That was decades before anyone heard about urban forestation. Now, as the president of the Singapore Green Building Council (SGBC), Tai finds that his focus on urban forestation is still somewhat revolutionary when town planners and architects meet to discuss about building greener cities.
Conceptually, his idea that “man must live in harmony with Mother Nature” might conjure up, for some, the idea of building houses on tree tops. For others, however, urban forestation is Mother Nature’s own solution for the future and survival of mankind.
“We are living in a very fragile eco-system, which can be easily destroyed,” he told an audience of fellow architects during a recent conference in Kuala Lumpur organised by the Malaysia Green Building Confederation (MGBC).
“When town planners start drawing the town plan, almost inevitably, they start off by drawing the roads first. Once the infrastructure is completed, then we start planting a few trees here and there,” says Tai. “Why should that always be the case? Why can’t towns be built without the usual roads?”
Citing the example of La Rambla, a street in Barcelona where the road took up a smaller area than the trees, he asks: “Why can’t we introduce forest roads instead?”
There is no end to road construction because traffic jams will get worse over time. “Instead of allocating more space to roads, why can’t we plant more trees?” he reasons, pointing to the fact that in cities like Tokyo, where traffic jam is one of the biggest headaches for town planners, the roads are getting narrower, while walkways for pedestrians and greeneries are being widened. The people of Tokyo are encouraged to use public transportation instead.
La Rambla, a 1.2 km tree-lined street in central Barcelona, is a pedestrianised boulevard that devotes more space to trees than to traffic (photo credit: oh-barcelona.com)
Tai says, based on NASA’s latest estimate, there are about 57 trees to each person on earth. “However, the ideal situation is a 1:100 ratio,” he says. “At the rate of us losing our forests at 375 sq km every day, this is alarming. There is no way for us to regain our forests.”
Looking back through history, Tai identifies two major events in the West that left significant negative effects on the environment. They were the two World Wars in the last century and the Industrial Revolution (1750–1850).
Between 1898 and 1960, there was a “Utopian” era where people’s imagination was caught up in what the world would become beyond 2000. “Almost without fail, the movies produced by Hollywood showed skyscrapers and personal flying machines in a city without trees,” Tai laments.
Then, from 1960 through 1990, with real and rapid urbanisation, trees gave way to cities. As time went by, cities, too, became less inhabitable. “It is only in the last ten years or so that we have been talking about greener cities,” he says. “But, as we are all aware, by 2050, there will be more than 5 billion people living in cities.”
With such rapid urbanisation, Tai says, urban forestation needs to be stepped up further. “We cannot continue to build more cities without thinking about the forests,” he says. “The greatest tragedy would be when trees became part of a museum exhibit.”
A modest garden atop the Raffles City shopping mall in downtown Singapore – one of the small ways that the island state is slowly reclaiming space for urban greenery (photo credit: istockphoto)
City in a garden
As Tai continues to promote urban forestation everywhere he goes, changes are becoming evident. For example, he says, Singapore is now reinforcing its image as a city within a garden. “The concept is different from what we were once told that Singapore was being turned into a garden city,” he explains. “Increasingly, we are trying to re-forest our city state.”
Tai says the fundamentals of urban planning have to be challenged if the younger generation of architects and town planners want to see change. “Through architecture, we can create a town within a forest,” he says. “Even the roofs of tall buildings can be turned into a green lung.”
Within the building itself, Tai’s dream is for “urban agriculture” to fluorish in his city state, where vegetables can be grown indoors using certain lighting specially designed for indoor gardens. “Besides greening our world, in Singapore, we have to look into food production as well. There are already such horticultural systems available where water from an aquarium is used to water the vegetables.”
The rooftops in Singapore can also be converted into agricultural plots – if Tai has his way. “Currently, the younger generation are more conscious of what they want,” he says. “They will ask for a rooftop garden or a place where they can plant their own vegetables.” This is why he is confident that his concept of urban forestation will do well with the younger generation. “After all, the future belongs to the younger generation,” he says.
For this reason, the SGBC, which he represents, is placing a strong focus on young people. “Last year, we embarked on Project Green Insights where we installed smart meters in 20 schools. These meters enable students to monitor their own energy consumption. The data were then benchmarked against each other to see how they perform,” Tai says. “This helped them understand their energy consumption behaviours. We want to cultivate in young people an awareness of how they should become more energy efficient. This is all part of promoting a greener world, where people can live in harmony with Mother Nature.”