Designing S'pore's future: Integrate nature with built environment as climate shifts

24 Jul 2021

Straits Times, 24 Jul 2021, Designing S'pore's future: Integrate nature with built environment as climate shifts
Singaporeans living with the reality of temperatures creeping upwards can take comfort that mitigating the impact of climate change may not require drastic changes to land use, but can be achieved by using land efficiently in integrating nature with the built environment.

The role of vegetation in cooling and shading can only become more relevant in time to come as the planet warms, said conservation scientist Roman Carrasco from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Greenery can be intensified on rooftops and building facades, for example, so that scarce land resources can be put to multiple purposes, he said.

Singapore's vision of becoming a City in Nature, which can be achieved by softening urban infrastructure and re-establishing ecological connections within the city, and the Singapore Green Plan 2030 will help mitigate the impact of climate change, said experts.

Another inevitable impact of climate change, sea-level rise, means the island republic must look for ways to guard its coastline.

One of these is to have multi-functional coastal protection methods that provide recreational opportunities and are integrated with existing natural defences such as mangroves, said Professor Carrasco.

"These interventions can go a long way without demanding extra land and even open new opportunities for other uses," he added.

Building resilience into Singapore's long-term land plans and strategies is one of the ways to better prepare for an increasingly volatile and uncertain environment, said the Urban Redevelopment Authority last week.

Dr Harvey Neo, senior fellow and programme head at the Singapore University of Technology and Design's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, said Singapore's push for solar panels in electricity generation is a step towards building resilient infrastructure.

"Dead spaces" such as the area underneath elevated MRT tracks, Housing Board rooftops and multi-storey carparks could also be used, for example, to grow food, added Dr Neo.

However, he noted that mitigation that is directed at the future is not a "precise science" and can be immensely costly.

He said: "Resilience cannot be built through infrastructure alone, nor is such physical resilience sufficient to counteract the myriad of problems brought about by climate change.

"Rather, there needs to be more resources channelled to cultivate mental resilience in people so that they can rise to meet challenges head on."

Dr Shawn Lum, a botanist at Nanyang Technological University, said a lower ecological footprint, abundant greenery and thriving nature will be common features of any vision of Singapore's future, with the pandemic underlining the importance of nature to people's physical and emotional well-being.

Dr Lum, who is president of Nature Society (Singapore), said planners and policymakers may also have to look at new ways of managing the limited green areas in Singapore to prevent them from being "loved to death" as more people head out to these spaces.

"Will we have daily limits for visitors to nature reserves, or will we see periodic closures of nature areas - either a few days per week, or for a few months every so many years - to minimise degradation of habitats?"

NUS' Prof Carrasco noted that despite all the infrastructural interventions, there is still much work to be done for Singapore to be "truly sustainable" and to leave this planet at least as capable, if not more, to meet the needs of future generations.

In a "truly sustainable" Singapore, doughnut or circular economies will be observed, he said.

"Whenever we generate waste that cannot be recycled, whenever we rely on incineration, we are not closing the doughnut and the system is broken," he said, citing food waste and single-use plastics as two areas Singapore can improve on.

He suggested that the Republic can buy carbon and ecological credits from nature-based solutions from neighbouring countries, which can include forest conservation projects.

The trade in carbon credits essentially sees carbon treated as a commodity.

When emitters buy a credit, they essentially pay others to reduce emissions on their behalf.

In turn, this creates a market for previously unprofitable land use purposes in neighbouring countries, as there is now a business case to leave a forest alone, instead of cutting it down.

Such transboundary sustainability could completely offset Singapore's footprint, Prof Carrasco added.

He said: "Singapore is doing an excellent job, so let's help our neighbours by contributing to their protection of nature.

"We don't have the space to preserve vast extents of tropical forests but we can contribute to the protection of others."