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Garden in the City (Part I): Tracing the Legal History of Singapore’s Green Spaces

Garden in the City (Part I): Tracing the Legal History of Singapore’s Green Spaces

Wong Li-Anne, Kim & Lu En Hui, Sarah

Year 1, LLB

National University of Singapore


Singapore, located one degree north of the Equator, is situated in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. Southeast Asia has often been described as a biodiversity ‘hotspot’, referring to its rich biodiversity and substantial rates of documented and inferred extinctions, especially for forest species. The founding of the island in 1819 precipitated an upsurge of urbanisation, plunging Singapore’s biodiversity into decline. However, following Singapore’s independence in 1965, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew helmed the “Garden City” vision – a vision to transform the nation into a city with abundant lush greenery and a clean environment.  Various legislative measures implemented with this vision in mind have restored some of Singapore’s biodiversity. While much has inevitably been lost through urbanisation, Singapore remains one of the most biodiverse urban landscapes by far, of any city in the world.

This article aims to document the evolution of legislation affecting biodiversity conservation – more specifically, that concerning the protection of green spaces. Such developments will be traced from its initial conception during Singapore’s pre-independence (1819-1965), to the nation’s formative years post-independence (1965-2005), and to present day (2005-2017).



Prior to the British colonization of Singapore in 1819, Singapore was covered in undisturbed vegetation and our native species thrived.

In 1819, rapid colonization began when the British first arrived on our shores leading to the rise in Singapore’s population and trade. In order to accommodate both population and economic growth, large-scale deforestation took place. The rainforest that covered the whole island was felled for the harvest of cash crops.   With the intense harvest of land for cash crops resulting in loss of fertility of land, farmers had to continually seek different forest sites for harvest, causing more trees to be felled. By the 1990s, only 7% of the original forest remained.

The rapid deforestation that took place caught the attention of the colonial government. In 1884, with the encouragement of Nathaniel Cantley, then superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, the Forestry Department had been established and a protected area of 343 ha in Bukit Timah was declared a nature reserve.  The reserve was demarcated by a boundary and patrol of the reserve began to prevent illegal harvesting.  Reforestation efforts also took place from 1884 to 1893, allowing 48 ha of land to be replanted with trees. This indicates the government’s slowly increasing efforts to promote conservation.

However, in 1931, the low economic value of the forests reserved prompted the government to propose the abolishment of all forest reserves, including Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Kranji Nature Reserve and Pandan Nature Reserve. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and parts of Kranji and Pandan Nature Reserve were put under the supervision of the Botanic Gardens, and all three nature areas were preserved and later re-gazetted in 1939 as forest reserves. This was later prevented by the intervention of the then-director of the Bukit Timah Reserve, Eric Holttum, allowing for a part of the Bukit Timah reserve to be preserved and re-gazetted as a forest reserve in 1939.

1942 marks the beginning of the tumultuous years of war in Singapore. Professor Hidezo Tanakadate of Tohoku University took charge of the Botanic Gardens and requested for some senior staff to continue their work in the Gardens. With both the local and Japanese staff working together, the Garden remained well-preserved and even remained an invaluable centre of research in spite of the war.

In 1951, the Nature Reserves Ordinance was extended to include legal protection of nature areas at Bukit Timah, Kranji, Pandan, Labrador and the Municipal Water Catchment area.  Pandan Nature Reserve was later de-gazetted as a nature reserve so that it could be converted into an industrial estate while Kranji Nature Reserve was de-gazetted to build a reservoir. This recognition of more nature areas for protection highlights the country’s growing efforts to protect the natural landscape.


1965 marked the dawn of a new era of independence, and with that, new legislative reforms targeted towards the building of Singapore’s new identity. On the environmental front, Singapore was envisaged as a ‘garden city’, a vision first articulated by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1967.

In 1975, its first effort to legislate the protection of green spaces was manifested in the implementation of the Parks and Trees Act. This Act aims to “provide for planting, maintenance and conservation of trees and plants within national parks, nature reserves, tree conservation areas, heritage road green buffers and other specified areas, and for matters connected therewith”. It mandated government agencies and private developers, to set aside spaces for trees and greenery in projects such as development of housing estates and the construction of roads and carparks. Parks had become an additional focus with many parks developed to provide more recreational areas and ventilation in highly-urbanised areas. The impact of such efforts culminated in the area of parks and green spaces increasing from 879 ha in 1975 to 11,259 ha by the end of 2015. The number of parks grew from 13 to 407 in the same period.

In July 1996, the Parks and Recreation Department was reconstituted as the National Parks Board (NParks). NParks was established to develop and manage parks and greenery in Singapore. Bukit Timah and Central Catchment Nature Reserve were both declared as Nature Reserves, while the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Fort Canning Park came under the management of NParks. 1 January 2002 marked the gazetting of two new nature reserves, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Labrador Nature Reserve. Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve was added due to its rich biodiversity and extensive mangrove forest while Labrador Nature Reserve was gazetted because of its rocky shore and unique coastal vegetation. This was a significant step in conservation, given how land-scarce Singapore has become. According to part VII of the National Parks Act 1996, the gazettement of an area as a nature park or reserve would mean that any ‘activity which causes or may cause alteration, damage or destruction to any plant or animal or property’ will be prohibited and will be considered an offence. This facilitates the protection and conservation of such nature reserves. With dedicated effort and political will, the green cover of Singapore increased significantly from 35.7% in June 1986 to 46.5% in August 2007. While this is due to a large extent to intensive urban planning, such a sharp increase would not have been made possible if not for the fervent protection and management of existing green cover.



Currently, public green areas of Singapore fall under the management of NParks, constituting more than 9,500 ha (13.6%) of the total land area of Singapore. Out of this land area, about 3,326 ha are categorised as Nature Reserves. The Nature Reserves managed by NParks include Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a lowland dipterocarp forest, Central Catchment Nature Reserve, a lowland dipterocarp and freshwater swamp forest, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, a mangrove habitat and Labrador Nature Reserve, a coastal hill forest. The rest of the green areas include park connectors, public parks, playgrounds, roadside gardens and vacant state lands.

This will be the central focus of Part II of this series on Singapore’s legislative efforts to protect green spaces.


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