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  • Jan 05, 2021
  • Tim Wendel

Growing Community

Growing Community

A Rich Culture of Urban Gardening Proves Essential for Seniors

With the world’s largest glass greenhouse, an elevated walkway weaving through groves of 16-story, man-made “supertrees” and a 115-foot-high waterfall, the Gardens by the Bay has become one of Singapore’s popular destinations. An average of six million visitors take in the sights annually.

Soaring more than 150 feet into the air, the towering supertrees frame a pair of cooled conservatories, the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. What was once forgotten land south of Singapore’s financial center is now home to plants, trees and flowers from every continent, except for Antarctica, according to the BBC.

“It is difficult to imagine Gardens by the Bay anywhere else,” says chief executive officer Kiat Tan. “We have perpetual summer.”

A season and even a state of mind that Singapore’s civic leaders are determined to make  available to everyone, especially older adults. The city-state, which lies off the tip of southern Malaysia, has embraced flora and greenery for all. Singapore currently has more than 350 parks, with therapeutic gardens designed specifically for seniors.

Kay Pungkothai, a director with Singapore’s National Parks Board, says the goal is to make access to greenery “as pervasive as possible.” That means moving through banks of plants and flowers on the way to the transit system, along major thoroughfares and even at the airport.  Almost anywhere a visitor looks there’s greenery to be found, from the rooftop gardens to the miles of hedges and other plant life. Singapore is proud to call itself one of the greenest locales in the world, with parks and gardens occupying 47 percent of all land there. Its famed Botanic Gardens has been designed as a world heritage site by the UNESCO. 

Currently there are four therapeutic gardens, with 30 planned to be open by 2030. These facilities include a rich array of trees, shrubs and flowers. Curving pathways, wide enough for wheelchairs, lead the visitor through various zones, including those sections emphasizing fragrance, gardening, fitness, even the calming sound of running water.

With Singapore expected to have close to one million seniors, the growing network of gardens could help with those with dementia and other public health issues. Each of the therapeutic gardens is designed to stimulate the senses and memories through interactions with nature and improving hand-eye coordination. Officials believe that the park settings throughout Singapore can aid in reducing stress and offering a calming sense of place. 

Pungkothai maintains that the majority of gardens “are not specifically targeting only seniors.” Many such public places are intended to be “a healing space, a healing sanctuary” for everyone.

Compared with Great Britain and the United States, the parks system in Singapore began decades later. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the city-state started to emphasize greenery, with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew symbolically planting a Mempat tree, with its distinctive pink petals.

As a young man, Lee had studied in Great Britain and visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, west of London. “I thought, ‘If they can bring a tropical forest to a temperate country, it would be stupid for us not to manage our own natural resources to bring greenery into our city,’” he once said. “We’ve got the natural resources; we just have to pay a certain amount of attention to details.”

ABOVE: The iconic manmade supertrees at Gardens by the Bay are massive vertical gardens that generate solar power and collect rainwater. 
LEFT: Visitors explore the perfectly manicured grounds of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which was founded in 1859. The 200-acre tropical garden is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. RIGHT: Friends gather at Symphony Lake, an open-air concert venue located on the grounds of the Botanic Gardens. 

Determined to “distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries,” Lee wanted to create “a clean and green Singapore,” with its gardens accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy. Lee served as prime minister from 1956 to 1990 and during Singapore’s rapid urbanization he made sure the city-state didn’t become a concrete jungle. Green spaces and gardens were mandated, becoming major components in architecture and design. 

Now with a population of 5.8 million in an area of 280 square miles (less than the size of New York City), Singapore has gone through several phases in making its environment greener. The National Tree Planting Day was inaugurated in 1971, while bridges and concrete structures throughout the area were soon cloaked by tropical plants. 

Determined to “distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries,” Lee wanted to create “a clean and green Singapore,” with its gardens accessible to everyone, not just the wealthy.

More than 3,500 fruit trees were planted in 1984 and 12 years later that total had swelled to 44,000 across Singapore. When theft became a problem, officials decided to plant more. That approach brought mixed results, but trees bearing such popular fruit as durian and jackfruit can still be found in nearly any neighborhood, according to “Living in a Garden: The Greening of Singapore.” 

