Garden City/City Garden

from this

From this…

…to this


Coming from a large field in a small country in the middle of winter to an island on the Equator the contrast was about as strong as it could be and it took me several days to recover from the long and stressful journey.  When I emerged ready to take Singapore on its own terms I discovered that involved penetrating the paradox of City Garden or Garden City.  There is a big PR push there to create the mythos of ‘Our City in a Garden’ (where the word ‘our’ is probably as important as the other two nouns, a gesture towards integrating the ethnic diversity of Singapore’s population: making me wonder how much of that is wishful thinking too).


My interpretation of paradox implies balance and union, a sort of yin and yang dynamic.  Here there was more of a sense of ‘disconnect’ – an ungainly word, but one that seems fitting here – suggesting something fragmented and random and echoing the strange syntax and coinings of ‘Singlish’.

In Singapore it would seem clear that City comes before Garden.  There is so much evidence of man’s influence – the architecture an expression of power, dominion.  The sheer scale of it – in conception and execution – high rises and set pieces – made me doubt the constantly reiterated ‘eco’ line.  It felt more as if sustainable measures were just an add-on rather than an integral part of what is obviously a very efficient infrastructure.  The differences between natural and man-made seemed too great, out of balance.  How much solar energy, tree-planting and biomass fuel would it take to keep the lights of Singapore, a 24 hour city, switched on?


For me City and Garden were two distinct worlds that occasionally overlapped or collided – one superimposed on another, like an old-fashioned double exposure.  There was something old-fashioned about the place despite the glass towers and shiny lights – as if Singapore was tangled up in its dream of economic growth, still in the thrall of capitalism’s hollow promises.  Many of the public information boards, advertising and media were very childlike in tone and design, only adding to the effect of innocence.  There was something very charming about this but it also felt ungrounded and unsustainable.  I’m not sure how the ‘public consultation’ works either.  It all seemed too good to be true.


When Monty Don visited Singapore as part of his ‘Around the World in 80 Gardens’ series, he was very scathing about its defining itself as a Garden City.  He found a community garden project which seemed to him a much more straightforward unequivocal approach – gardening for its own sake.  I saw some evidence of that at the Botanic Gardens where many volunteers with a passion for plants supported the staff of mostly immigrant workers in the maintenance of the gardens.


Whatever ambivalence I feel towards Singapore and its gardens I enjoyed my time there enormously.  It was intense and profound – the plants and trees and animal life expressive of an unfathomable power, as unlike an English garden as it could possibly be.  Immersing myself in it utterly, the wild, unchecked equatorial growth, vestiges of rainforest and the sheer diversity of forms and species left me wide-eyed and often enchanted.


I particularly appreciated getting to know the Heliconia family better, a native of Central America I’d first encountered in the Tropical House at Moorbank.  Last year I wrote a poem ‘about’ it called Adaptation– you can read it on the Dhamma Moon website if you’re interested.  Wonderful to see plants like these out from under glass.


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2 thoughts on “Garden City/City Garden

  1. Susan Hick says:

    I agree – Singapore is definately a city in a garden – the city comes first despite all the fantastic landscaping. However compared to many SE Asian cities it is more garden than city, others are so built up and polluted. Luckily in Singapore there are strict car quality controls and an excellent public transport system or the plants would probably be dead from pollution !

    As a keen gardener in the UK I too find the lack of community gardens, allotments etc frustrating and I think many local people do too. People are keen to grow things – witness the many private roadside plantings – banana, mangoes, etc which are planted outside houses on the roadside with flowers in pots in every small space, balconies etc.

    The upside of gardening here is how easily it all grows ! I never ceased to be amazed at how you can plant a mature tree in a park, prop it up, mulch it once and then leave it alone – it will grow !! No need to plant a small ‘ whip’ and carefully nuture it for many years – here is instant gardening !

    It was lovely to talk in the gardens Linda – enjoy the rest of your trip and I look forward to hearing all about it ,!

    Sue in Singapore.

    • Many thanks for this, Sue. It was great to meet you and hear an insider’s view of Singapore. Sydney, unsurprisingly, has a very different feel to it. The Gardens are wonderful and their location on the Harbour is stunning. Reports of more snow from Northumberland make being here even more delightful! I’ll send a photo at some point.
      Warm wishes Lx

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