Singapore: Concrete jungle or greenest city on Earth?

Story highlights

  • City-state actively promotes green spaces in town planning, architecture
  • Named as the greenest city in Asia, according to the Green City Index

CNN's On the Road series brings you a greater insight into countries around the world. This time we travel to Singapore as the city-state marks 50 years of independence.

(CNN)It's a small, dense, island nation where 100% of the population is urbanized.

And yet, the city-state of Singapore is the greenest city in Asia, according to the Green City Index, and arguably has few competitors in the rest of the world.
    As Singapore's population and economy grew, so did its green cover: it was about 36% in the 1980s and it now stands at 47%, according to the Center for Liveable cities.
    And while the word "green" can take on a variety of connotations, Singapore appears to encompass them all -- lush environments, renewable energy and future sustainability.
    "We take steps to ensure our self-sufficiency," says Yvonne Soh, General Manager of the Singapore Green Buildings Council. "In Singapore we have a lot of initiatives to promote sustainability."
    That's crucial, as the city-state lacks any form of natural resource. Half of the nation's water supplies are imported from neighbouring Malaysia, with the rest sourced from desalinization plants, efficient catchment of rainwater and recycling of sewage.
    Fuel is also imported to meet energy needs, making alternative energy a national priority.
    But greenery in the literal sense is also prioritized.
    "If you build a new development, you have to replace the same greenery you replaced," says Yoh.
    Singapore is only country to incorporate green building requirements into its legislation, according to Soh.
    "Environmental protection was not assumed to be at odds with economic development," says Khoo Teng Chye, Executive director of the Centre for Liveable Cities. "The government saw that it was an integral part of city planning," he says.

    Green ratings

    One initiative in place to ensure a more sustainable 'green' status throughout the country is the Building and Construction Authority's Green Mark Scheme -- a rating system introduced in 2005 to evaluate all buildings based on their environmental impact and performance.
    "This makes sure buildings are green through-and-through," says Yoh. Today, there are more than 1,180 green mark buildings.
    The mark is awarded at four levels -- Certified, Gold, GoldPLUS, and Platinum.
    "All buildings within the marina bay district are green-mark platinum," says Yoh. But this is now extending beyond the marina, with developers throughout Singapore now chasing after the highly regarded platinum status -- including UK architecture firm Foster and Partners, whose recent green complex on Beach road in downtown Singapore opened in-part this year with the rest due to open in 2016.

    The importance of shelter

    The Beach road project by Foster and Partners spans an entire city block and incorporates the Singaporean tradition of skyscrapers through its two towers containing residential and office space.
    But the complex is setting new trends through a large undulating canopy that embodies a simple, yet innovative, concept -- shelter.
    "The need was shelter and protection," says Jonathan Parr, a partner in the firm who led the project. In a hot, tropical climate like Singapore the need to cool and protect people from direct sunlight and shelter them from the rain ranks high on the list of priorities.
    "The rain is torrential," says Parr.
    Through a series of arcs, the canopy is designed to scoop wind at its entrance and draw wind through the space as a means of natural ventilation.
    Combined with solar panels for power, solar tubes for hot water, harvesting of rainwater and certain floor levels lined fully with green plants, the complex is green in every sense of the world.
    "Singaporeans love nature and green spaces," says Yoh. This is reflected through the recent opening of a 15 mile stretch of hidden parkland containing an unused railway in 2014, known as the Green Corridor -- resembling New York's highline, which was a people-led movement to conserve the land.
    Renewable energy sources and rainwater harvesting have also become standard on all buildings in Singapore, including the man-made supertrees in the gardens by the bay and the lotus-shaped ArtScience museum nearby.

    A happy future

    "People are happiest when they're most connected to nature," says Chris Trott, Head of Sustainability at Foster and Partners, who believes setting schemes and legislation in this way can create awareness in the mind of both developers and the public.
    "They're all aimed at a reduction in the use of energy and therefore reduction in carbon dioxide deposited into the atmosphere," says Trott.
    Singapore pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 16% below business as usual levels in 2020, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
    With such demand -- and competition -- for sustainability, when it comes to this target there may be no competition at all.