Date01 December 2006
AuthorJoseph CHUN LLB (Hons) (National University of Singapore), PhD (University College London); Advocate & Solicitor (Singapore), Solicitor (England and Wales); Assistant Professor, School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore.
Citation(2006) 18 SAcLJ 248
Published date01 December 2006

Parks and Trees Act 2005 Act 4 of 2005

This note reviews the Parks and Trees Act 2005. It argues that while on the whole, it represents a step forward from the previous legislation, there is scope for further improvement. In particular, consideration needs to be given to the inclusion of further legal safeguards to protect the ecological integrity of our natural heritage.

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

Native American proverb

I. Singapore’s garden city and its natural heritage

1 With only about 680km2 of land, and a population of 4.3 million, Singapore faces immense pressure to develop its land to meet all manner of socio-economic needs. In the circumstances, Singapore has on the whole done remarkably well in maintaining a “clean and green” environment in spite of its rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. Much credit for this goes to an enlightened political leadership who understood, very early on, the importance of concurrently protecting the urban environment from deterioration while pursuing economic development.

2 The garden city programme was introduced by the then Prime Minister in 1967.1 In 1968, the then Minister for Health told Parliament during the Second Reading of the Environmental Public Health Bill2 that:3

The improvement in the quality of our urban environment and the transformation of Singapore into a garden city — a clean and green city — is the declared objective of the Government.

3 The initial aim of the garden city programme was simply to plant as much lush greenery as possible so as to improve the quality of the environment.4 To achieve this quickly, fast-growing trees, whether indigenous or exotic, were selected for planting, to establish a green mantle for the island. Once this had been achieved, flowering shrubs and trees and fruit trees were planted to avoid the monotony of continuous island-wide green vegetation and to add dashes of colour to the landscape. The greening has not just stopped at the ground level, but is also taking place in high-rise buildings to make Singapore a garden city on all levels.5

4 Today, Singapore has taken its garden city concept a notch higher with its “city in a garden” plan. This entails turning green spaces into a seamless network of gardens, and transforming parks from passive green areas to places teeming with cultural activities and performances, nature programmes and tours, and even vibrant night life.6 More recently, to strengthen Singapore’s garden city image, a second botanical garden has been planned for the Marina Bay area. Unlike the first which focuses on botanical collections and research, this second botanical garden will focus on mass floral displays and “creative plant-based edutainment”.7

5 The garden city programme has largely been successful in covering Singapore with lush greenery; so successful in fact that

Singapore is exporting its expertise to other cities.8 The role of law in achieving this success cannot be underestimated. Tracing the legal development underlying Singapore’s greenery, law professor Koh Kheng Lian has noted that the legal framework has helped to guide planners in mapping Singapore as a garden city. The law has also established the institutions necessary to carry out and manage the programme of developing a garden city, such as the Parks and Recreation Department, and the National Parks Board. Without these legal instruments, the implementation of the garden city concept might not have been so successful.9

6 It appears, however, that the garden city concept as implemented in Singapore has been more successful in “taming and manicuring”10 the urban environment with greenery and less so with protecting the ecological integrity of the natural heritage of Singapore.11 Much of the physical landscape of the island has been irreversibly altered to meet the needs of its residents. In the course of the last century, land has been reclaimed at the expense of coastal ecosystems, swamps have been filled, hills have been levelled, reservoirs and lakes have been created, and drainage patterns have been altered.12 It has been estimated that between 1819, when the British first established a presence in Singapore, and 1990, more than 95% of the island state’s original vegetation cover has been

entirely cleared.13 This includes 99.8% of the original forest cover14 and 99% of coastal mangroves and mudflats.15

