Wednesday 3 April 2013

Botanic Gardens: This could be Singapore's first World Heritage Site

By Tan Dawn Wei, The Straits Times, 1 Apr 2013

SINGAPORE is making a pitch for its first UNESCO World Heritage Site - the 154-year-old Botanic Gardens.

It has sent its initial application for the coveted status to the global body, formally known as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

The historic gardens was founded at its present site in 1859 by an agri-horticultural society. Its director, Dr Nigel Taylor, said an application to UNESCO was made last December.

But more work needs to be done before the gardens can be considered for official listing as a World Heritage Site.

"The Singapore Botanic Gardens fulfils the criteria for World Heritage Site assessment, and is a well-loved outdoor area for Singaporeans from all walks of life," he said.

"It is also significant for its interesting history that parallels Singapore's development."

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are cultural or natural sites that have been deemed to have outstanding universal value. There are 962 in the world, with 33 in South-east Asia such as Angkor in Cambodia, and Malacca and George Town in Malaysia. Singapore ratified the World Heritage Convention last year, which means it is bound to protect its national heritage.

In describing the gardens to UNESCO, the Republic pointed out that it was the oldest surviving example of its kind in the Straits Settlements, and a "living testament to the foresight of the early pioneering spirit of Singapore".

The 74ha park, which draws more than four million visitors a year, was instrumental in pioneering rubber cultivation and tapping techniques, and orchid breeding. Its botanical research and conservation have also put it on the international map.

The other botanic gardens that have made the UNESCO list are the Royal Botanic Gardens in London and Orto Botanico in Padua, Italy.

Historians and heritage buffs say the gardens is an obvious choice for Singapore's first stab at gaining UNESCO status.

Dr Chua Ai Lin, an historian and one-time member of the former Singapore Sub-Commission on Culture and Information for UNESCO, said the idea of backing the Botanic Gardens for the listing had been discussed for a few years.

"It was quite clear the Botanic Gardens was a low-hanging fruit," she said. Getting the UNESCO stamp "will show that it is not a history that is just meaningful to us here in a small way, but meaningful in a universal way".

University lecturer Tan Wee Cheng, who started a Facebook page in 2009 to campaign for Singapore to get itself on the list, said the gardens was a "fitting choice" to be the country's first official site.

"But instead of just celebrating if and when we do get on the list, we should consider issues of identity and conservation - if there are other sites we should conserve and further build on our national identity."

Gaining the recognition would be good for national pride, he said. "From a tourism perspective, they can then put the UNESCO logo on their brochures."

The country will now have to put together a nomination file.

More details will be shared at a later date, said Dr Taylor, but The Straits Times understands that there will be a series of public engagement exercises running till the end of this year, before the documents are submitted officially.

What World Heritage status would mean for the Botanic Gardens
Besides tourism, it would bring intangible benefits such as cultivating a sense of civic pride
By Tan Dawn Wei, The Straits Times, 6 Apr 2013

WHEN Singapore turns 50 in two years' time, it could well receive a most befitting gift to mark its coming of age: a UNESCO World Heritage Site stamp of approval.

It has hired a British consultant to put together a dossier for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to submit to the global body - known formally as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) - hopefully by its deadline next February.

Chris Blandford Associates helped the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, snag the coveted status in 2003.

Once the nomination documents are submitted, experts from one of UNESCO's advisory bodies will carry out site assessments and study the dossier before making their recommendations. This process takes a year.

The World Heritage Committee is made up of 21 elected members - including Malaysia and Japan - serving four-year terms. When they meet around June 2015, Singapore's fate will be decided.

It is a tedious, if not costly, affair.

In a 2007 study commissioned by Britain's Department for Culture, Media and Sport to look at the cost and benefits of World Heritage Site status in Britain, it was estimated that the cost of producing a bid which reaches the UNESCO committee for approval is between £420,000 and £570,000 (S$793,000 and S$1.07 million)

Each year, up to 45 natural or man-made wonders are picked for protection.

If Singapore does get on the list, few are likely to quibble over the price. Benefits - tangible and intangible - that come with the UNESCO tag are numerous.

"You may say it's an ISO 9000 on a heritage site," said Mr Tan Wee Cheng, honorary treasurer of the Singapore Heritage Society, in reference to the international quality standards for companies.

"The soft power of a place rises. People will think Singapore is not just a place to make money and to shop. You have culture of world significance."

There are 962 properties in 157 countries on the list, which recognises cultural or natural sites deemed to have outstanding universal value.

The 154-year-old Botanic Gardens is not a controversial choice, although it should not be seen as merely a colonial creation, argued Mr Tan, who says it is a repository of many histories.

The site's contribution to the world lies in the role it has played in scientific plant research and economic botany. Rubber tapping - in which latex is removed from trees without harming them - was pioneered at the gardens around the end of the 19th century.

"The idea that these places don't just belong to a country but are a shining example for all humanity is important," said Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society.

"Singapore Botanic Gardens could sit at the same table as Taj Mahal. It says something about our heritage."

The economic benefits, as evidenced by many other World Heritage Sites, are obvious.

