Singapore – a tiny tropical island off the southeastern tip of Asia, just miles from the equator and home to almost six million people. I decided to start my trip in this little city-state for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s an English-speaking country, so I wouldn’t have to worry about a language barrier in the beginning. It’s also the most developed country on my itinerary, so I figured there would be less of an initial culture shock. And finally, when I looked at the map, Singapore seemed to be a convenient place to start traveling along the Malay peninsula.
When I arrived, jetlagged but with a full day ahead, and got on the train from Changi Airport to head into town, the first thing I noticed was the amount of vegetation that is growing everywhere in the city. I don’t mean just the typical rows of trees down the medians of boulevards. There are thick layers of tropical vegetation along every streetside and median, vines and landscaping weaving up and along overpasses, and trees growing on top of seemingly every building. To be sure, Singapore has a tropical climate, so I was expecting to see a lot of greenery. However, it’s more than just the climate that gives Singapore the nickname the ”Garden City”.
Being a small island with a large population, the land use in Singapore is heavily controlled by the government. Most of the population lives in public housing blocks, and there is a complicated and drawn-out process to obtain even the most basic apartment unit; individual houses are nearly non-existent except among the very wealthy. With land so scarce, there is no room for agriculture, so all of the food must be imported. Even the water is imported. Several of the natural waterways, including the Singapore River running through downtown, were converted into reservoirs to collect rainwater after the natural springs feeding them became insufficient; the rest of the water needed is brought in from neighboring Malaysia, across the Straits of Johor. Even with such careful management, though, there is still not enough land, so the government has been reclaiming land along the coast, so far increasing the size of Singapore by over twenty percent!
Singapore makes up for the dense development with abundant displays of nature everywhere throughout the city. A few of the more prominent places that I visited are large parks such as Fort Canning Park, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and the Gardens by the Bay, which all feature numerous informational and educational signs telling about the various species of plants growing there, the uses of the plants, and the importance of some of them (particularly nutmeg and clove) to the historic economy of Singapore. I also went out of the central city to Pasir Ris on the northeast coast of the island, where there is a coastal park and a large mangrove forest that can be explored via a network of boardwalks (which are also marked with fun and educational signage). Not only in parks, but on the sides and rooftops of buildings and bridges, there are plants, flowers, and trees of all different types, which make even ordinary things such as pedestrian overpasses nice to look at.
In addition to all the greenery, the city is generally very clean (probably due in part to the strict laws against things such as spitting, chewing gum, and littering, and the ubiquitous presence of cameras to catch offenders). The traffic is also very light compared to the traffic in a similar-sized city in the US. This is due to outrageously high ownership fees and toll prices, which make owning a car an expensive hassle. Even during rush hour in downtown, I commonly saw entire blocks completely empty of cars until the light changed to let some more through.
All of the green space, combined with the city’s cleanliness, easy public transportation, and light traffic make Singapore a very pleasant place to explore. I very much enjoyed walking around the streets and seeing how the city has wrapped itself in its natural environment in order to ensure that even with a concentrated population, it still feels open and livable. The heat wasn’t too oppressive during my visit, ether, which was a pleasant surprise – I hope the weather stays like this as I move up the Malay Peninsula! In the next post, I’ll talk about Singapore’s interesting mix of cultures and ethnic neighborhoods, but until then, enjoy this advertisement offering a bit of wisdom from the Garden City: