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Building with Care
Adopting a science-based, consultative approach to development has strengthened HDB’s role as a responsible land steward, as it balances the provision of public housing with the conservation of nature and heritage.
Costa Grove in Pasir Ris will feature riverine landscapes and facilities inspired by nature
Even before the first shovel strikes the dirt in the development of a town, the intent for the area would have long been identified in the gazetted Master Plan that guides Singapore’s development. Given how rapidly the country has urbanised since its independence, it would be hard-pressed to identify suitably sized sites to support future household formations and economic growth in land-scarce Singapore.
The physical constraints and limited land resources are felt acutely in this city-state, even with the best urban planning strategies to maximise land use. As such, development could entail HDB and other agencies moving into natural green areas or where there are physical remnants of our past. After all, demand for housing remains strong with more families becoming nuclear households and singles aspiring for their own homes.
More marriages and family formation have contributed to rising demand for public housing
In mitigating the trade-offs that inevitably come with development, HDB adopts a science-based approach to ensure that land clearing impacts the ecological and social balance in the most minimal of ways. In-depth environmental baseline and impact studies have been standard practice for many years. Consultants survey the area over time, taking stock of the terrestrial and hydrological habitats, and all that co-exist in the space.
Detailed observations of wildlife activity help establish whether the area is a primary habitat for its inhabitants, a site for seasonal nesting, or if it plays a more facilitative role in connecting wildlife between green stretches and to larger catchment areas. This information is valuable in determining the ecologically significant elements that should be preserved or catered for.
For example, green corridors have been placed in Punggol Northshore to help maintain ecological balance and promote diversity. In Tengah, a planned green corridor aims to facilitate ecological connectivity from the Western to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Also, the biodiversity of Pasir Ris Park and mangroves will be safeguarded, even as a Build-To-Order project is being developed nearby.
“Such studies are a key part of our planning process to ensure that our projects are undertaken with great care while we safeguard Singapore’s limited resources,” says HDB’s Group Director of Research & Planning, Chong Fook Loong. “Only when we have full knowledge of the ins and outs of the site, can the trade-offs be determined in a well-considered manner across a wide variety of land-use needs, from housing to infrastructure and the provision of green spaces,” he explains.
Green corridors in Punggol Northshore District maintain the ecological balance and promote biodiversity
In Woodlands North, where HDB will be developing more public housing, an environmental study has revealed an area of over 4 hectares, or about 6 football fields, that is worthy of conservation. The area has an assemblage of rare and native plants as well as a freshwater stream. With this knowledge, development plans for the area could be decisively adjusted.
As three-quarters of this core conservation area was already contained within the existing Admiralty Park, HDB planners decided to retain the remaining portion, thus forming an extension of Admiralty Park. This ensures that the conserved area is ecologically connected to the larger park and that wildlife has access to necessities such as food, water, and shelter. Plans for housing were subsequently adjusted, and a plot of managed vegetation outside the conservation area set aside.
Another area planned for residential use is in Yishun Miltonia Close. Taking into account findings on a core biodiversity area and after extensive consultation with key stakeholders, HDB plans to retain a 6.4 hectare nature park that will be largely left in its natural state. This is about 2.5 times the original park area safeguarded in the Master Plan, and it will encompass a natural stream as well as a large proportion of significant flora species and large tree specimens. This required HDB and other agencies to identify alternative locations for other planned uses, such as a school site initially safeguarded in the Master Plan for development in the longer term.
Beyond the boundary of the nature park, plans to transplant and translocate affected flora and fauna species will be studied in greater detail. These efforts aim to protect the existing biodiversity and strengthen the ecological connectivity with the broader area while enhancing the living environment for residents.
Providing green spaces, whether through restoration or landscaping, is essential to create a quality living environment for residents. For example, at the precinct level, every new HDB development must have a surrounding area of greenery that is 4.5 times the built-up area.
The hierarchy of greenery is evident in the Dawson estate, where gardens in the sky complement the 4,300 new trees from over 70 species planted on the ground, to provide shade and respite. This is also one of the functions of the 200m-long community eco-corridor along Margaret Drive, lined by 18 conserved mature trees, including the Rain Tree and Broad-Leafed Mahogany.
While these efforts may not immediately be an equal replacement for the natural elements that had to be let go along the way, it ensures that greenery will continue to be a key part of our towns and estates, and that HDB homes can be close to nature. Over time, the greenery will mature and flourish, along with the estate and its inhabitants.
At SkyParc @ Dawson, lush greenery can be found at various levels of the development
At SkyVille @ Dawson, mature trees were kept and incorporated into its landscape
Regular conversations with communities and individuals who share a passion for Singapore’s natural and built heritage have intensified in recent years. These sessions could also involve other agencies such as National Parks Board, Urban Redevelopment Authority and National Heritage Board, residents, and even nature enthusiasts and heritage groups.
At the close of such consultation exercises, HDB carefully examines the findings from the environmental studies and the feedback received, and then adjusts development plans where feasible, while balancing competitive development and conservation needs. For example, following intensive engagement with members of the public, such as nature enthusiasts, academics and students, HDB refined development plans for a site in Ulu Pandan, which had been zoned for residential use from as early as 2003. Only the eastern half of the site will be developed for public housing. The more biodiverse western half will be retained as a nature park in the medium term.
The collective expertise of another group of stakeholders — the police fraternity and heritage enthusiasts — were valuable when HDB and other Government agencies were working to safeguard the heritage of the Old Police Academy (OPA) at Mount Pleasant, as a new public housing estate will be built on the site.
After completing engagements with stakeholders and an in-depth heritage study, HDB will retain and sensitively readapt four OPA buildings with heritage significance within the future estate, and possibly incorporate other historically significant elements there.
An engagement session about preserving the heritage of the Old Police Academy (OPA), where new public housing will be built on the site
Some blocks of the OPA will be adapted for reuse in the new Mount Pleasant housing estate, preserving the historic character of the site
Cultivating and sustaining a candid relationship with its partners can help HDB navigate the healthy tension arising from a diversity of needs and voices, to strike an optimal balance between development and conservation, and shape a future Singapore that citizens can continue to love and thrive in.
Dover Forest Debate
Perspective of a Green Corridor that will be established along Ulu Pandan canal
A stretch of greenery in Queenstown’s Ulu Pandan Estate came under intense public scrutiny at the start of 2021. Dover Forest, once used as plantations but now overgrown with non-native trees, had been earmarked for residential use since 2003 and would be developed to provide public housing for Singaporeans. Following an environmental study and engagement with nature groups, HDB sought public feedback on its development plans for housing in the area. Public debate on the future of Dover Forest was robust. Some wanted the entire forest preserved and requested that alternative sites for housing be considered instead. Other respondents were amenable to a balance of housing and greenery in the area and suggested retaining large trees of significance and an existing stream. Several asked for the provision of recreational park space along the Ulu Pandan Canal.
HDB planners, including Director of Urban Design Lim Shu Ying and a team of staff, considered the public feedback as well as findings from scientific studies thoroughly, and conducted extensive consultations with various stakeholders. “The engagement generated a lot of good conversations and provided space for different viewpoints. We took all feedback seriously, and these helped to shape the revised development plans for Ulu Pandan,” says Shu Ying.
A sizeable nature park will be safeguarded on the more biodiverse western half of the forest, and this half will be left undeveloped in the medium term. To meet strong housing demand in mature estates, HDB flats will be developed in the eastern half of the site. Future and existing residents can look forward to new homes, amenities, and recreational spaces nestled in verdant greenery. The eventual development plans for Ulu Pandan are balanced against nature conservation and housing needs, so the area would not only be home to Singaporeans but also to existing flora and fauna.
Perspective of new housing blocks fronting the Ulu Pandan canal
All perspectives used in this article are artists' impressions only; actual developments may differ.