With the rapid modernisation and urbanisation of Singapore in the 1960s and 70s, concrete drains and canals were built to alleviate widespread flooding. Likewise, the Kallang River was set within a concrete channel in several key places so that water from heavy monsoons would drain out quickly. As the nation’s longest river, it flows 10km through the centre of the island, from Lower Peirce Reservoir to the Marina Reservoir, also serving as part of the larger system providing drinking water to the city. Bishan–Ang Mo Kio Park is one of Singapore’s most popular heartland parks. It was constructed in 1988 as a leisure destination and green buffer between the residential new towns of Bishan and Ang Mo Kio. However, the detachment of the park was apparent with the drainage canal demarcating a harsh line. In 2006, Singapore’s national water agency, PUB, initiated the Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters Programme - a long-term initiative to transform the country’s water bodies beyond their functions of drainage and water supply, into vibrant, new spaces for community bonding and recreation. As part of a much-needed park upgrade and plans to improve the capacity of the canal bisecting the park, the new design integrates the seemingly opposing requirements. And thus, the plan to break down the concrete channel and create a naturalized waterway was conceived for the first time in Singapore.
Designed based on a floodplain concept, people can get closer to water and enjoy recreational activities along the generous river banks when water level is low, and during heavy rain, park land that is next to the river doubles up as a conveyance channel, carrying the water flow downstream, enabling multiple land uses within the park and creating more spaces for communal activities. The re-engineering of the river cross section means that whereas before the channel had a maximum width of 17-24 m at flood capacity, the river can now spread to almost 100m in width. This increases the river’s conveyance capacity by approximately 40%. Construction of the naturalised river started in October 2009. In a feat of sequenced engineering, works to create the new river started while the canal was still functional (1D and 2D hydraulic modelling studies, computer simulations, traditional soil bioengineering techniques). The alignment of the new river channel integrates meanders and varying widths to create diverse flow patterns which are characteristic of natural river systems, creating ecologically valuable, natural and diverse habitats for 1. The design of the floodplain has also introduced a new typology and quality of public space in urban Singapore – three new bridges, a terraced riverside gallery, river platforms, stepping stones across the river and a water playground fed with naturally cleansed river water are all features that enable one to connect with the river. This ability to get close to water and experience all its natural rhythms and beauty transforms peoples’ sense of responsibility to their environment. Other new facilities include two playgrounds, two new restaurants, toilets and the landmark “Recycle Hill”, a look-out point built from blocks of concrete recycled from the old channel. The vibrant park is open 24/7 and is at the centre of local life; there are plazas to practise tai chi, fields to play soccer and catch and beautifully crafted benches and nooks for lovers.
No wildlife was introduced to the park, but the presence of the naturalized river has seen the park’s 1 increased by 30%. A total of 66 species of wildflower, 59 species of birds and 22 species of dragonfly have been since identified. The park has the advantageous opportunity to host migratory bird visitors due to the country’s location within the Asian-Australasian Flyway, an area with over 50 migratory species travelling along it. The restoration of the river has created a huge variety of micro-habitats, which does not only increase the biological diverseness, but also the resilience of species within the park, making vast improvement to their long term survival ability. “Wild” and natural is not necessarily more dangerous, the new system is actually a lot safer — even in a heavy flood downpour, the river fills slowly providing ample time for people to comfortably move away from the water to higher ground. A comprehensive river monitoring and warning system with water level sensors, warning lights, sirens and audio announcements are in place to provide early warning in the event of impending heavy rain or rising water levels.
Even before the park was completed, the phenomenon of “self-policing” had been observed with locals looking out for the cleanliness of the park and the safety of others. Now, self-organised interest groups meet regularly and schools have field trips to the park – all a reflection of a changing attitude and ownership towards the river park.
When integrated water management is applied in cities, it often means that the boundaries of agencies are not as clear and have to be redefined. This does not mean chaos, but rather, the opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas. While before, the responsibility of the park laid with the National Parks Board and the drainage channel, PUB, the two agencies collaborated, bringing multi-beneficial results to the community. The graceful and effortless outcome is a result of the team’s determination to see the vision come to life – from the master plan level of land use planning to art and education workshops with children, convincing stakeholders and engaging experts at every level added complexity but robustness to the project. This work model has catalysed similar inter-agency partnerships for many downstream projects.
The holistic approach recognizes that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Bishan–Ang Mo Kio Park is not just a park and the Kallang River not merely a drainage channel. This is ecological and social infrastructure: the two are integrated and interdependent. The park is an inspiring example of how a city park can function as ecological infrastructure, a smart combination of water source, 1, 1, recreation, and thanks to personal contact and an emotional connection with water, increasing civic responsibility towards water.