7 Today, more than half the main island is urbanised, and most of the smaller islands have been developed for industry or recreation. Notwithstanding Singapore’s “clean and green” image, the urbanised areas are ecologically impoverished. The density of high-rise buildings in built-up areas has affected the microclimate by raising temperatures by as much seven degrees Celsius.16 The soil condition has been impaired with most of the original topsoil having been removed, buried or incorporated with construction wastes, and much of the soil is severely compacted. Large areas are concreted over, and run-off is channelled directly into the drainage system without passing through the soil. And while Singapore aptly describes itself as a garden city with its widespread systematic planting of fauna in urban areas, such landscaping may actually harm rather than enhance the indigenous biodiversity when one considers that a large number of these are actually exotic species.17It is estimated that the total overall loss of biodiversity (flora and fauna, recorded and unrecorded) may be as high as 73%,18 and with 77% of the island’s species considered “threatened”, the future prospects for Singapore’s surviving biodiversity is believed to be bleak.19

8 While Singapore is on the whole ecologically impoverished, the same cannot be said of its nature areas20 and nature reserves. According to the National Parks Board, Singapore probably has the world’s highest biodiversity density — about 2,000 species of flora and fauna can be found in some 2,800 ha of nature reserve.21 In one two-hectare plot alone, at least 320 species of trees were found to have existed on site for the last 5,000 years.22 This high density of biodiversity makes the task of nature conservation easier since conservation efforts can be concentrated in a small area. At the same time, it means that any encroachment of nature reserve land is likely to have a significant ecological impact. Even then, our nature areas and nature reserves have not been spared from the urbanisation and industrialisation onslaught. Over the years, there have been numerous instances of nature areas and nature reserves being sacrificed for various types of “development”, including a golf course,23 a road,24 a prison detention centre for illegal immigrants and drug addicts and an aqua-culture farm,25 land reclamation,26 a land-fill,27 a water reservoir,28 and water storage tanks.29 Some of these encroachments have

arguably been made in less than inevitable circumstances.30 Seen in this context, the potential importance of the Parks and Trees Act 200531 cannot be underestimated.

II. Highlights of the Parks and Trees Act 2005

9 The Parks and Trees Act 2005 (“the new Act”) came into force on 1 August 2005. It replaces the now repealed Parks and Trees Act32 and makes substantial amendments to the National Parks Act;33 now renamed the National Parks Board Act. The Second Minister for National Development took pains to highlight to Parliament at the second reading of the Parks and Trees Bill34 on 25January 2005 that in preparing the Bill, various stakeholders including the Singapore Institute of Architects, the Institute of Engineers, and the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore, were consulted.35 The Minister did not say whether his ministry consulted the public and the nature conservation nongovernmental organisations such as the Nature Society of Singapore, surely also major stakeholders concerned with a subject matter of such fundamental public importance as the management of the natural heritage of Singapore. If indeed the public and conservation groups were not consulted, it would seem odd that the only people perceived by the government as having legitimate concerns are those associated with the real estate development industry.

10 As noted by the Second Minister for National Development, the key new provisions of the Bill are:

(a) the introduction of conservation of mature greenery in designated heritage roads;

(b) the increasing of the penalties for offences committed in national parks, nature reserves, and tree conservation areas; and

(c) the enhancement of the effectiveness of the National Parks Board (“the Board”).

A. Heritage road green buffer

11 To conserve “roadside greenery”, s 16 of the new Act empowers the Minister for National Development (“the Minister”), if it appears to him expedient to conserve the flora in any area of Singapore other than a national park or nature reserve as important elements of streetscape or landscape, and after consulting the Board, to designate any green verge or any area abutting any street as a heritage road green buffer. Once designated, it is the function of the Board to manage and maintain the buffer; and the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation (“the Commissioner”), who must now either be an officer or employee of the Board,36 is empowered to enter upon the land to take action or carry out work that is reasonably necessary for the management and maintenance of the buffer.37 Furthermore, no person may, except with the approval of the Commissioner, alter or erect or place any structure in, above, across or under such an area so designated;38 and the Commissioner may require an offender of this restriction to restore the area to its former state, or if it is not reasonably practicable or desirable to do so, alternatively require the offender to alleviate the effect of the contravention.39

B. Enhanced fines and appeals

12 The new Act...

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