a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

World landscape of the year

Awards are funny things. A while ago I was sniffy on this blog about Gardens Illustrated’s Garden of the Year, which seemed to be picked from a random shortlist solely on the basis of a few photographs.

Now I’ve visited another feted design, this time with the even grander award of World Landscape Project of the Year.  The current holder of this title is the awkwardly named Bishan – Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore. It’s a linear neighbourhood park in the residential centre of the island, a bus ride away from the tourist spots, and of course on a recent visit I dragged my reluctant family there to see what the fuss was about.

Bishan Park 04

The judges’ comments certainly made it seem worth a visit:

This remarkable project fundamentally transforms the urban landscape of Singapore by reversing the fundamentals of 1960s thinking on drainage canals into an ecological and people-friendly urban sponge. It powerfully embraces the extremes of flooding disasters, while providing a rustic and poetic simplicity with its landscape strategy for the public. Its large scale with subtle local effects also showcases truly sustainable strategies.

Fifty years ago, in line with the thinking of the time, the Kallang river had been forced into a concrete canal to whisk storm water efficiently away from this developing part of Singapore. The park was added either side of the canal in the late 1980s but, for safety reasons (remember that this equatorial part of the world has up to 25cm of rain a month, much of it in thunderous downpours), the water was fenced off and inaccessible to park users.

image from information board at the park

Image of the old canal from information board at the park

Now the German design firm of Atelier Dreiseitl has broken up the canal and introduced a naturalistic path for the river, which flows through a created flood plain, allowing the water levels to fluctuate significantly and thus limit the risk of flooding downstream. The new approach also allows visitors to interact with the water, and better understand its processes, and has apparently increased the biodiversity of the park by thirty percent.

Bishan Park 01 Bishan Park 14 Bishan Park 13 Bishan Park 05

Bishan Park 08

Plan of the park, from information board on site.

As a helpful sign explained, the risk of soil and bank erosion along the new waterway has been addressed through various combinations of vegetation and other natural materials, from rip-rap and fascines to reed rolls and gabions.

Bishan Park 10

Bishan Park 03

There is also a large bioswale, which uses certain plants to improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and absorbing nutrients.    Bishan Park 16

Part of the purpose of the bioswale is to support the children’s water playground, which when we visited was sadly closed for unspecified reasons. But there are two other funky (if not obviously eco-friendly) playgrounds.

Bishan Park 15

Bishan Park 02Bishan Park 12 Bishan Park 11

This project is doubtless a great piece of engineering, probably worthy of its award, and has without question left Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park more aesthetically pleasing than it was. There is an impressively holistic approach to the redesign, and a nice attention to detail. Informational signage is good (if all clustered in one part of the park), the playgrounds were a hit with my nine-year-old, and there is little doubt that the changes aim to make the park work in a more natural and sustainable way.

You can probably sense the “but” coming. I was left with two nagging concerns: first that this naturalistic park somehow couldn’t escape the manicured, pristine feel that pervades all of Singapore, which I have described elsewhere. Maybe that is just because it so new.

More worryingly, it was a public holiday when we visited and yet, as you can see from these photos, the park was almost deserted. A few children made use of the playgrounds, and we saw two small groups of older kids near the water, armed with little fishing nets. It struck me that there is precious little shade (less than before the changes), and most of the paths felt very exposed in the constant heat and humidity of Singapore.

For much of its 62 hectares, and despite the designers’ aims to create new spaces for the community to enjoy, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park felt more like a piece of restored wetland than a traditional public park – and I am still musing on how far that matters. Do designers need to do more to make sustainable landscapes obviously suitable for people – or do we as visitors need to adjust our expectations and find new ways to enjoy and use this innovative kind of park?

12 comments on “World landscape of the year

  1. diversifolius
    April 6, 2013

    I agree with you – after seeing the images even before to finish the reading, that’s what first came in my mind – restored wetland! Ingeniously executed, but at least for me, with an artificial look that probably contributes to its ’emptiness’ .

  2. Tanja van der Knoop
    April 6, 2013

    Not a firect comment on your piece (that will follow later) but on awards in general. In the Netherlands we also have a “Garden of the Year award”.
    Unlike in the UK, where Dalemain was chosen as “Garden of the year 2013” in Holland only smaller gardens are nominated. Nevertheless interesting from several perspectives. I am honoured to be a speaker at the ceremony coming Tuesday, which unfortunately is the last time this election will be held.
    Do look at the 8 nominated gardens, The text is in Dutch but on the right side of this page you can click on each garden for a full page infromation including pictures and a brief video.


  3. College Gardener
    April 8, 2013

    I am all for the restored wetland, though I feel eco-conscious design of that sort should really become the rule rather than be so extraordinary as to warrant such a pompous award title. As for the overly manicured look, I have a sense that that is simply inescapable in Singapore. My boyfriend is from Malaysia, and while he and most people we know “back home” greatly admire Singapore for many things, the common refrain is always that it is sterile, both visually and emotionally, out of an overdone sense of order and propriety.

