Say No to the Concrete Jungle
By Dr Wong Wee Nam
15 March 2013
In the recent Budget debate, the Government pledged to commit a tenth of Singapore’s land to nature reserves and parks. According to the Senior Minister of State for National Development, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, the pledge is “significant for a highly urbanised city-state”. He made it sound as if this is a great concession to the people of Singapore. Unfortunately, it is not. In fact, having only such a small plot of green is likely to be detrimental to the physical, mental and social well-being of Singaporeans.
If we look at the map of Singapore, 10% of Singapore would barely be enough to cover our nature reserves and the catchment areas. What then are the types of parks and recreational spaces that we are talking about?
Singapore used to have one of the best beaches in the world. Our forest reserves would have all kinds of beautiful butterflies flying about. Our senior citizens would remember places like Changi Point, Mata Ikan, Labrador, Coney Island, Sister’s Islands, Pulau Blakang Mati, etc where they could go for quiet picnics, BBQs and fishing. They would also remember the times when they had many choices of secluded places to camp overnight.
After independence, there were still enough recreation spaces as land was reclaimed and both East Coast Park as well as West Coast Park were developed. Pulau Blakang Mati became Sentosa. Singapore was then a truly idyllic island in the sun.
Some of these places no longer exist, and if we reduce such parks and recreational spaces to 10% of the island, those remaining will end up becoming venues of over-crowded mass gatherings and not places of relaxation and recreation.
Instead of places for family fun and recreation, these areas will become cauldrons of stress and frustration. Our children will have no empty fields to kick a ball around.
Dr Howard Rusk, an authority on Human Rehabilitation, said, “Recreation is more than just having fun. It is fundamental to physical and mental well-being.” It is not just good for the development of children. It is also found to keep old people from visiting their doctors often. More importantly, the memory of places where a person used to enjoy will attach the person to the country he grew up in. Open urban spaces can be used for active recreation like sports or they could just be quiet places where a person just wants to get away from the urban environment.
Ideally, there should be park space of 16 square miles for every 1 million people. With 5 million people, 30% of Singapore should be green open space. With 6.5 million people, we need half of Singapore to provide that. It therefore bewilders me that the government should think that 10% of Singapore should be enough for our recreational and psychological spatial needs.
What does it mean when only 10% of Singapore is reserved for nature reserves and parks and the population grows to 7 million? Like income inequality, there will be spatial disparity that corresponds to income disparity. The top income earners will live in districts that provide an ideal ratio of space per capita. They can have their quiet game of golf surrounded by greenery, while the rest of more than 6 million people will have to squeeze into the public parks that are created from the remaining available land. Furthermore, with their high income, the rich can expand their space by going round playing golf and taking short holidays in the neighbouring countries. In winter, they can get away from this urban concrete jungle and go skiing in Japan, Korea or Switzerland.
Such options are not available to the poor and the many elderly.
A large epidemiological study in Britain by Mitchell and Popham shows that peoples’ health improved in proportion to their access to green space. In fact, it shows that the lower socio-economic group fare relatively better the more they are exposed to green spaces. By not providing the poor the ideal ration of green spaces, we are also creating further health disparities between income groups.1
A second epidemiological study in the Netherlands also found that residents of neighbourhoods with abundant green space were, on average, healthier. This correlation was clearly evident in the general population but it was more pronounced among seniors, housewives and low-income people. Also significant was the correlation between health and the total amount of green space, which, in some cases, was located at a distance of 1-3 km from home.2
A third study took place in Tokyo, which is known for its very high building density. This was a longitudinal study that followed a group of three thousand 70-year old citizens over five years. The presence of relatively plentiful green space in a neighbourhood correlated with a lower mortality risk. This correlation was stronger in a sub-sample of elderly people with few physical disabilities.3
There are other studies and they all point to the beneficial effects of green spaces on
stress, physical fatigue, mood, concentration, mental fatigue, self-discipline and faster recovery from illnesses. Without sufficient green spaces, therefore, the poor in Singapore will not only become poorer, they will also be unhealthier.
The government has failed to give us the living standard of Switzerland that they once promised us. The least they could do is not to give the problems of an overcrowded city without ample green spaces to our children.
What would such a city look like? In his book, The Culture of Cities, Lewis Mumford saw it as “an environment without natural or cultural resources: people who do without pure air, who do without sound sleep, who do without a cheerful garden or playing space, who do without the very sight of sky and the sunlight, who do without free motion, spontaneous play, or a robust sexual life.”
The sad part is, our children “may live and die without even recognising the loss.”
1. Mitchell, R. and Popham, F. “Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study.” (2008) The Lancet 372(9650):pp. 1655-1660
2. de Vries S, Verheij RA, Groenewegen PP, Spreeuwenberg P. “Natural environments -healthy environments? An exploratory analysis of the relationship between green space and health.” Environment and Planning A 2003; 35: 1717-1731
3. Takano T, Nakamura K, Watanabe M. “Urban residential environments and senio citizens’longevity in megacity areas. The importance of walkable green spaces.” Journal of Epidemiological Community Health 2003; 56: 913-918.