Should We Be Clearing Forests for Residential Use?

For some of us who bought a BTO in a relatively “green” area of Singapore, that verdant patch rife with the sounds of wildlife may no longer be there in just a few years, especially if it’s unprotected and possibly slated for development.

What a waste, we may think, but the sad sight of felled trees and bare ground soon gets transformed into more homes, and even a vibrant town centre with its own landscaped park and shopping malls.

Remember when Punggol MRT station was newly opened in 2003? There was hardly anything there and friends who dared to venture likened it to a “jungle”. Today, Punggol is a bustling neighbourhood (and still growing) with a gorgeous waterway, lots of recreation and amenities, a dining destination by the beach, and the upcoming Punggol Digital District.

Read more: 5 Things You Never Knew About Punggol’s History

Maybe this urbanisation is good, because the bats have stopped flying into your windows, and the monkeys have stopped visiting… or not?


Recognising Biodiversity Gems

One such nature paradise that has recently been highlighted on social media is Clementi Forest, an 85ha area bounded by Clementi Road, King Albert Park, Old Holland-Ulu Pandan Road and the main Rail Corridor. You may not have heard of it, but this swathe of untouched beauty that’s hidden in plain sight is the second largest patch of wildlife habitat, after Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

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According to the Nature Society Singapore, this important secondary forest is home to 90 bird species — both resident and migratory. That’s almost 20% of the bird species recorded in Singapore. These include 13 threatened/rare birds, such as Straw-headed bulbuls, hornbills, eagles and owls. In a 2012 survey by botanists from the National University of Singapore, 98 species of vascular plants were recorded, including an orchid that was once thought to be extinct here.

Clementi Forest is also home to 61 species of butterflies (including the rediscovered Malay Yeoman that is nationally threatened) and there was an unconfirmed sighting of the critically endangered Large Indian Civet nearby in 2008.

Forests and other densely vegetated areas have other benefits. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which helps with cooling and can prevent floods (the vegetation can slow or absorb rainwater runoff). Forests can also act as wildlife corridors that connect nature reserves (like a green bridge for animals), which in turn promotes fauna diversity and the overall health of forests.


Of Master Plans and Detailed Studies

The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) 2019 Master Plan designated Clementi Forest for residential development. In a follow-up report by Mothership, URA clarified that Clementi Forest had been zoned as “Residential (Subjected to Detailed Planning)” since 1998’s Master Plan.

However, “there are no immediate plans for residential development at the site”, said URA, citing a need to balance both the needs for development and conservation in land-scarce Singapore the includes setting aside land for various housing choices, as well as green spaces.

“While there may be some sites which are needed for development, others do not have plans for quite some time to come, and we will ensure they remain green,” URA said.

As always, especially for high-profile green spaces such as Clementi Forest, studies will be conducted to determine if the area should be conserved due to its rich biodiversity or heritage significance, and/or to reduce potential impact on the natural environment.

For example, the Land Transport Authority first did a detailed environmental impact assessment report before going ahead with plans for the Cross Island MRT line. While the tunnelling would require 3ha of forests next to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to be cleared, there would be mitigation measures such as the replanting of trees or installing “wildlife-friendly” security fences.


Are The Mitigation Measures Enough?

In a forum letter to The Straits Times titled: “Irony of building ‘forest town’ after clearing forests”, a reader highlighted the new Tengah residential estate.

“Is HDB so short of land that it must clear this last vestige of Singapore’s forests? … How can future residents feel proud to live in this ‘forest town’, knowing that precious flora and fauna were displaced and possibly pushed to extinction due to this project?” asked the reader.

“It is ironic that the project is called ‘forest town’ when it would, in fact, result in the clearing of hundreds of hectares of forests which connect the Western Catchment with the Central Catchment Nature Reserve,” the reader added.

Read more: Tengah: Singapore’s upcoming “Forest Town”

No doubt, there are plans to replant and remake the green spaces once the town is built up — man-made nature, in a sense. For wider Singapore, according to URA plans, there are also plans to have more green spaces, nature trails in the Greater Southern Waterfront, with better accessibility to these verdant landmarks.

But is it enough?

Global Forest Watch observed that from 2002 to 2019, Singapore lost 16ha of humid primary forest, making up 0.75% of its total tree cover loss in the same time period. The total area of humid primary forest in Singapore decreased by 1.9% in this time period.

The numbers seem small, but they can be quite significant. Around the same period, Singapore also lost 2.22kha of tree cover. This is equivalent to a 12% decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 580kt of CO2 emissions. We’re not science experts, but we learnt in school that carbon dioxide is what contributes to the greenhouse effect, which is both bad for the environment and likely means a hotter Singapore!

Oh, and the main driver of tree cover loss was deforestation, mostly in the west and north/north-east regions. That’s right about where Tengah, Jurong, Woodlands and Punggol are.


Returning Wildlife May Not Be A Good Thing

While we may have celebrated when the news reported returning wildlife during Singapore’s circuit breaker period, it doesn’t necessarily mean good news for the animals. They may have gotten so used to human scraps that in the absence of such, they need to widen their radius in search of food.

In some cases, the appearance of wildlife in urban settings can be scary or even violent

Having wildlife enter your home, especially when forests are being cleared nearby, means that their natural habitat is being destroyed and they have no choice but to venture into our territory. The truth is, we are encroaching into their homes, so they come out roaming into ours.


At the End of the Day, It’s A Delicate Balance

Today, Singapore’s population is fast-approaching 6 million people. It’s no wonder the government is on a mission to build as many homes as quickly as possible. Compared to the 1950s, when our population was just 1 million, the number of urban dwellers on this Little Red Dot has grown almost six-fold.

It’s a conundrum we face — how can we house our people and sacrifice some green spaces, while conserving others?

There is really no simple answer, though it’s heartening that many Singaporeans are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of untouched nature such as Clementi Forest, raising petitions, and urging their conservation.

On the other hand, the property market is still seeing resilient demand — though there will be fewer property launches this year and more demand for resale flats due to the delays in construction for BTO projects due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In any case, what’s done is done. However, moving forward, it seems like there will be more careful consideration when planning urban spaces, in tandem with all involved parties, including nature groups.


Looking for a home? Buying a resale flat could have less environmental impact.

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This article was written by Mary Wu, who hopes to share what she’s learnt from her home-buying and renovation journey with PropertyGuru readers. When she’s not writing, she’s usually baking up a storm or checking out a new cafe in town.

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