The number of tourists to the ancient town of Hoi An in Vietnam, for instance, jumped 24 per cent the first year after it was inscribed in 1999 and 82 per cent the year after.

The town has had an annual economic growth of 13 per cent since the UNESCO listing, with tourism making up more than half of it. Tourism has also created employment opportunities and lifted income levels and standards of living for residents.

The Botanic Gardens may not be the first stop on every tourist's "to do" list right now as it competes with shopping, the integrated resorts and the Gardens by the Bay.

But Ms Alicia Seah, senior vice-president for marketing and public relations at CTC Travel, believes the UNESCO brand will draw crowds.

"The Singapore Tourism Board is after quality tourism now. If the Botanic Gardens becomes a World Heritage Site, it becomes a must-see. I'm sure it will sell," she said.

Beyond the dollars, a UNESCO listing has other positive knock-on effects such as cultivating a sense of civic pride.

George Town in Penang and Malacca were listed together by UNESCO in 2008 and have both undergone gentrification, said leading Malaysian conservationist Laurence Loh, who was instrumental in getting the former named as a World Heritage Site.

"There is a sense of pride. People now understand what heritage is. Penang is slowly but surely renewing itself," said Professor Loh, whose conservation projects like Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Merdeka Stadium and Cheng Hoon Teng Temple have won him UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.

"Everyone says the city looks nice, tidy and clean. The feeling of dilapidation is not there any more. And new businesses have opened."

If the Botanic Gardens does get the UNESCO nod of approval, the site would be responsible for sharing its knowledge and assets with the world, said Dr Lum.

"The gardens will be in a position to generate interest not just for itself but horticultural science and public education, and it would benefit many, if it could take its expertise and spread it more widely.

"UNESCO status would give it that extra authority."

However, there is a real danger that a heritage site could "turn into a Disneyland", warned heritage conservation expert Johannes Widodo, a jury member of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.

"We tend to commoditise the heritage. The original spirit is the opposite of that. It's not about selling things to make more money, but to preserve it for mankind," said Professor Widodo.

A listing should be seen as a responsibility rather than an endorsement, he said.

"The most difficult task now is to make people realise that with the UNESCO inscription, comes this new responsibility, that we are protecting and nurturing something that does not just belong to us, but the world."

Indeed, many World Heritage Sites have suffered from mass tourism.

Temples at Cambodia's 1,000-year-old Angkor Archaeological Park have been damaged by pollution from planes flying close overhead and hundreds of nearby hotels that pump water from underground.

Experts have warned that its renowned Bayon temple could even collapse.

Unregulated businesses that have popped up at many World Heritage Sites have also spoiled the overall experience and hindered conservation work.

UNESCO has been trying to arrest such problems by drawing up guidelines and asking countries for management plans.

In its nomination dossier, Singapore will need to spell out how it plans to protect the Botanic Gardens.

UNESCO demands that any nominated property must already be protected under local laws. The Botanic Gardens is gazetted as a national park under the Parks and Trees Act.

The authorities would also have to submit a report every six years to make sure the outstanding universal value of the site has not been compromised.

In rare occurrences, UNESCO can choose to delist a site or categorise it as "world heritage in danger" to encourage corrective action.

Ultimately, getting on the list is as much about having something truly worthy in your backyard as it is about pushing the right buttons.

Much depends on how the dossier is compiled.

"In the hands of someone knowledgeable, with a good command of English, you will be in a better position to represent the values of the place accurately," said Prof Loh, who was involved in the first draft of George Town's submission.

"There is a lot of politics in the run-up to the listing."

When Malaysia was putting in its bid for George Town and Malacca, it held an exhibition at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, "just to persuade and get visibility".

"In a nutshell, it's how many hands you press. That counts for a lot," said Prof Loh.

Chris Blandford Associates is not the only consultant the Singapore Government has hired for the job.

In 2010, it engaged the help of two conservation experts, professors Lynne D. DiStefano and Lee Ho Yin of the University of Hong Kong, to examine which site held Singapore's best chance of UNESCO status.

A few places were suggested: the historic districts of Little India, Kampong Glam and Chinatown; the civic district, Tiong Bahru, Fort Canning and the Botanic Gardens.

Since news broke that Singapore has made a pitch for the gardens to be listed, there have been renewed discussions about other potential sites.

Bukit Brown has been mooted for its rich biodiversity, being a testament to a cultural tradition and bearing unique and outstanding artistry on the tombs' architecture.

Its supporters point to a 1917 cemetery, Skogskyrkogården in Sweden, which was inscribed in 1994 for having successfully blended nature and architecture.

The Singapore Heritage Society said it believes "all possibilities should be explored" and that there should be open discussions on current and future nominations.

"Public engagement doesn't stop if and when we get on the list. It should not be seen as a trophy. It should instead be the start of a process of understanding our own heritage, what is important to us and what we want to conserve," said Mr Tan.

What it takes to be declared a World Heritage Site

IT ALL started in 1954, when UNESCO launched a global campaign to save the twin 13th century Abu Simbel temples in Egypt, carved out of a cliff, after they were about to be flooded by the building of the Aswan Dam.

