways - to examine the forest's linkages to other patches in the area and the national and regional ecosystem on one end, and evaluate the integration of alternative sites with existing neighbourhood infrastructure on the other.

Prof Leong, meanwhile, said that for the Government to make any form of concession, such as placing a 10- to 15-year moratorium on developing the forest, would be a "little bit" of a watershed - in signalling that public engagement can be effective to an extent.

On Feb 1, Mr Lee announced an extension of the public consultation period on the fate of the forest by four weeks till March 1. He also shared plans for the Urban Redevelopment Authority to partner citizens later in the year in formulating long-term plans for greater livability and sustainability in Singapore.

For Prof Chan, the best way forward for such consultations is to involve the public in the entire process from the get-go.

Noting that Dover Forest would "hardly be the last dilemma of development versus conservation in Singapore", he added: "The planning authorities can take a formative step in this direction by not starting with specific goals, plans, or 'best' solutions, in the beginning."

Ulu Pandan resident Karl Png, 23, who is also co-founder of the Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity nature group, said it was also important to involve as many voices as possible in the larger community, beyond segments of society already invested in issues around nature and conservation.

Architecture graduate Althea Chan, 24, who grew up close to Dover Forest, said the onus was on everybody to be part of the discussion. "You cannot take a back seat," she noted. "Not when in the future, your children will have to live in this world, and face climate change as part of the next generation."