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Can We Become Biophilic?

I was recently watching a very good documentary on Singapore’s impressive progress on sustainability, which now falls under a new but very relevant term: Biophilia: the love of biodiversity, says Alistair Speirs, the Chairman of Sustainability Consultants MVB, who is very loath to try to compare what Jakarta has done or can do in comparison. But honestly, we have to try.

Editor’s Note: The biophilia hypothesis (also called BET) suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Edward O. Wilson introduced and popularized the hypothesis in his book, Biophilia (1984). He defines biophilia as "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life".

As with everything we have to start with a ‘vision’ and this was first suggested by legendary Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew who proposed Singapore should be a ‘Garden City’. A really good start, then taken on by his protege Lee Hsien Loong, who changed it to an even more ambitious ‘City in a Garden’. In Jakarta our equivalent a program might be called called “You are unbelievably lucky if you have a garden or even get to walk in one!” I apologise for the cynical, non-technical approach to this article, but what else to do? We are so far behind in our thinking.

We, living on the world’s most densely populated island, have opted for a continuing, and extraordinarily incorrect, approach to low-cost housing, spreading cheap, badly built houses across vast low-rise complexes. Singapore on the other hand opted for high-rise, small land use, easily administered and maintained development. This allowed green areas to proliferate even in high density areas, and transit-oriented mass transportation to serve them with highly efficient MRT and bus connections. We have ended up with car and motorcycle connected, urban sprawl, which we are still building.

Singapore monitors its ‘vegetation cover’ i.e. the green bits that show up on satellite imagery, and has managed to increase its cover continually from 1986 till now. We do not seem to do so, and only had one concerted effort to ‘green’ the city under Governor ‘Ah Hok’s’ park development program. Singapore, because of the nature of its high-rise development, has far more park area than we do. Then they got even smarter.

Realising they had many, but un-connected, green areas they looked at all the canopies and parks and built connecting paths and above ground walkways: in fact, 150 kms of connectors, meaning that citizens can literally walk for miles from one park to another. Brilliant.

Then they moved on to the buildings themselves and came up with another excellent program: “The Skyrise Greenery Incentive Scheme” which reimburses building owners with half the cost of installing green walls and green roofs, which greatly reduce the “urban heat island” effect, and of course reduce the building’s energy use in cooling itself.

So now the gardens, parks and green buildings are all connected so that people can - and want to - walk around the whole island. And to make things easier their research centre has created 8 types of wall garden for the private sector to choose from so they really don’t need to think. Just get on and do it!

This whole program then allowed the bio-diversity people to step in and start monitoring the wildlife returning to the green areas and noted it all on a Biodiversity Index. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that the index shows continual increases in bio-diversity as the animals & birds revel in their new safe green areas.

Of course, being Singapore, they are not stopping there, they are now engaging in private-public sector joint projects like Bishan Park to encourage even more natural land to be created from waste and unused land.

So where is Jakarta in comparison? I have to say, we are very far behind this visionary scheme. I have not heard even of a plan. We are struggling with traffic, we are losing the battle with waste, and water, we have only 20 kms of MRT (compared to Singapore’s 200km +) and really need to stop and think. Where are we going with our urban planning? Almost certainly we need a new masterplan which encompasses nature much more than new football stadiums and Formula E races. But who is going to be the ‘master’ behind the plan?

I am sorry, I forgot one vital factor: maybe there is no plan for Jakarta since “Nusantara” the new capital is being built and all the focus is all on that new, smart, green city? Just a thought. Nusantara may indeed be our biophilic centre.

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