Managed vs Wild Nature: Finding a Balance in Land-Scarce Singapore

A couple of months ago, I visited the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve for the first time. While I appreciated the escape from Singaporeā€™s primarily cosmopolitan environment, it also wasnā€™t entirely what I’d expected.Ā 

Having been fortunate enough to travel regularly over the years, Iā€™ve visited numerous nature parks and reserves across multiple countries. Most, if not all of them, had rugged trails worn down by the footfall of hikers and trekkers over the years. If developed at all, they would typically consist of haphazard markings made of stone, or rustic wooden barricades to demarcate restricted areas.Ā 

On the contrary, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve was made up of boardwalks, clear paths, and established viewing points and pavilions throughout the parkā€”not quite the nature reserve I was expecting.

Admittedly, the area was still teeming with wildlife; in the couple of hours I was there, I spotted the infamous estuarine crocodile, multiple species of migratory birds, several monitor lizards, giant mudskippers, and a great many insect species that I couldnā€™t put a name to.Ā 

But even as I appreciated the diversity at hand, I felt slightly disconcerted by the manicured appearance of the reserve. Surely, nature is best left untouched. After all, the construction of these boardwalks and structures must have a negative impact on the environment, right?Ā 

These were some of the concerns I raised to Mr Leong Kwok Peng, chairman of the Conservation Committee at the Nature Society (Singapore), when I had the opportunity to speak with him regarding the sustainable development of our nation.Ā 

Read More: Is the Sustainable Development of Singapore an Inevitable Oxymoron?

Is managed nature the lesser of two evils?

In land-scarce Singapore, the option to leave large swathes of land untouched seems almost impossible. Thereā€™s a constant need to develop in order to keep ourselves competitive. Even so, the benefits of increased greenery is undeniableā€”beautification, conservation, and an improved quality of life for residents are all by-products of having more green spaces.Ā 

These benefits have been widely acknowledged by the public, nature groups, and the government alike. Specifically, the Urban Redevelopment Authority is doing its best to integrate green and blue spaces into our urban environment with the aim of making Singapore a City in Nature.Ā 

Mr Leong acknowledged as much when asked about his thoughts on developing natural areas to allow for easier access by the public. He says of the issue, ā€œI think you canā€™t just keep an area out of bounds, [it] would not be fair [for] the public at large to enjoy.ā€

Indeed, granting the public access to these areas might bring about more benefits in the long run.

After all, Clementi Forest only gained fame after a stunning cinematic video of the area went viral online. This video didnā€™t just catapult the forest to fame; instead, it also raised to the attention of the general public that the area was slated for potential redevelopment. In the weeks that followed, a petition was started to call for the conservation of the forest. At the time of writing, the petition has garnered over 18,000 signatures, a feat that would be very much less likely without the public awareness generated from the video.Ā 

This is not to say that the public should have free rein and access to every part of nature. Instead, a balance will still have to be made between managed and wild nature in order to cater to both public enjoyment and the conservation of biodiversity.Ā 

Striking a balance between managed and wild nature

To achieve said balance, Mr Leong suggests a multi-layered approach.Ā 

He advises that ā€œif itā€™s a key biodiversity area, there should be a core area where the public should not go into very often, but you can always make accessibility around the core area, so the public is not left out in terms of the enjoyment [of] the place…. the core area can be identified, and [it should be] made known to the public that [they] should not intrude in [as it is] reserved for animals or wildlife.ā€

This approach was demonstrated by the NSS in their proposal to make Dover Forest a Public-cum-Nature park. The diagram below demarcates the areas that the NSS has proposed to conserve as a core area for wildlife, while allowing for the development of surrounding areas for public enjoyment.Ā 

Proposal by NSS for the Development of Dover Forest
Nature Society (Singapore)

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Dover Forest’s Redevelopment

ā€œItā€™s a bit of give-and-take,ā€ Mr Leong emphasised. In developing natural areas, Mr Leong also urged for a more moderated approach to improving accessibility, highlighting that Singaporeans are raring for a sense of adventure that overly-curated paths do not provide.Ā 

ā€œIncreasingly, people like to go cross-country, rough terrain, and thatā€™s important. Not everything should be made so accessible and so easy to walk into,ā€ he suggested.

His assessment definitely seems to be true given the increasing number of people venturing off the beaten tracks at Clementi Forest, so much so that conservationists have raised concerns over the impact that it may have on the ecosystem there.Ā 

These same conservationists further support the case for managed nature, propounding that distinguishing between areas meant for wildlife and public enjoyment will reduce indiscriminate trampling that can damage plants as well as mitigate increased stress that wildlife may face from human disturbances.Ā 

To Mr Leong, however, even having throngs of people entering Clementi Forest would be preferred to giving up the land for development. He says of the issue, ā€œPeople are walking in, trampling all over the place, making a mess over the trail. But this is nothing compared to if it were developed; that would devastate [the land].ā€Ā 

Coming to a compromise

Managed nature may appear to be an oxymoron but it might prove to be the ideal situation for our tiny island-city. Ultimately, it is up to us to be good stewards of our environment, and that rings true whether we are looking to conserve, develop, or adventure.Ā 

Thereā€™s a fine line to tread between sustainability and development, and it is up to us to decide where we want to draw this line. In fact, if you wish to have a say in this matter, the public consultation window regarding the development of Dover Forest has just been extended to 1 March 2021.Ā 

Members of the public can submit their feedback here, while the Environmental Baseline Study Report of the Ulu Pandan estate and Dover Forest can be found here.Ā 

Join the conversations on THG’sĀ FacebookĀ andĀ Instagram, and get the latest updates viaĀ Telegram.Ā 

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