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Why Singapore is Covering its Buildings in Plants

The cities of the future will be green — literally. Singapore has taken green architecture to it’s logical next step and jump started a trend that will probably cover the cities of the world very soon.

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“You know, they should just like, uh, cover all the buildings in the city with plants and stuff. . .”

How many hippies needed to say this before it was actually done is immeasurable, but Singapore has finally heeded the call. Faced with the very real parameters of limited urban expansion space and having a rather crowded city as it is, they decided to make use of their excess of artificial surfaces for the purpose of creating gardens. They are covering their skyscrapers and high-rises with plants. They call it “Skyrise Greenery,” and it is leaving a typical, grey, uber-modern city-scape clothed in leaves, vines, and, sometimes, even trees. This is the new thing in eco-architecture: building green is now being taken literally. The idea in Singapore is not to put gardens in their city but to put their city in a garden — which has perhaps been the highest goal of civilization since Babylon.

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And why not? People like plants. Plants can filter out air pollutants, inhibit urban desertification, better insulate buildings which reduces the cost of cooling, retain rainwater which lowers the risk of flash flooding, and increase biodiversity by providing habitats for animals (and presumably employment for those charged with catching and euthanizing them). I also can’t believe that the technology required to drape some vines over the side of a building is very intensive or expensive — and just about anything is better to look at than the blank grey sides of another monotonous high-rise.

With Singapore’s National Parks Service willing to fund 50% of the installation costs of Skyrise Greenery, the foliage is spreading across the city. ITE College Central has covered the buildings of their 5,300 square meter campus with stripes of vertical green, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital has planted gardens on their roofs for patients to enjoy, the Orchard Central Mall decked itself out with green balconies and foliage covered walkways. The trend is growing, as Universal Studios Singapore, University Town, the Old Ford Factory, and the National Archives building have all garden-ized their roofs and the School Of The Arts, Singapore Management University, and a branch of HSBC have planted gardens down their sides. Even the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel is sprouting trees.

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What’s perhaps most poignant here is that much of the architectural space that’s now being covered in plants across Singapore would have gone underutilized otherwise. By sticking a garden on the roof you’re not just doing something that has modest environmental benefits and saves money, but almost inherently creating a place for people to go and use. As any squatter vagabond knows, urban rooftops have been ignored for far too long.

I went out to the Tree House condominium, which has the world’s highest vertical garden, just to see what Singapore’s skyrise greenery movement aspires to be. It wasn’t a very difficult place to find — all I had to do was take a bus to its proximity and look for the plant covered high-rises. The Tree House appeared to be a normal modern apartment complex that had a single tower that had a single side draped in vines. It was overwhelmingly underwhelming. The marketing material had lead me to expect some kind of neo eco-village at the very least. Instead, the hoopla was for a single vertical garden while all the other towers remained conspicuously bare.

“That! What is so good about that!?!” raged a security guard who worked nearby when I asked him what he thought of the Tree House. “They spent all that money to make that!?! It’s just some plants. It’s bullshit!”

Even still, that single wall of bullshit is estimated to save the inhabitants $500,000 SGD per year in cooling costs — a number that I’m in no position to confirm or refute.

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Like many other “eco” construction methods, there is a healthy profit motive behind skyrise greenery. Not only does it apparently save money, but it increases property value. This is normal, innovation is always profit driven, and for the foliage to continue creeping over the city-scape of Singapore people need to be making money from it. Though I have to wonder how many developers are hoping to real in big profits just by sticking some plants onto the sides of their buildings and labeling them “green.”

Whatever the case, like Japanese kudzu spreading over the U.S. Midwest, Skyrise Greenery will probably spread over cities all over the world. Right now, we walk through Singapore and marvel at how strange it is that they’re planting trees on rooftops and have bushes sticking out of walls, but they are merely the early adapters of a trend we all may soon regard as normal. Flying into the cities of the future may soon be like descending into urban jungles, literally — we’ll look out from the plane and see a blanket of green covering our destination and spanning out into the distance, blending smoothly into mountains, forests, and the rural spheres beyond. Our modern metropolises may soon look very much like the grown-over ruins of a long forgotten ancient city — or at least we’re giving the plants a good head start if this civilization thing ever does go bust.

We plant our cities on what was once nature and our nature on our cities. It seems cyclical on the surface, but it’s not. It’s just another tick in the linear progression of civilization, another excuse to enable the bad habit and covering the wounds of city building with a bandage of green. We’ve perhaps always felt a little guilty for these places.

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Filed under: Singapore, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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