Singapore Botanic Gardens
Singapore National Commission for UNESCO
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Founded at its present site in 1859, Singapore Botanic Gardens forms part of the long colonial tradition of creating European-style botanic gardens in the tropics. This internationally renowned tropical botanical garden, the oldest surviving of its kind in the Straits Settlements, has a rich heritage and is a dynamic and living testament to the foresight of the early pioneering spirit of Singapore. Throughout its long and illustrious history, it has played an integral role in Singapore's cultural, social and economic development and is a site that provides historical reference to Singapore's Garden City concept and the ideals of Singapore's founding fathers.
Whilst the city's urban landscape has changed tremendously over the past 50 years, the botanic gardens, which now extends over c.74h was preserved, forming a valuable green oasis in the midst of the compact and densely populated city centre of Singapore. As the only historic botanic garden in Singapore and one of few historic landscape gardens on the island, it contributes greatly towards providing a sense of history, place and identity to Singaporeans and visitors. It remains the premier and most popular park in the city, counting more than 4 million visits per annum.
The history of botanic gardens in Singapore began on Government Hill in 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore and a keen naturalist, laid out a botanical and experimental garden there, which was later closed in 1829. The British government and major trading companies of the early 19th century encouraged the development of experimental gardens in the colonies to cultivate, research and preserve native plants as useful revenue earning commercial crops.
The existing botanic gardens were established in 1859 by an agri-horticultural society, on a 23ha bottle-shaped piece of land within the Tanglin district. The garden was originally planned as a pleasure garden and was used as an amenity for the enjoyment of the society's members. It was developed by Lawrence Niven from 1860, whose work reflected the English Garden style that influenced the emergence of numerous English landscape gardens and public parks from the 18th century until this period. Works carried out included the creation of interconnecting curving pathways and promenades, a bandstand and the establishment of ornamental planting. Today this layout remains almost entirely intact. The northern part of the site contained 6 ha of primary rainforest, which survive today; one of only two remaining areas of original rainforest which would have covered the entire island. The garden was extended by 10ha to the north-west in 1866 and Swan Lake excavated and landscaped that same year. The society later ran into financial difficulties, and in late 1874, handed over the management and maintenance of the site to government.
Following a recommendation from the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (Joseph Hooker), James Murton, a trained botanist and horticulturist, assumed the role of Superintendent in 1875. This reflected the first step in a historic collaboration between the two gardens which extended the remit of the Gardens from a pleasure park to a place of cutting edge study and scientific/botanical experimentation and established Singapore Botanic Gardens as a nerve centre for plant exchange at the heart of a worldwide network of botanical gardens. The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, already preeminent in the 18th century as a seat of learning and botanic research, was responsible for much of the inspiration, administration and plant exchanges that drove the early development of Singapore Botanic Gardens and other gardens. Murton set up a herbarium and library and was a driving force behind the establishment of the economic gardens in the late 1870s, which became famous for a wide range of economic crops including rubber. A major land extension to the north, granted in 1879, was used to create new economic gardens. In 1880, Nathaniel Cantley, another Kew-trained Superintendent, replaced Murton. During his directorship, the gardens assumed the role of propagating trees for planting in Singapore's streets and parks. Nurseries were established, one of which, the potting yard beside Cluny Road, survives today.
In 1888 Henry Ridley took over as director of the gardens and succeeded in drawing international attention to the possibilities afforded by rubber production and subsequently discovering a revolutionary tapping technique which represented the single most important innovation in the history of the rubber industry and the economic history of South-East Asia. He launched the first scientific journal published by Singapore Botanic Gardens, a role that the Gardens continues today. Under the directorship of I.H. Burkhill a large portion of the economic gardens, to the north-east, was transferred for the building of the Raffles Memorial College, which opened in 1928. With this came a shift from economic crop growing to research which continued almost unscathed through the years of the Japanese invasion in 1942-1945. In 1983, 17ha of land in the northern part of the site was returned to the gardens.
Orchid breeding and hybridization experiments started in the late 1920s under Eric Holttum's directorship, which led to a new industry in Singapore and eventually in various other South-East Asian countries. Singapore Botanic Gardens revised its mission during the 1960s in response to the launch of the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's tree planting campaign in 1963 and ‘Garden City' programme in 1967. Expertise and resources for the campaign resided in the botanic gardens, the focus of which was thus redefined from that of a largely research orientated organisation to one that would spearhead and be the driving force behind the national ‘greening' effort. This, in a sense, was a repeat of Cantley's role in the 1880s. In support of this, the area subsequently occupied by Symphony Lake (1974) was turned into a large nursery ground. To meet the need for trained personnel to maintain the greenery, the School of Ornamental Horticulture was opened in the gardens in 1972. The new diploma qualification in Ornamental Horticulture and Landscape Design was the first of its kind in South-East Asia and was modelled on the Diploma in Horticulture established at Kew in 1963. Over the following 20 years the greening programme matured and Singapore gained international reputation for its clean and green environment. Through the development of a world class educational programme, the botanic gardens were able to achieve their mission to provide the botanical and horticultural expertise needed to transform Singapore into the garden city.
Through the 1970s the gardens' public facilities and landscape were upgraded as it assumed the role of a public park. These improvements were however swept away following major redevelopments carried out across the gardens (over three phases) from the 1990s to the present day, which re-emphasized its botanic garden character. Three core areas, the Tanglin, Central and Bukit Timah Cores were identified and the surviving heritage landscapes of Niven and Murton carefully preserved. Excellence in botanical research and conservation of biological diversity, education programmes and preservation of the cultural heritage of the gardens were all essential parts of the Masterplan and remain at the core of the gardens' current vision and mission to ‘connect plants and people'. Singapore Botanic Gardens regained its status as a premier institution for tropical botany and horticulture, whilst also fulfilling its role of attracting and engaging visitors.
The southern boundary of the gardens is defined by Holland Road, its north-western boundary by Cluny Park Road and its northern boundary by the Bukit Timah Road. A recent acquisition by the gardens (10ha of land formerly belonging to the Sultan of Johor) has added the ‘Tyersall Forest' to the south-west of the gardens. The eastern boundary of the gardens is mostly defined by Cluny Road, with the northeast sector of the gardens adjoining the boundaries of the National University of Singapore, once part of the Economic Gardens.
The proposed World Heritage Site's preliminary boundary (see Figure 1) predominantly includes the Tanglin and Central Cores of the gardens which incorporate the significant historic fabric of the gardens and reflect its outstanding universal values.
A preliminary outline of the buffer zones for the World Heritage Site is shown on Figure 1. The Bukit Timah Core and Tyersall Extension buffer zones are under the control of the gardens. The zones to the east, south and west of the gardens are outside the gardens' ownership and include primarily existing low rise residential land use. The future planning arrangements for these are the responsibility of Singapore Government's Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).
The linear distance between the northern and southern ends of the gardens is approximately 2 km. The site is free to access, with the exception of the 2.5ha National Orchid Garden, and is the only botanic garden in the world that opens between 5am and midnight every single day of the year. It is well contained and predominantly inward-looking, being visually and audibly protected from the surrounding urban environment, despite being on an undulating site. Well served by public transport, the gardens contain a wide variety of attractions and facilities set within the context of a historic designed landscape and are enjoyed by over four million visitors annually.
The botanic gardens contains a number of historic buildings which are a memorial both to the renowned figures who lived in them as well as to the architectural history of Singapore. Four conserved buildings, including two in the historic ‘Black and White Bungalow' style, lie within the gardens' original land holdings, these are: Burkhill Hall (1868), Ridley Hall (1882), EJH Corner House (1910) and Holttum Hall (1920). In addition, the gardens include six conserved buildings, which formed part of the former Raffles College (five 1920s bungalows and the 1958 Raffles Building) and two gazetted conserved structures (the 1930 bandstand and 1850s Swan Lake Gazebo, transported to the gardens in 1969).
The living collections are a remarkable asset to the garden (31,500 living plant accessions and 8,300 taxa in cultivation), including alongside the more recent orchid garden, 6ha of rainforest and 34 of Singapore's 177 heritage trees (many of which are older than the gardens themselves). These include Critically Endangered species. The herbarium includes 650,000 specimens of which 6,800 are type specimens (the ultimate points of reference for the correct application of species' names). The library is the oldest reference library in South-East Asia containing 30,000 books and 41,000 rare books/journals and unique research papers/unpublished material.
Singapore Botanic Gardens is a premier botanic institution for research, conservation and education as well as a cherished recreational destination and custodian of collective memories.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Singapore Botanic Gardens is an exceptional example of a tropical botanic garden which emerged during the 19th century period of global expansion, exploration and colonisation by the British and others in South-East Asia. The gardens, which originated as ‘pleasure gardens' (mid-19th century), assumed a preeminent role in the promotion of economic botany in the Malay Peninsular and Straits Settlements administration during the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Singapore Botanic Gardens' landscape today bears unique testimony to the long lasting history of and unique contribution to the economic, social and scientific development of the region. Nowhere in the British colonies were the effects of economic growth and discoveries more felt than at Singapore Botanic Gardens through the pioneering work on rubber cultivation and techniques for tapping carried out in the 1880-90's, which set in place the foundation of the early 20th century rubber boom. By 1917, the gardens had supplied over 7 million rubber seeds and encouraged plantation owners across the Malay Peninsula to grow rubber instead of other tropical crops - this underpinned the regions' early economic prosperity and gave it a significant place in the world commodity trading markets. Without the work carried out in Singapore Botanic Gardens it is unlikely that the great developments in the automobile industry, in aviation, in textiles and numerous other industries which relied on rubber, would have taken place. Singapore Botanic Gardens also led the way in collecting, growing and distributing other promising economic crops throughout the tropics, including oil palm, ipecacuahana, gutta-percha and pineapple. The essential and pioneering research performed at the Singapore Botanic Gardens into methods of cultivation and plant classification resulted in important discoveries in areas such as pest control in coconuts.
Singapore Botanic Gardens has a well-defined cultural landscape which includes a rich variety of historic features and clearly demonstrates the evolution of the gardens over 153 years. Unusually it still preserves within its historic core the original landscape layout as designed in the 1860's for the original pleasure garden, which reflects the English Garden style. The Tanglin core zone of Singapore Botanic Gardens represents one of the most authentic and unchanged examples of original design among colonial botanic gardens in South and South East-Asia, which is unusual among botanic gardens of the era. As part of this garden landscape the living collections include over 30 heritage trees, many of which are veterans of over 100 years old. Uniquely Singapore Botanic Gardens is also the only city botanic garden in the world to include a tract of primary rainforest within the original boundaries of the gardens, thus preserving in some small part the unique ecological heritage of Singapore. The 6ha area is not only a reminder of Singapore's natural heritage before development changed the island forever, it is also of immense importance from a conservation point of view containing trees native to Singapore which are now rare specimens as a result of deforestation. This rainforest reserve contains ancient giant Dipterocarps of unparalleled size and 60% of the plants contained within it are now rare in Singapore. Furthermore 10 species considered at one point to be extinct were rediscovered within this rainforest area and now represent the only remaining specimens in Singapore.
The ensemble of historic buildings which contribute to the cultural landscape of the gardens includes four conserved buildings (built between the 1860's and 1920's), two of which are in the historic ‘Black and White Bungalow' style an assemblage of ‘black and white bungalows'. Built specifically for botanic garden functions such as residences for superintendents, this historic building type is now very rare in Singapore - only 10% of the original black and white bungalows which housed the colonial residents are still in existence. No other South/South-East-Asian botanic garden can claim to have such eminent and rare examples of their region's architectural heritage within a largely unchanged setting. The presence of the unchanged Swan Lake, Singapore's oldest ornamental water body created in 1866, reinforces Singapore Botanic Gardens' reputation as a botanic garden of exceptional heritage significance. This enduring history has played an integral role in the social history of Singapore, providing a backdrop for the lives of its residents both past and present.
