13 February 2012

Talk on "Biophilic Cities", how does Singapore measure up?

It was most inspiring to attend Prof Timothy Beatley's talk on "Biophilic cities – Bringing Nature and Urban Together"! He shared wonderful stories about "the magical side" of urban living and the importance of placing nature in the centre of cities, what he calls "Biophilic Cities".
His talk made me reflect more deeply on what Singapore is already so lucky to have, and how much more we can do.

Prof Beatley began with the quick run through of what many people probably already know about 'green' in an urban setting.
And some of the 'green' issues related to urban living. I consider most of these to be 'brown' issues as they don't deal directly with wild places, although of course, they do have an impact on wild places.
So I was really glad that Prof Beatley spent a great deal of his talk on really 'green' and 'blue' issues of wild places. Coined by E.O. Wilson, one of the people I greatly admire, the biophilia hypothesis explains to me some of my strange obsession for our wild places.
Prof Beatley shared some studies which show how interaction with nature is good for humans. For our health, our mental health, for our relationships with one another (people have been found to be more generous in a natural setting), and thus the health of social groups. Nature in a city can probably help moderate some of the nasty side of humas that crowding and urban frustrations evoke. The idea of nature deficit syndrome has been remarked upon in Singapore too.
I particularly like this idea that nature in urban settings can help us be more creative! Prof Beatley shared some stories of how schools teach in nature places. In Singapore, we are also starting to do this. From outdoor programmes to prevent myopia, and outdoor programmes to cut drop out rates to outdoor programmes for pre-school kids.
Prof Beatley shared many stories that illustrate the positive effects of nature and people working with nature. But I was particularly struck by the story of how Merlin Tuttle not only stopped efforts to eradicate bats that settled under a bridge. His work also raised awareness and acceptance of the bats, which was so successful that these bats are now beloved and are now tourist attraction for the city. Read more about the Austin Bats Bridge. How wonderful if we could do the same for Singapore's wildlife!
Singapore has great hidden creatures too! Just yesterday, Xu Weiting aka CivetCat Girl just posted this delightful video clip of civet cats traipsing on our urban roofs! I love the musical accompaniment!
Among the many other stories Prof Beatley shared, I liked how this doctor issues a prescription of 'Nature Play'. Kids need their dose of 'Nature' to keep them healthy!
How nature-loving is a city? Prof Beatley has worked on ways to measure this. Which ties very much with the Singapore Index on Cities' Biodiversity, a measure developed by Singapore and endorsed for global use by the United Nations. The Index is a "report card" scoring system allowing cities to assess themselves and make better decisions to reducing the rate of biodiversity loss. More about the Singapore Index on Cities' Biodiversity.
Prof Beatley also took a closer look how much 'nature exposure' we should have. While its good for us to have regular exposure on the neighbourhood level, perhaps we only need to be exposed to international level nature once a year (mainly because of the carbon emissions of air travel). In Singapore, we are lucky to have such easy access to nature often just at our doorstep. From Community in Bloom gardens, planted sidewalks, park spaces near urban areas. We also have a broad spectrum of nature in Singapore to enjoy and explore, including larger parks, park connectors to Real Wild Places, which include rainforests, mangroves, seagrass meadows, coral reefs! Many are well managed with amenities and facilities, and have DIY trail guides. Yet, we still have some truly wild places for the more adventurous. Some are really hard to get to, like the submerged reefs! Being so compact, no one in Singapore is more than an hour away from any of these places. In fact, staying at home or staycations are something that is highlighted occasionally.
Prof Beatley also lamented the growing lack of knowledge that kids and ordinary people have about the most common creatures found in our neighbourhoods.
I like this thought that Prof Beatley shared: that knowing the name of creature is a foundation for loving it. "Names are passwords to our hearts". Fortunately, in Singapore we have lots of information about our wildlife, from the awesome series of little field guides issued by the Singapore Science Centre, to information online. I'm always impressed by how much our kids know whenever I guide outdoors.
Prof Beatley also highlighted that beyond the sight of nature, the sounds of nature are also an important part of the experience of the wild. We were treated to some soothing natural sounds of his wild places. Sounds just as nice as ours! In Singapore, the Bird Ecology Study Group also highlights bird call clips to help us learn more about our wiildlife.
Besides plants, animals are also an important feature of urban living. In Singapore, we have so many urban creatures that ACRES has a special unit just to rescue these animals! From their website, since Aug 2009, they have rescued more than 1,000 wild animals from snakes to bats, pangolins to sea turtles. They also deal with illegally traded wildlife.
In some parts of the U.S., coyotes are an issue. Imagine finding one of these in the Singapore MRT! In Singapore, the Long-tailed macaques are becoming an issue as we encroach on their shrinking habitats and people feed them. Among the efforts to deal with this are educational walks, together with enforcement.
Of course, I was delighted to see that in some coastal cities, the marine life is appreciated. In Singapore, we have sea turtles hatching on our shores, and sighted off our coasts. Wild dolphins are also regularly sighted and currently the subject of a study. We have wild otters too! And Singapore has many groups that focus on marine guided walks. I work mainly with the Naked Hermit Crabs who focus on kids, and last Sunday we had another great walk at Chek Jawa.
Prof Beatley shared how it's important to involve ordinary people in learning more about our wild life. In Singapore, there are many opportunities for ordinary people to do so, for example, through the Mega Marine Survey, Singapore's first comprehensive marine biodiversity survey.
He also highlighted the role of nature guides. In Singapore, there is a strong and growing group of volunteer guides who cover all the major ecosystems from mangroves, rainforests, seagrass meadows to coral reefs! They conduct regular guided walks, many for free or at a low cost. Most are targeted at ordinary people and some focus on families and kids. These are updated weekly on wildsingapore happenings.
Indeed, Singapore has lots of nature and many do know about them. So much so, one of the issues, raised by Dr Geh Min at the end of the talk, is that of Singaporeans 'loving' our wild places to death!
What an inspiring talk and it was great to manage to chat with Prof Beatley after the talk. Also another great opportunity to catch up with friends of the community! Singapore is blessed with much nature, but always more work to be done to learn about our wildlife and share and protect them.

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