The Garden City at the ITCZ

Is it possible to create a world where 10 billion people (the estimated number of people on Earth in the year 2100) and nature live sustainably and in harmony with each other? I wondered if Singapore might have some answers for me.

Singapore’s distinctive sky line at sunset.

When I left the US for Vietnam more than three months ago, I hadn’t anticipated I’d end up in Singapore for a couple of weeks. I only had a 3-month work visa for Vietnam, so I knew I would likely have to go somewhere to renew it. Other Fulbrighters suggested Singapore for the quick turnaround time on visas at the Vietnamese embassy. I was also curious about this tiny country that is also a very large city of six million people on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. This is a country that has become a global center for business, commerce and culture, and espouses its commitment to sustainable development goals. But it’s probably most well known among tourists abroad for its gardens, its ‘Supertrees’, and buildings that drip with green foliage in the city center.

Singapore sits just north of the Equator, at 1.3 degrees North latitude. Meteorologically, this makes it a very interesting place, surrounded by water and positioned under the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) that shifts north and south seasonally, interacting with the East Asian monsoon. This means that the nature and timing of almost daily rainfall throughout the year shifts with the seasons – even though Singapore doesn’t necessarily experience ‘seasons’ in the way that those of us from higher latitudes experience them. April falls in what is known as the ‘Inter-monsoon’ period, when the winds are shifting from the Northeast to the Southwest. Rainfall tends to happen in the late afternoon when temperatures get quite hot, about 90F, with a relative humidity of about 75%. After living for a few months in the generally all-around perfect weather in Dalat, Vietnam, the Equatorial heat and humidity required quite an adjustment for me.

I think the thing that will stick with me most about the moment I emerged from the subway line after arriving in the city center from the airport, was the range of odors from various shops and restaurants. It was dinner time, and just by turning my head, I could see a Thai restaurant, a Mediterranean cafe, a shop with seafood bee soon (a noodle soup), a couple of coffee and toast shops, a couple of burger joints, and an ice cream shop. Singapore is the melting pot of cultures and traditions in Asia. But ‘melting pot’ is really an American term, or, at least what America likes to think that it is (but has such a long way to go). Also, a melting pot would blend and dilute. Here in Singapore, there is a mix of cultures that doesn’t seem diluted, and that’s part of what makes it so intriguing.

I had plenty to keep me busy in this large city/small country. I spent two days visiting Nanyang Technological University (NTU) giving a seminar and facilitating a couple of workshops, connecting with people over climate change and science education, and supporting women in science. NTU is a fairly new university on a beautiful campus that borders the rainforest. In building the campus, they have clearly tried to maintain a garden-like atmosphere, integrating buildings with a park-like landscape. Of course, any time you encroach on a place that was once wild land, nature will still echo along the school corridors. Apparently, it’s not uncommon to see monkeys and otters on campus. One of my colleagues mentioned that one day there was an python fighting a cobra on one of the campus streets. I didn’t believe him until he pulled up the video – and there they were, two snakes fighting in the street, surrounded by students holding cell phones.

Beyond the campus visit, I really enjoyed discussions I had with people about integrating climate change and sustainability education across all disciplines. This is something that NTU is trying to do in their core curriculum (i.e., general education) courses, and that is why they were happy to invite me to speak. (It’s also something I hope we will do at my own university.)

As a low-lying tropical island nation, Singapore is vulnerable to the more immediate, short-term, effects of climate change. Much of the nation sits below 15 meters elevation, and is prone to flooding and salt-water intrusion. Extreme weather events and changes in the frequency and intensity of precipitation threaten food and water security (most food in the country is imported). Vector-borne diseases, like Dengue, are also a problem here, particularly in the rainy season. But Singapore is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and unlike a lot of places, may have the resources to survive the coming changes. I still wonder how they will do that, though.

The city seems to have a large environmental campaign, encouraging people to use the excellent mass transit system, and properly dispose of trash and recycling. They have made an effort to set aside land for parks and preserves. New buildings are required to incorporate green spaces on the building! I visited the famed Marina Bay Gardens, with it’s flower dome and cloud forest dome, nestled in a large park near the iconic Supertrees. The Supertrees are 18 man-made mechanical trees that serve as vertical gardens, adorned in tropical flowers and ferns. They also serve as venting ducts and rainwater collectors for the two domes nearby and are powered by solar photovoltaic systems. Every night they twinkle and shine for thousands of onlookers in a musical light show.

For a large metropolis, Singapore also has a number of hiking and walking trails. There is a gondola that will take you to the top of Mount Faber, near the harbor port. The mountain is connected to a ridge line riddled with well-maintained paved or wood pathways and roads for cycling. Of course, I walked to the top, up through the rainforest (who needs a gondola?). I wanted to immerse myself in the smell of the forest and the buzz of insects. But I’m afraid that I really only scratched the surface of possible treks while I was there. The heat and the humidity were a bit a of a deterrent for me.

The city also has a spectacular botanical gardens that lets you forget you’re in a city for awhile, as soon as you walk through the gates. And the city zoo is world renowned as one of the best in the world. The animals there all looked happy and well fed. There were free-ranging orangutans (at least, free-ranging through a bit of the park where the trees had been outfitted with ropes and hammocks). The zoo is so nice that they actually have a problem with troops of macaques coming through regularly, with the potential to wreak havoc in tourist relations. They keep a pretty close eye on them, though, and every time we saw a band of macaques, there was a park employee nearby, making sure park visitors kept well away.

Singapore is a very modern city that has clearly been well-planned. But I wouldn’t yet call it a model for sustainability. The city is trying its best, but like everywhere else, it has a long way to go for a zero carbon footprint. And like other coastal cities around the world – Ho Chi Minh City, Mumbai, Houston, Amsterdam – to name a few in a very long list, Singapore has not yet found a way to stop the rising tide.

The visa was about as easy to get as others told me it would be, provided you pay enough cash, you can have it in two hours. I arrived back in Vietnam in mid-April, as planned, only to find a couple of days later that Singapore had sent me off with a very unwelcome parting gift: a positive COVID test, and ‘mild’ symptoms that were strong enough to keep me in bed for several days. I was not lucky enough to have the type of COVID so many people have told me it would be: ‘only a few sniffles’, or ‘just a mild head cold’. It instilled in me the real sense of how this disease impacts everyone differently, and a renewed motivation to keep wearing the mask.

One thought on “The Garden City at the ITCZ

  1. Love the picture of you teaching at the workshop. I can’t imagine dealing with that heat and humidity. I know your dad and Linda had to deal with it, too.


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