Since its beginning, Singapore Botanic Gardens has continued to be a leading centre for plant science, research and conservation in South-East Asia. Today, it is internationally recognised as a leading institution of tropical botany and horticulture and its library and herbarium collections serve as an important reference centre for research on the region's flora for botanists around the world. The herbarium and collections are distinguished in the region and globally because of their particular contribution to tropical biodiversity research and inventorying, more specifically within the Malay Peninsula. No other herbarium in South or South East Asia can claim to contain herbaria of such quality or comprehensiveness in the original landscape within which they were established. Additionally, the seminal publications on Malaysian flora are all based on resources from Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Singapore Botanic Gardens was and continues to be instrumental in the greening and transformation of Singapore into a ‘Garden City/City in a Garden', successfully implementing the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's vision and ‘Garden City' programme that started in the 1960s. The gardens provided the expertise, skills and resources needed to implement the vision and continues to contribute through its plant research, education and conservation work. The knowledge and resources provided by the gardens enthused and empowered the people of Singapore to take an active role in the greening of their city, fostering a sense of pride and ownership in its citizens. It can be said that the botanic Gardens' involvement in the greening of Singapore dates as far back as the 1880s, when, under Cantley, the then Superintendent of the gardens, the gardens assumed the role of propagating trees for planting in Singapore's streets and parks.
Criterion (ii): Since the 19th century (1860's) Singapore Botanic Gardens' continued and close association with scientific plant research and interchange of this and economically important plants across the world and South-East Asia has had a fundamental influence on the social and economic development and prosperity of the region.
Criterion (iv): Singapore Botanic Gardens is a unique exemplar of a British colonial tropical botanic garden that demonstrates in its historic English landscape style garden, layout and buildings its different stages of development since 1859.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The landscape layout in the core of the gardens reflects accurately the original ‘pleasure garden' design of the 1860's by Niven. This includes the original undulating land form and serpentine path layout radiating from the bandstand area.
The ensemble of ‘black and white bungalow' buildings in the garden have broadly retained their original design intent and some of their original materials. Restoration has been sensitively achieved.
Swan Lake, the oldest ornamental water body in Singapore has been part of the gardens since 1866.
The potting yard beside Cluny Road, survives from the 1880s, when the gardens assumed the role of propagating trees for planting in Singapore's streets and parks.
Heritage Trees - presence include some veterans of over 100 years old and a second generation seedling from the original rubber trees.
The primary rainforest tract predates the gardens.
The original planting schemes are generally evident, including for example the palms - although some of the plants themselves may be descendants of the original plant material, there is nonetheless a sense of continuity between past and present in terms of the setting and character of the gardens.
From the 19th century to today Singapore Botanic Gardens has remained faithful to its initial purposes:
- Botanical collecting, demonstration of specimens, scientific research, and plant exchange internationally.
- Provision of the premier city park for the City of Singapore.
The proposed WHS boundary reflects the definition of the original Tanglin Core (1860s) with the addition of those parts of the original northern extension of the gardens (Economic Garden, 1879). It encapsulates all the elements that bear witness to the historic development of the landscape in the gardens - i.e. from being the preeminent British botanic colonial garden in the Malay Peninsular/maritime South-East Asia to its more recent role as Singapore's premier public park.
All the historic elements that are needed to understand the core of the cultural landscape of the gardens (i.e. landscape design layout, historic building, veteran trees, and primary jungle tract) remain intact. The continued presence of the herbarium, library and research laboratories bears testimony to continued use of the gardens for scientist research.
