A standout example of sustainable city planning for the past few decades, Singapore originally had to make a virtue of necessity due to its unique geographic location. An island by nature, the city state always had a key limiting factor – lack of land for expansion. So it should come as no surprise that any planning exercise would assign this rare good special significance and pride of place. From the beginning, safeguarding the local flora and fauna as well as creating sufficient green spaces and recreational areas for its citizens has played a huge part in Singapore’s urban planning. The result: despite its many skyscrapers, the city is Asia’s greenest metropolis. And always striving to improve its residents’ quality of life, planners continue to emphasize the positive effect of urban oases.

This vision of a modern global metropolis with aspects of a natural retreat – a city nestling within a garden – is about to become reality with Singapore’s latest verdant attraction, the Gardens by the Bay. A true 21st century botanical garden right in the heart of town, it literally extends its tendrils into the city. The approx. 54-hectare area at Marina Bay, in parts reclaimed from the sea, delights with a horticultural mosaic, celebrating the diversity of species and cultures on display. In addition, it boasts two futuristic conservatories, as well as a grove of giant high-tech trees covered in flora – the park’s striking main attractions.

These 18 “Supertrees” reach heights between 25 and 50 meters – and even exceed their natural wood and bark equivalents in terms of ecological impact. Far more than just impressive vertical gardens playing host to more than 163,000 plants and over 200 species, they double as environmental marvels that capture solar energy to air-condition the two conservatories, for example. At the same time, visitors can explore an expansive network of paths between the Supertrees’ crowns to experience the park and its attractions, but also the city itself, from a brand new perspective. And the two conservatories – with their award-winning, elegantly sweeping architecture – please the eye with a selection of plants from around the world. While the flatter of the two glass domes, the Flower Dome, delights with a Mediterranean to subtropical wealth of flowers, the nearby Cloud Forest Dome houses a tropical, vertical forest of wonders as well as the world’s highest man-made indoor waterfall, tumbling down from 30 meters.

Designed to drive any thought of the nearby urban conurbation far from any visitor’s mind, the gardens also serve to remind us of the preciousness of nature and its rich wealth of species. Devised by British landscape architects Grant Associates, the final concept reflects Singapore’s own national flower, the orchid.

On hand to discuss this impressive project and his motivation for taking its lead, Dr. Kiat W. Tan joins us for an interview. Not only the project’s CEO, but also an internationally renowned botanist and orchid specialist, Tan has been one of the key driving forces behind Singapore’s ambition to rebalance modern city life with revitalizing nature for the past three decades. He has been with Gardens by the Bay since 2006 – back then as a member of the jury who greenlighted the park’s current guise and intent. 

Thank you for joining us, Dr. Tan. Could you tell us what prompted and shaped the current design of Gardens by the Bay?
During the master-planning of the Gardens, we set out to create a design that was not only aesthetically pleasing but also encapsulated the essence of what would enrich the lifestyle of the community and addressed today’s environmental concerns like sustainability in terms of energy and water use.. Grant Associate’s master-plan for Bay South (the largest of the three gardens that make up Gardens by the Bay) was one that best met our vision and could be implemented within the allocated timeframe. We also sought feedback from the public and incorporated suitable ideas into the final design. What we have done is combine the traditional elements of a garden with novel “wow” factors to capture the attention of a public who may not be all that interested in plants.

Why did you pick this particular – and valuable – development site right in the heart of Singapore’s downtown for the botanical garden?
Singapore is recognised worldwide as a Garden City. Over the years, as the city-state became known for its verdant environment, the challenge was to take the greening effort to the next level. Hence the shift from “Garden City” to “City in a Garden”. Gardens by the Bay is a key part of this national effort. Prime land in the most desirable part of Singapore has been set aside for the Gardens and made accessible to all, affirming our place as a People’s Garden.

What role do the gardens play in this overall plan?
The greening of Singapore started in the 1960s under our then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who envisioned Singapore to be a tropical Garden City. Gardens by the Bay builds upon the past 50 years of concerted greening efforts and represents the culmination of this Garden City initiative. It is concomitant with Singapore’s new City in a Garden vision by underpinning the recognition of the immense value that parks and gardens play as venues for communities to bond and interact. The Gardens will be a green legacy to the people – a treasured resource that they can share with the rest of the world. This is where we bring the world of plants to Singapore, and present Singapore to the world.

Are there any plans for further green projects?
Gardens by the Bay comprises three gardens – Bay South, Bay East and Bay Central. The biggest of the three gardens, Bay South, opened to the public in June 2012. That said, a garden is a living entity that will continue to grow and evolve. New features such as a children’s garden will soon be added to the existing offerings at Bay South. Bay East is currently open to the public as an interim garden with basic amenities. Full development will be carried out at a later date, taking into consideration the infrastructural works of other projects that are happening in the surrounding area. Bay Central, with its waterfront promenade, will serve as a link between Bay South and Bay East.

Finally, what is the most rewarding part of your work?
To witness the Gardens taking shape and now redefining the Singapore skyline is one of the greatest satisfactions of this project. But what is perhaps most rewarding is seeing the Gardens being embraced and enjoyed by the people. Since we opened last June, more than 3.8 million visitors have enjoyed this new breath of fresh air.

Thank you very much for this interview!

Additional information: