Widely known as the ‘Garden City’, Singapore has gained a reputation for its clean, green, manicured landscape.

Being a tropical island – almost on the Equator – plants thrive here, and they provide shelter from the relentless Singaporean heat. They are also important in Asian cultures, as they are said to bring health and prosperity.

Singapore is also known for its successful public housing campaign which was first introduced in the 1920s during the British occupation. Housing was then concentrated in the city centre, along the Singapore River, consisting mainly of terraced shophouses, while housing in suburban areas was in the form of traditional Malay villages (kampongs), also known as Attap houses.

World War II further exacerbated Singapore’s housing problems: in 1947, the British Housing Committee reported that Singapore had one of the worst slums in the world. Public housing only really gained momentum however after the People’s Action Party (PAP) led by Lee Kuan Yew gained power in 1959.

The Bukit Ho Swee Fires in May 1961 was a major push factor. These broke out in a cramped squatter settlement, and made thousands of Singaporeans homeless. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) was set up that year in a bid to resettle them. They acquired the land and built the first five blocks of 768 flats in just nine months, and during the next four years, built over 8,000 flats. This was seen as the beginnings of the public housing boom in Singapore, changing its landscape.

When the Singapore government acquired land from the landowners, monetary compensation was given for every tree they had. Plants also had domestic uses in the new form of apartment living, in which common corridors were shared by about 10 flats. These communal areas of no real boundaries gave birth to the use of potted plants in marking one’s territory, blurring the lines between public and private space. This claiming of space often led to neighbourly disputes when it was seen to spill over.

In true Singapore style, competition between neighbours arose, and corridor gardens were the pride of many high rise apartment dwellers.

Corridor gardens are sometimes frowned upon when they take over walkways blocking off fire escapes, and incidents when pot plants fell off balconies has led to restrictions, with regular inspections by authorities. This corridor planting can be seen as an evolution from kampong living, where one would have a garden which would be an area to interact with one’s neighbours.

Corridor gardens could be seen as the beginnings of vertical gardens trend in Singapore’s built environment. Among its many green policies, Singapore has placed an importance on including plants in every aspect of a building project. Recent projects include the School of the Arts, major shopping centres and the ‘Gardens by the Bay’ in Marina Bay.

New HDB projects feature specific areas for potted plants in their design. Planting is also encouraged through various neighbourhood competitions. The approach to plants in highly urbanised Singapore could give us something to learn from: the harshness of this concrete jungle has been subdued with the help of greenery.

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