Comparison with other similar properties
Botanical Gardens Inscribed as World Heritage Sites
Whilst nascent botanic gardens can be reasonably identified in, for example, Aztec, Chinese, Egyptian and Arabic cultures, it is widely accepted that the world's first botanic gardens were the 16th century university physic/medicinal gardens of Italy. The Orto Botanico at Padua (1545), inscribed as World Heritage Site in 1997, is undoubtedly the finest example of the renaissance hortus medicus. Unlike their successors, renaissance botanic gardens were devoted to growing medicinal plants as a research resource and at this stage botany was considered an adjunct to the study of medicine. In light of this, the botanical gardens of the renaissance and those of the colonial period do not invite direct comparison.
The ‘modern' botanic garden is a product of the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, which combined a sense of aesthetic taste with a rational concern for scientific endeavour. It became acceptable to combine beauty and science, which heralded the start of the age of botanic gardens. Botanic gardens such as the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (1759), inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2003, were set up across Europe to try and cultivate new species brought back from tropical expeditions and became fundamental in both promoting and encouraging botanical exploration as well as establishing new botanic gardens (primarily for economic reasons).
The colonial powers, and in particular the British and Dutch, established botanical gardens worldwide within their respective empires, from Australia and New Zealand to Hong Kong and South Africa. Colonial botanic gardens, such as Singapore Botanic Gardens, were the ‘Nurseries of Empire' - enabling dominance both practically and ideologically in an era where botanical research was at the forefront of scientific enquiry and a driving force in the world economy. Places of tranquillity and beauty today were the focus of intense economic activity and crop growing during the colonial expansion (late 18th/early 20th century), which resulted in the face of trade and balance of power changing forever. The very European nature of Kew, combined with its leading role in both establishing and co-ordinating a worldwide network of botanical outposts, sets it, and its contemporaries (including Vienna and Paris), apart from colonial botanical gardens such as Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Tropical Colonial Botanic Gardens
A great concentration of colonial botanic gardens lies in the tropics. The distinctive climate, ecosystems and biodiversity of this latitude distinguishes these botanic gardens from their counterparts in the rest of the world as a result of their unique output and character. Indeed, the potential and challenges of an ‘ever wet' environment and the resultant successes in economic crop growing places these gardens in a category of their own, separate from gardens such as Dunedin Botanical Garden in New Zealand with its winter garden.
For the most part tropical botanic garden activity was concentrated in South and South-East Asia. Among all colonial botanic gardens in the world South and South-East Asian gardens have an unrivalled importance in colonial history. No other region of the world can claim to have produced botanic gardens as productive or as cutting edge as those in South and South-East Asia. The pioneering work done there was to steer the course of history in new directions, revolutionising trade, toppling and establishing economies and determining the international power balance. The most important of these tropical colonial botanic gardens included:
• Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden (Pamplemousses Botanical Garden) (French/British)
• Bogor Botanic Gardens, Indonesia (Dutch)
• Calcutta Botanic Garden, India (British)
• Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Hong Kong(British)
• Malacca Botanical Garden, Malaysia (British)
• Penang Botanic Gardens , Penang Island, Malaysia (British)
• Royal Botanic Gardens Peradeniya, Sri Lanka (British)
• Singapore Botanic Gardens (British)
Of these tropical colonial botanic gardens, only Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden does not fall within South and South-East Asia.
British South and South-East Asian Botanic Gardens
British South and South-East Asian botanic gardens were pre-eminent as a direct consequence of their mutually advantageous role as an outpost of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and their place within a wider network. The infusion of resources, direction and expertise from Kew and plant exchange between these botanic gardens enabled the world class research and discoveries that occurred there. These gardens formed part of an integrated network radiating out from the nerve centre of botanic activity at Kew, not only benefitting from Kew, but providing the essential resources which made Kew the world's most important botanic institution. British tropical botanic gardens, through their connection with one another, stand apart from eminent but isolated tropical botanic gardens such as Bogor. Overall, the way in which different colonial empires (e.g. the Dutch and the British) laid out their tropical botanic gardens does not invite direct comparison.
