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Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

Office towers and trumpet trees – building greener cities

Posted on: 12.06.12 (Last edited) 13 June 2012

It may seem as though Stephen Browne, Manager of Fauna & Flora International Singapore has been seconded to the Singapore Tourism Board for his latest blog, but it’s the naturalist within that has him singing the praises of the green city and its trees.

On my travels around Asia I inevitably have to visit capital cities. Cars, tall buildings, lots of people, too much concrete and noise and dust are all constants but undeniably, some are just nicer than others. I think it’s the presence of green open spaces, trees and wildlife that make a city bearable – and those without less so. I am a conservationist, so I of course have an interest in all things green and fluffy, but I bet that anyone who visits a truly green city, such as Singapore, will not fail to be struck by how pleasant they can be.

There are estimated to be over 2 million trees on Singapore, (and 5 million people) which equates to roughly 3,000 trees per km2. A lot of these contribute to the 2,000 native plant species recorded on the island, but there are also many non-native species. This combined with Singapore’s equatorial climate means that there are always trees that are in flower or fruiting – from which many wildlife species benefit. My walk into work each morning is regularly enhanced by hornbills, woodpeckers, parrots and parakeets, even hill mynahs, all of which enjoy the abundance of fruits and nesting cavities. It’s not only birds that are winning here – numerous butterflies, other insects, squirrels, tree shrews and epiphytic plants also benefit from the abundant foliage.

Singapore - a garden of earthly delights. Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

Singapore - a garden of earthly delights. Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

So why the ample greenery? The reasons are numerous. When the island was claimed in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles for the British Empire it was pretty much a tree covered swamp, so had plenty of trees to start with. From that point on there was tree clearance for agriculture and construction, but a desire to grow fruit and to keep the island as a tropical paradise, meant that tree cover was always maintained. Trees were kept to produce shade, which helped reduce the impacts of the hot climate, and reduce pollution, dust and noise by ‘capturing’ nasties with their leaves. More recently there has been a concerted effort to plant more trees and protect those that stand.

The National Parks Board (NParks), the government authority responsible for maintaining Singapore’s natural and green spaces (300 parks & four nature reserves) has launched a number of schemes to increase the appreciation and awareness of trees, as part of its plan to make Singapore a ‘City in a Garden’. Initiatives such as the Heritage Tree Scheme are designed to increase the appreciation of the islands natural heritage and allow members of the public to nominate trees that are important to them. To become a ‘Heritage Tree’ the tree has to have a girth of more than five metres, be a rare species, have historical significance and be assessed by the Heritage Tree Panel. There are currently 183 Heritage Trees receiving special protection.

The Heritage Roads Scheme is another initiative run by the NParks to identify and protect roads that have large, leafy and impressive road-side trees, established to protect the trees from threats resulting from road widening or realignment. There are currently five Heritage Roads, with a further 55 on the watch list.

Fauna & Flora International's office in Singapore. Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

Fauna & Flora International's office in Singapore. Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

Another way of increasing public awareness of trees is the NParks ‘Know 10 Trees’ campaign, which aims to increase awareness and appreciation of ten of the mostly commonly found and important tree species in Singapore.

All of these schemes, combined with others (such as the Park Connector Network) are designed to increase the appreciation of the value of trees as nice things to look at, or as a way of making the general surrounding more appealing. It isn’t just people that benefit, wildlife does as well.

It’s inevitable that cities will become bigger, as the world’s population becomes more urbanised, but it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom and could ultimately reduce pressures on the natural world. With considered planning, cities can be pleasant places to live and can even become havens for wildlife, there just has to be the desire to make cities green and sustainable. Of course there is much more to making a city sustainable than planting a few trees, things such as integrated water management, waste disposal and transport systems are probably more important, but it is a good place to start and it’s relatively easy.

Written by
Stephen Browne

Stephen was born and brought up in the heart of Alan Partridge country (rural Norfolk for those that don’t know) where he grew to appreciate the beautiful countryside and wildlife around him, particularly birds. After a stint at university, which rewarded him with the a couple of pieces of paper proclaiming that he was both a Bachelor and a Master of Science, he was lucky to get employment as a full-time professional birdwatcher, otherwise known as an ornithologist, with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The work there was mainly concerned with helping to develop and run national bird surveys to monitor the status of the UK’s birds and other general bird-related research. After six years at the BTO, Stephen was lucky to be selected to undertake a PhD on Turtle Doves at what is known now as the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), where he worked for about eight years. A post-doctoral research project on grey partridges and a chance encounter with a Cambodian student that he supervised, developed an interest in galliformes (pheasants and partridges to most people), particularly those in SE Asia and China. Through the antics of chasing pheasants as a Research Associate of the World Pheasant Association (WPA), Stephen was able to travel to Asia a lot and as a result was extremely fortunate to gain employment at FFI within its Asia-Pacific Programme. Stephen joined FFI in 2006 is now a Senior Programme Manager within FFI’s Asia-Pacific Programme, where he helps oversee the 70 odd projects across the seven countries that FFI works in. Whilst his work is perhaps more office based these days than is healthy, a recent long-term posting to Singapore, to support the regional team more effectively, means that he can once again do a bit of bird watching, and perhaps even chase the odd pheasant!

Other posts by Dr Stephen Browne
Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is a company limited by guarantee, incorporated in England and Wales, Registered Company Number 2677068. Registered Charity Number 101110
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