  4. Maybe the issue rests in that design a park in an office is one thing and design to creaet a bondage with visitants/users is another, sometimes is about the inertia from a society to changes. In the end, it takes time to seal the connection. Eco-friendly design should always be very welcome, but a bit of “anthropological knowlege” could help these out-of-country firms to succeed. Nevertheless, very savvy renovation despite the lack of voluminous shade.

  5. Diana Studer
    April 12, 2013

    it clearly works for civil engineering and ecology. The Urban Park we went to in Green Point was pleasantly filled with people, not crowded, but companionable and obviously popular!

  6. Stacy
    April 17, 2013

    Maybe it’s the desert dweller in me speaking, but I rather like the treelessness. It looks refreshingly open in a city of very tall buildings — but then, I’m not there on a sultry afternoon.

  7. Chai, JY
    May 2, 2013


    I’m a landscape architecture student researching on this Bishan Park and happened to chance upon your blog. Frankly, it’s quite refreshing to see someone not being entirely positive on this new intervention, it certainly has thrown me off the “oh-wow-this-is-the-best-design-ever!” impression a little and remind me of the reality of the situation again. Just my two cents worth:

    1. I’m actually Singaporean, and just to note about your “public holiday” surprise, well, it’s not actually a surprise in my opinion. Growing up in Singapore, most of my generation are not as interested in nature, as perhaps people of the same age in most countries. This is probably a generalisation, but when my friends talk about hanging out, most of the times it means catching a movie, or chilling at a cafe, basically somewhere in town. You don’t get many who would want to go to a park in their holiday, especially when it’s just a day or two (knowing the crazy schedule most Singaporeans have, that day would normally be spent at home sleeping, or just lazing about, at home). I guess the “outdoor culture” hasn’t been bred in Singapore much yet, but it’s slowly picking up. When I had returned to Singapore in the end of the year last year, I spent a lot of my time at Bishan Park, mainly because I live around that area, and it’s been one of the buzz designs of last year. I have to disagree with you, I thought there were lots of people using the park, regardless of the time. My guess is that the end of the year tends to be a longer holiday, so more people would be keen on spending half the day in nature. It’s really a social cultural thing, as Lula has mentioned in her comment.

    2. In my view, I probably don’t speak for all Singaporeans, but I personally loved this wetland restoration park idea. Yes it’s not the typical Western park-like green space, but that’s what makes this area more special. As part of the “city in a garden” movement in Singapore, there have been lots of open spaces popping up over the country, but not many that actually truly encourages an interaction with nature. What I like about Bishan Park is that I see children not just playing about in the grass, but actually going into the water to try to catch the fishes, getting excited when they see birds other than a sparrow, a crow, or a mynah; I see people of my parents’ generation no longer viewing “canal water” as dangerous and dirty and paved paths as the best and only way that they will use, but being willing to walk on the grassy banks instead of the paved paths, using the stone path across the rivers in a playful attitude; I see people of my grandparent’s generation bringing their fishing rods back into the community, sitting on rocks or structures provided, fishing, chatting away, reliving their childhood again, and sharing their knowledge of fishing for “drain fishes” to curious bystanders at times. I don’t think Singapore needs more open space parks, but we need to cultivate a sense of interest for nature by encouraging the public to engage with nature. We need to bring back that sense of identity that nature is a part of our lives, just like in the past – not just the concrete urban jungle that seems so characteristic of the younger generations now (of mine too, to a certain extent). And both these together would then hopefully encourage a sense of stewardship for nature and the environment, such that Singaporeans would be more mindful of our environment as our city continues to develop and grow.

    3. In terms of open space provided, I would think that Bishan Park does provide sufficient open space too – my friends and I have gone there quite a number of times to play frisbee or soccer, and though the ground isn’t as conducively flat and dry as we would like it to be, we are frankly quite happy with whatever we can get and we’ll adapt to it. So I guess in terms of uses, I don’t think we would always need a park to solely have open space. I think Singapore is doing quite fine adapting to a different idea of what a park is, and are able to create their own ways of using this ‘new’ space too!

    4. But that said, I do agree with you on the lack of shade on the paths (it’s incredibly hot indeed!). From my observations, on a normal working day, the park is used most often in the morning and in the evening for those who jog, and as a hangout place for students after school (considering the number of schools nearby), so perhaps that’s how the community is adapting to the climate and lack of shade?

    5. And the manicured look part? Hahah this is Singapore we’re talking about. This is a huge “natural” area in the eyes of many Singaporeans already. Hopefully in the years to come, more Singaporeans might truly see this as not fully natural yet, and would work together to conserve what’s left of our natural areas. Hopefully that will come really soon too!

    P.S. I am so sorry for such a long comment. I tend to have verbal diarrhoea, so I hope I’ve been coherent in what I’ve said! But yeah, these are just some thoughts of mine, and feel free to correct my thinking in any way, I’m still learning after all! (:

  8. landscapelover
    May 6, 2013

    Thanks for all the comments on this post. I am particularly pleased to hear from chaijy, giving us a Singaporean perspective on the park’s role and reception. It’s good to know that it does, after all, seem to get a good deal of use, and that it’s encouraging a new relationship with nature. Parks such as Bishan raise such interesting questions about the role of urban parks in our changing environment; it’s an issue I’ll return to again in a forthcoming post on a desert park in Rajasthan.

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