Colonial botanic gardens in South and South-East Asia take their place in history as the sites where the most important developments in economic crop growing during the 19th century took place. The revolutionary advances in rubber, cinchona and palm oil had ramifications on the global economy, which were felt as far as South America and established this region of Asia as an important economic power. It was as a result of the discoveries made by Henry Ridley at Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1888 in developing a new method of rubber tapping that Malaysia became the biggest rubber producer in the world, creating an entirely new and booming economy out of a plant which was not native to the region. This was responsible for the collapse of the Brazilian rubber industry and intimately intertwined with the technological advances in industries which benefited from the emergence of this newly plentiful resource. Ridley also promoted the growing of cacao and palm oil. Singapore Botanic Gardens carried out experiments with almost every crop which now exists in the region or which had potential to thrive. While Bogor Botanic Gardens played an important role for the Dutch empire, it does not compare to the impact British tropical botanic gardens had on the success of the British Empire.
Royal Botanic Gardens Peradeniya
The Royal Botanic Gardens Peradeniya contains 3000 species of orchids, spices, palm trees and medicinal plants in a setting which is much unchanged. The botanical garden at Peradeniya was the site of huge advances in economic crop growing especially tea and cinchona. However, its importance in the history of economic crop growing is secondary to that of Singapore Botanic Gardens, which spearheaded advancements with rubber. Rubber trees which were first planted at Peradeniya did not achieve success until the innovations in rubber tapping from Singapore Botanic Gardens. Whilst Peradeniya also contains a small number of original rubber trees the special discoveries which took place in Singapore make the continued existence of their descendants in the garden especially significant. Peradeniya was an important research facility but its botanical work was supressed after 1911 and it never regained the eminence it once possessed. The herbarium currently contains around 125,000 specimens. Peradeniya exchanged plants with the Singapore Botanic Gardens from the 1870s.
Penang Botanic Gardens and Malacca Botanical Garden
The Penang Botanic Gardens, founded in 1884, was subordinate to Singapore Botanic Gardens and under the control of the Straits Settlements' administration, which was headquartered at Singapore Botanic Gardens. Equally, the botanical station at Malacca, established in 1886, was under the auspices of the Straits Settlements and its work was subsidiary to that of Singapore Botanic Gardens. The important work that was done at Penang was intended to support that of Singapore Botanic Gardens, developing initially as a repository before being subsumed as a planting research centre from the 1880's until the second world war. The herbarium at Penang was incorporated into Singapore Botanic Gardens' herbarium in 1910 and in 1945, with the loss of direct contact with Singapore Botanic Gardens, the garden fell into decline. Whilst Penang contains many elements of its original layout and planting, its lack of continued contribution to the research field is also relevant for comparison with Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Calcutta Botanic Gardens
Calcutta Botanic Gardens is the largest and oldest site of its kind in South Asia. Its design is praised for its quality, containing undulating surfaces and artificial moats and lakes. Although originally conceived as a pleasure park, 30 years after its establishment this element of the gardens was removed and its mission refocused entirely on economic crops (tea and cotton production were among the economic crops produced), losing the original layout. The re-housed herbarium contains 2.5 million plant specimens from 350 families compared to Singapore Botanic Gardens' 650,000 specimens of which 6,800 are type specimens. While the collection may be larger, the herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens is more comprehensive. The garden contains an impressive collection of palms with 116 species of 53 genera. Singapore Botanic Gardens however contains 220 species from 115 different genera. Some of the original buildings within Calcutta Botanic Gardens are in relatively poor condition.
Hong Kong Botanical Gardens
The 5.6ha Hong Kong Botanical Gardens was established in 1864 beside and extending the Governor's residence's parkland and gardens. In its early stages it acted as an entrepôt for the export of the largely unknown flora of China to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and elsewhere. At this time it had a significant influence on the establishment of afforestation on the island. Hong Kong was slow in establishing a herbarium and support for research was not continuous or fully committed. Today, the gardens are a popular urban park with good living collections included in a series of ornamental themed gardens. Unlike Singapore Botanic Gardens, Hong Kong Botanical Gardens retains few original features and had only a limited contribution to plant science research and to the impact of economic botany on the prosperity of the region.