Promoting the community and social aspect of gardening helped with loneliness, isolation and depression, especially among older citizens. Today, Singapore calls itself “A City in a Garden,” with many opportunities for seniors to become involved.  With planters accessible to those in wheelchairs, nearly everyone can grow herbs and spices year-round in the tropical climate.

In 2017, Singapore introduced allotment gardens (shared plots of land where people can come together to garden). Today, there are more than 1,000 allotment gardens in a dozen of its national parks. At these gardens, people can take over a raised planter bed measuring roughly 8 by 3 feet. These can be leased for three years at about S$40 annually.  

The Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture found that such community-based activity engaged “older adults in a more active and positive lifestyle.” A 2018 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health indicated that such activities can help aging adults suffering from depression, dementia, rheumatoid arthritis or cancer. Other studies have shown that being outdoors is essential for one’s mental health.

“Gardens can bring us together, give us community and even spirit,” says Richard Ashworth, 66, a Community in Bloom ambassador with Singapore’s NParks. “By going green, we can counteract climate change. We can heal ourselves when we come together in this way, and we can heal the planet, too.”

For two decades, Ashworth has helped direct efforts at Cosy Garden, a community garden in the Bukit Batok area operated by volunteers. Its vegetable garden, with chiles, tomatoes and melons, stands near an ornamental garden, with a goldfish pond. From there it’s a short walk over to the sculpture garden, where many of the works are constructed of recycled materials. (Ashworth regularly makes trips to the shipyard, with an eye for metal and piping that he can weld into his latest creation.) Nearby is the “lush garden,” which is known for its array of fruit trees and is a favorite with children.

“Twenty years ago, this was a grass patch,” Ashworth says. “Look at it now.”

He adds that the satisfaction seniors “gain from gardening is so important. It allows us to move ahead with more happiness and responsibility toward each other. Neighbors can better connect and know each other through our gardens and working on them. That’s something I really enjoy.”

The Community in Bloom movement began in 2005 as gardens and support groups formed at housing projects, schools, offices and hospitals. Only a half-dozen individuals are needed to form a local group. From there they can register with the Community in Bloom program and receive guidance and assistance.

Early on, such groups focused on growing ornamental and flowering plants. Since then some have shifted to growing edibles, such as bananas and papayas. In the wake of world events, Singapore officials expect interest in growing one’s own food to increase. With so little available land, the city imports 90 percent of food. As a result, officials envision edible gardening becoming “a bigger picture in our community gardens,” Kay Pungkothai says. In addition, plans are under way to plant more than 100,000 more trees in the next decade.

ABOVE: Kay Pungkothai of Singapore’s National Parks Board directs the Community in Bloom and Skyrise Greenery initiatives. 
LEFT: HortPark, a 24-acre regional park and the site of Singapore’s first therapeutic and community allotment gardens (both launched in 2016), is a quiet refuge in the midst of the busy city. RIGHT: Visitors wander along paths at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

In 1991, the government began work on connecting its growing network of parks and nature areas with trails. The first stretch was opened four years later, soon becoming a favorite with Singapore’s joggers and cyclists, and park visits increased from four percent to 27 percent in 2007-2008 alone. The Park Connector Network now runs for nearly 200 miles through Singapore. By 2030, another 100 miles of park connectors are planned, assuring that every household will be a 10-minute walk or less from a park.

The number of return visitors to the region’s parks continues to climb, too, as there is much to see and take in with the region’s growing green environment. A recent study indicated that 22 dragonfly species, 57 butterfly species and 90 bird species have been sighted in Singapore.  In the next decade, Singapore’s NParks plans to recover more than 70 more native plant and animal species.  

“I have always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit,” Lee Kuan Yew once said. “We need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits.”

Nothing lifts Richard Ashworth’s spirits more than seeing a bougainvillea, his favorite plant, when it is in bloom. Several have flourished in his community ornamental garden.

What kind of place would Singapore be without its diverse gardens?

“I cannot imagine,” Ashworth replies. “But I know that I wouldn’t be able to live here.” ●

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: The Singapore Orchid, Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim. Curtain Creeper, Vernonia Elaeagnifolia. Saga or Coral Bean Tree, Adenanthera Pavonina. Dottie or Black Rose, Goeppertia.

Photographs by Marco Javier