I’m catching up with family in Singapore this week, with no work commitments or major plans. Time to recharge the batteries. As I’m not a big fan of shopping malls, it’s been great to have some time out to explore some of the urban parks in Singapore, which seem to be undergoing quite a transformation for the better.
My first little break from the manic crowds of the city has been Jurong Lake Gardens. Jurong is one of Singapore’s largest HBD (public housing) and industrial heartlands about 14 kilometres to the west of the CBD. It is also situated around a large lake that is undergoing a meticulous makeover by the urban planners of Singapore to improve the natural environment and leisure options for people who live in the area.
After a 30 minute metro trip from the city, visitors can step out at Lakeside MRT which is virtually on the lake’s edge. In the 1960’s, this area was a vast natural wetland, prior to rapid industrial and housing development in the area, which was critical to Singapore’s modern development. As it was soon realised that factories and concrete apartment blocks are very boring, two slightly less boring gardens were established within the lake area in the early 1970’s: a Chinese Garden and a Japanese Garden. These somewhat contrived gardens are now closed for renovation (until 2021) but it’s still possible to walk 6 to 7 kilometres around the edge of the lake, taking in some good urban vistas and diverse wildlife.
Jurong is designated as a very significant transport & business hub for the future of Singapore, as it’s located right next to the Malaysian border. Some recent devleopments include include a snow themed precinct (which is somewhat incongruous to any claims of building a sustainable city in the tropics). However, other initiatives are lending a helping hand to the natural environment. More recently, most of the western shore of the lake has been re-landscaped from bland lawns into a diversity of watery habitats, where you can get first hand experience of the resilience of nature. Melaleuca and banksia trees have been introduced in some parts of the park, in addition to a wide variety of flowering plants from many parts of the tropics. It’s great to see a large variety of birds and other animals recolonising these human built environments, even if the scale is not as big as natural environments elsewhere in the region.
My journey started from Lakeside MRT and headed south, before concluding on a bus ride back to the MRT station – total walking distance of about three kilometres. The northern entrance of Jurong Lake Gardens is less than five minutes walk south of Lakeside MRT. On this quiet Saturday morning, I was greeted by a rowdy family of sea otters, who are emblematic of Singapore’s recent transformation as a place where nature can survive with people. Originally native to the region, sea otters were first spotted in urban Singapore in 2014, and they soon became major celebrities courtesy of David Attenborough’s “Wild Places” documentary series on urban nature. They now live in several locations across the city, which is becoming increasingly attractive as green corridors and parklands improve.
Moving further south, it was clear that despite all the morning walkers and joggers, the natural environment appears to be strengthening in many ways, thanks to some good landscape planning. Grass lawns have almost disappeared from the park, as small rocky outcrops have been added, along with the establishment of new grasses and flowering plants along the entire length of the lake. I thought the variety of birdlife was quite remarkable, given that this is a densely populated part of Singapore just outside the park. According to the E-Bird Database, there have been 160 different bird species in the gardens up to May 2019.
This is an easy but interesting walk as a network of paths continuously along the western edge of the lake. Small shrubs habitats provide shelter for a wide variety of smaller finches and muria, while larger trees with shady canopies are home to orioles, native pigeons and kingfishers.
Huge Malayan Water Monitors also traverse through this landscape, like ancient dinosaurs that are returning to a new planet. I saw a couple of these in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, but it appears they are quite common throughout Singapore. Note to myself: Keep an eye on the kids, if I am ever taking the nieces/nephews out for a walk in the park in Singapore.
I followed a path that generally followed the edge of the lake, an environment which supported native herons and the occasional egret. It was quite busy with lots of people walking or jogging, but this didn’t seem to disrupt the bird and insect life which was noisy and boisterous as the day heated up. The paths are generally well shaded, with a solid canopy of trees around most of the lake.
At one stage when the path entered a dark canopy of dense trees, I was started by a loud sound of metal pounding. It was like being in a metal workshop, perhaps, a memory of the local factories that were established in this area in the not too distant past? There was more pounding right above my head and a number of people on a morning walk started to look at the canopy with me as I stumbled to find my camera. Again it happened, and I was amazed to see a colourful Laced Woodpecker having a go at pecking the empty metal shell of the lamp posts along the footpath.
Jurong Lake Gardens are also appealing if you are interested in tropical plants. A wide variety of plants have been seeded throughout the area, to presumably attract a wide range of birds and insects. The cannonball flower tree (Couroupita guianensis) is one of the more interesting species, as it has large, fleshy red flowers that grow on the trunk of the tree, rather than its branches or leaves. These flowers smell foul, in order to attract local bees and insects. They are also accompanied by large massive bulbs that look like cannonballs – hence the name of the tree.
The gardens also have an air conditioned cafe, huge children’s play areas and a swimming centre, which have been nicely placed to compliment the overall natural landscape. Overall, it’s great to see how a smart urban design can help bring wildlife to the middle of densely populated city like Singapore. It goes to show that nature has amazing resilience, if people are willing to make a few sensible decisions in terms of learning to work with the environment.
Getting there and away
The gardens are adjacent to Lakeside MRT, which is on Singapore’s East West MRT line. Buses 49, 154, 154B, 240, 246 run along Yuan Ching Road which runs parallel to the park – use these buses to get back to Lakeside MRT.
Singapore parks website for Jurong Lake Gardens
Sea otters in Singapore: History and biology of Singapore’s sea otters by Underwater Divers
Birdwatching in Jurong Lake Gardens – E-bird listing