July 18, 2018

Tropical recreation area set to cool central Singapore


Students from the Institute of Landscape Architecture are planning some natural ways to cool the heat-afflicted metropolis of Singapore. Their testing ground is a disused railway line reclaimed by nature and converted into a tropical recreation area.

The midday heat in Singapore is merciless. The sun over this tropical metropolis doesn’t shine, it burns. That’s why the city has air-conditioned underpasses that connect metro stations to shopping centres and office buildings, creating kilometres of interconnected tunnels that give its 5.6 million inhabitants at least some temporary respite from the adverse climate. This Wednesday lunchtime, ETH Professor of Landscape Architecture Christophe Girot, four teaching assistants and 14 students have sought shelter beneath the broad tin roof of the Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown. One of Singapore’s countless down-to-earth food markets, it serves a wealth of delicious meals that combine the influences of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian cuisine – the dominant cultures of the former British Crown colony.

Tucking into a spicy noodle soup and Chinese dumplings, Girot explains why he brought his students to Singapore: “Most of them have never been to Asia, so it’s hard for them to understand what life in a tropical metropolis is like – it’s something physical you have to experience in the flesh.” He hopes this experience will help his students gain a better understanding of the growing problem of urban heat islands (UHIs). Heat is increasingly posing health and energy challenges in big cities throughout the tropical belt, from Jakarta and Manila to Bangkok and Singapore.In Singapore, temperatures in central, heavily built-up areas such as Orchard Road sometimes exceed those in surrounding rural areas by up to 7 °C.

The city is heated not just by its tropical climate, but also by the continuous injection of anthropogenic heat from car exhausts, industry and fossil fuel power stations, as well as waste heat from hundreds of thousands of air conditioning units. Other UHI drivers include densely packed building complexes that are not optimised for wind, as well as dark surfaces such as tarmac roads and building facades that store heat instead of reflecting the sun’s rays.

Green spaces to cool the city

Girot’s colleagues at the Future Cities Laboratory – an urban research group at the Singapore-ETH Centre – are hoping to break the vicious cycle of self-heating cities. As part of the large-scale project Cooling Singapore (see box), they are working together with partner universities to develop a roadmap by the middle of this year that will offer measures designed to cool the city down.

The Bachelor’s and Master’s students who Girot has brought to Singapore as part of his three-month seminar Singapore hot, Singapore cool are here to help with that project. The testing ground is a 24-kilometre-long green space known as the Rail Corridor, a disused railway line that stretches from Malaysia in the far north of the island down to the port in the south. It was built at the turn of the century under British colonial rule. In 1918, the British handed over ownership to Malaysia, which ceased operating the line in 2011. Everything that was easy enough to remove was taken back to Malaysia, including the rails, signals and signs. What remained was a largely undeveloped green space, a corridor that nature has gradually reclaimed. Today, one million people live within a one-kilometre radius of the Rail Corridor – a space that offers tremendous potential for the city-state.

“The value of urban green spaces has been rising for years,” says Girot. “Not just for decorative purposes like before, but because they are increasingly taking on key functions.” Researchers have shown that green areas contribute to a more comfortable climate in urban environments. What’s more, targeted landscape architecture interventions can unlock further potential benefits such as using wind and water to cool the environment. “Urban planning in the 21st century is increasingly about landscape planning,” insists Girot, an award-winning landscape architect. “It will play a key role in giving cities a more liveable climate in the future.”


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