Monday 25 June 2012

Dense cities can be green, says minister

Vivian Balakrishnan tells Rio summit that the key is to build upwards and leave space for trees
By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2012

Singapore has shown that dense cities can be green - and ironically, it has achieved this by building upwards, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan.

In aiming to preserve land for greenery and create a 'city in a garden', the Republic made long-term plans to be high-rise, urbanised and compact.

'Although five million people live within an island 30km across, 47 per cent of our land is covered by trees,' he told delegates at the Rio+20 summit that has just ended in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. 'We have to go high-rise in order to preserve land and trees.'

He was making the point that cities can be environmentally-friendly, and they even have an advantage in providing water and other services, and in keeping pollution down.

'The paradox of a city is that dense, compact, connected, integrated cities are in fact the most sustainable and green way of life in the future.'

It was a point he made at two side events at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which ended on Friday. Dr Balakrishnan, who was representing Singapore at the forum, was a panellist at the UN Habitat's forum on future cities and urban policies, and also attended a town-hall discussion on the sustainability of urban environments.

The 10-day forum was billed as the biggest UN summit on sustainable development in a decade, and concluded with representatives from more than 190 nations inking a declaration to eradicate poverty and ensure a sustainable future. The summit came 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit, which saw leaders pledge that the world should live within its environmental means.

At both events, Dr Balakrishnan noted that Singapore's constraints also offered opportunities. Its small size, for instance, not only made it easier and cheaper to provide services such as piped water and education, but also encouraged it to be greener.

'Pollution is not an option,' he said. 'We cannot afford to pollute our own backyard, because my backyard is your front yard. Therefore the easy option of pushing things which are pollutive, toxic or damaging to a corner, where no one would know about it for many years, is not available.'

He also spoke about how the lack of resources had prompted Singapore to find innovations in water purification and recycling. But he also shared the challenges of running a city-state, noting that it had to address social issues such as racial integration and inequality in wealth and opportunities.

'There are quite a lot of things going on in cities, but at the core it is about getting politics right, making long-term plans and innovative urban design,' he said.

But he also stressed that Singapore had its unique circumstances, and different countries had to find their own way.

In a statement made at the end of the summit on Friday, Dr Balakrishnan also made this point - that there is no 'one-size-fits-all approach' in the global push for environmental protection and sustainable development. At the same time, he stressed his support for the goals laid down at Rio+20.

'To support the global sustainable development agenda, all our national strategies must be coordinated and supported by a forward-thinking and effective global governance regime.'

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