It collected US$80 million from 50 countries and managed to relocate the temples to higher ground. Other campaigns followed to save Venice in Italy as well as the Borobodur temple compounds in Java, Indonesia.

A site, whether cultural or natural, must be deemed to have outstanding universal value in order to be named a World Heritage Site.

It must also meet at least one of 10 criteria:
- To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
- To exhibit an important interchange of human values over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world;
- To bear an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or civilisation;
- To be an outstanding example of a type of building or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history;
- To be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land use or sea use which is representative of a culture;
- To be associated with events or living traditions of outstanding universal significance;
- To contain areas of exceptional natural beauty;
- To be an outstanding example representing major stages of earth's history;
- To be an outstanding example representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of eco-systems, plants and animals;
- To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity.

Famous World Heritage Sites include Jordan's Petra, China's Great Wall and Egypt's Great Pyramids of Giza.

Botanic Gardens plans gallery and museum
They will showcase its heritage as part of bid for World Heritage status
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 11 May 2013

THE Singapore Botanic Gardens has unveiled plans for a heritage museum and separate gallery on its grounds, as part of its bid to become a Unesco World Heritage site.

Director Nigel Taylor called the installations "the single most important thing" the 154- year-old gardens is likely to do over the next few years as it applies to the global body - known in full as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

"It's a very obvious commitment to educating visitors about the heritage of the site," he said.

The museum, to be housed at Holttum Hall near the Tanglin entrance, will have a permanent exhibition of artifacts such as centuries-old specimens and botanical artworks, or their digital versions if they are especially fragile or rare.

For instance, the oldest book in the gardens' library - about medicinal plants - dates back to the 16th century and is in Latin.

The museum will also show off the site's history of breeding rubber, coffee, oil palm and other crops, its place in colonial and post-colonial culture, and scientific research carried out there.

Built in 1921, the 240 sq m hall was the office and laboratory of gardens director Eric Holttum, who pioneered test-tube techniques for breeding orchids in the 1930s.

A 314 sq m solar-powered gallery - the size of three to four HDB flats - will also be sited on the lawn of Holttum Hall, next to the Botany Centre.

It will be built by City Developments Limited (CDL), using concrete made from the hemp plant.

The gallery will begin by showcasing half a century of "greening" Singapore, with exhibits changed once or twice a year.

Both buildings will have controlled low-temperature, low-humidity environments to help preserve delicate items such as botanical watercolour paintings.

Together, the new additions will cost about $2 million in cash and kind from CDL, and are expected to be open to the public by the end of November.

Last December, Singapore put the Botanic Gardens on its tentative list, a precursor to submitting a formal application for the coveted World Heritage status.

Earlier this year, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said in Parliament that the historic site was picked for its economic and cultural significance from a shortlist of several spots including the Civic District, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Haw Par Villa.

Singapore will submit a formal nomination to Unesco next February.

If successful, the gardens may receive World Heritage status as early as June 2015.

* Help in Botanic Gardens' UNESCO site bid
Personal stories sought as 154-year-old attraction vies for UN heritage status
By Melissa Lin, The Straits Times, 12 Sep 2013

MEMBERS of the public are being invited to take part in the Singapore Botanic Gardens' bid for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

They have until December to give their feedback on the nomination dossier, which sets out why the 154-year-old attraction deserves the honour.

They can also support the bid by sharing anecdotes and memories of the gardens.

The National Heritage Board and the National Parks Board want the public's opinion on two documents that will be submitted to UNESCO, known in full as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

One outlines how the gardens fulfil the nomination criteria, while the other is a site management plan that proposes how they will be run if the bid is successful.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are cultural or natural spots that have been deemed to have outstanding universal value.

To receive the honour, they must also meet at least one of 10 criteria. The gardens were nominated under two of them.

Firstly, they "exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town planning or landscape design".

Secondly, they are "an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history".

To show the gardens' value, the nomination papers listed the historically important roles they have played.

For example, "pioneering work on rubber cultivation and techniques for tapping" was carried out there in the 1880s and 1890s, laying the foundation for the early 20th-century rubber boom.

The gardens also introduced economically valuable crops such as oil palm and coffee to South-east Asia.

To this day, they play an important role in conservation, housing at least 34 "veteran trees" - many of which are more than 100 years old. A 6ha rainforest in the gardens contains trees native to Singapore which are now rare because of deforestation.

Members of the public can view the documents and give their feedback at Hard copies are also available at the gardens' visitor information counters.

Both documents will be submitted to UNESCO by Feb 1. It will then decide whether to grant the gardens World Heritage Site status.

Singapore Heritage Society vice-president Chua Ai Lin said it is important to show the whole community supports the site's nomination. She added: "It's not just the institutional story (that's important) but how people relate to the gardens."

The nomination bid was first suggested in 2009 by the Singapore Heritage Society.

The following year, the Government asked foreign consultants to identify the sites with the best chance of being listed.

Their suggestions included the Civic District, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Haw Par Villa, the former Ford Factory and the Botanic Gardens.

After the nomination criteria were taken into account, the gardens emerged the clear winner.

An initial application pitching the idea was sent to UNESCO last December.

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