top of page

Life Ladprao 18 by






August 2020


Songdo in South Korea bills itself as the city of the future. Built on 600 hectares of reclaimed land outside of Seoul, it is a blueprint for urban development in the 21st century, making use of every available technology while preserving an incredible 40 percent of its footprint for green space.


Its wide boulevards are lined with parks. Gardens float from ground level up onto the roofs of shopping centers. A 40-hectare public park sits at its center, serving not just as a leisure space for city residents but also to meet their transportation needs with seawater canals  connecting it with buildings.


Songdo’s green city vision reflects how important landscape architecture is for developing sustainable urban environments, but few architects are blessed with a blank sheet of paper on which to balance the demands of city living with nature. Instead, landscape architects across the region are developing their own measures to bring the natural environment into existing urban areas.


“Mankind has a desire to be associated very closely with nature at all times,” says Professor Philip Cox, an Australian landscape architect whose firm, COX Architecture, is responsible for some of Singapore’s landmark public projects, including the Helix Bridge and the Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade. “Nature is the heart of quality of life itself. There are very few people who are not entranced by nature and the diversity of botany in the world.”


This, he says, is driving a newfound awareness for the importance of landscape architecture: “A lot of clients and governments are saying we want green buildings and we want to celebrate nature, and this is very exciting—more so in Asia than in Western society. Even if the cost is 10-15-percent more than making a regular building, they see using plant material in buildings as valuable because when you live in a high-rise you don’t have connection to the ground. Having landscape material in your immediate environment is a great selling point.”


Nicholas Holt, head of research for the Asia Pacific region at Knight Frank, agrees. “In some markets, developers are seeing that to reduce density and GFA [gross floor area] and instead get the landscape right it will increase the square-meter value and their returns,” he says.


Holt points to Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo as cities at the forefront of prioritizing green environments.


“Both Singapore and Hong Kong have a sophisticated and distinctive approach supported by their own local landscape institutes,” says Christian Dierckxsens, landscape design director at the Hong Kong-based Atkins Global architecture firm. “They have a wide range of constraints to be considered by the local landscape architect. This includes green ratio percentages, preservation of existing trees or integrating a percentage of public realm as part of the development.”


Singapore, in particular, has been praised for its green vision of a city. There are government subsidies in place to encourage developers to embrace energy saving materials and incorporate features like vertical and roof gardens, while large-scale civic projects like Gardens by the Bay use landscape architecture as a way of generating extra tourism.


“Gardens by the Bay is a wonderful example of a government seeing landscape as a part of tourism,” says Cox of Singapore’s two-year-old, 101-hectare nature park in the center of the city. By November 2018, the park had attracted 20 million visitors since opening.


“The Singaporean government has invested an enormous amount of money into this. They had a botanical gardens in the hinterlands but bringing it into the central marine area has increased tourism by at least a day and a half because people linger and view it as a must-see destination.”


Singapore’s residential projects are also at the forefront of landscape architecture. Ann Teo, founder of COEN Design International, is the landscape architect behind Tree House, a condominium project which holds the Guinness World Record for having the largest vertical green wall in the world—a vast, 78-meter slip of plant-life that ascends up the building’s west-facing wall. It’s a feature which is not just aesthetically pleasing but also, according to its designer, incredibly ecologically efficient.


“Green walls never radiate heat; they keep what’s behind them very cool,” says Teo. “You can use landscaping like this to breathe in the heat on the side of the building where it matters most. The rooms behind the green wall are not as hot because they do not collect or radiate heat. It’s like putting on a jacket that protects you from the sun.”


Landscape architecture’s capacity to offset energy use will increasingly govern how it is used across Asia. “Intelligent landscaping is very effective at reducing a project’s energy footprint,” says Dierckxsens. “But it requires more than the random integration of green building measures. For example, a large tree within a building lobby is not necessarily contributing to the reduction of the building’s energy footprint.”


Teo agrees. “Any condo or any project needs to study its relationship to the environment. You have to make sure the planting is in the right position for the sun and look at the whole environment and climate.”


She points to one of her other projects, the Westgate shopping center, as an example of how landscape architecture can intelligently reduce energy use. “It is the first non-air-conditioned mall in Singapore,”she says. “We looked at how air movement flows through the space and how to disperse heat, using indoor plants and green walls to cool the temperature. It is a mall in a garden and a garden in mall.”


Other Asian centers are following suit. Bangkok, a city traditionally behind Singapore in its environmental initiatives, has recently seen its own buildings which prioritize green space. The new Emquartier shopping center with its vertiginous gardens and open-air communal spaces is a far cry from the shopping malls which Bangkok was building just five years ago, while cascades of greenery are increasingly seen on the facades of condominiums.


“Developers in Bangkok are seeing how spending on the building alone does not have enough impact; landscape can be the selling point that distinguishes their project,” says Yossapon Boonsom, one of the founding directors of Shma Designs, the landscape architecture firm behind Ashton Morph 38, a luxury condominium hailed as one of the greenest in Bangkok.


“But I would like to see developers see landscaping as more than a selling point. Developers should combine the marketing elements of green space with environmental mitigation,” says Yossapon. “Thailand instead tries hard in styling the garden and beautifying the outside areas, but we should move forward and see how we can use natural environments efficiently and to provide experiences and activities.”


This, he says, can be stimulated by government policies. “Singapore has an incentive policy for developers who give half their space to green areas and vertical greenery, that’s why it’s part of developers’ policies to have these green walls and roof gardens. Governments need to help with incentives to stimulate the market. The trend there is to embrace green energy and solar roofs to help developers reduce their projects’ electricity cost. I see some projects in Thailand try to do this but they don’t want to invest when the cost is going to be more for the buyer.”


Outside of Bangkok and Singapore, emerging Asian cities like Phnom Penh and Yangon are facing their own urban landscaping challenges. These, says Teo, can be very different from the challenges faced by more-developed cities.


“When you have emerging markets like Myanmar and Cambodia, they are in a hurry to just build houses,” she says. “Not many developers articulate the landscape and not many people appreciate it in that way. They are just building. Whereas in Singapore, we have been through that and so we are looking for quality.”


Dierckxsens has advice for these markets. “Such cities can definitely learn and capitalize on the successes or mistakes of Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore,” he says, pointing to existing infrastructure opportunities in less-developed cities which they are yet to develop.


“Whether it is a nullah [urban waterway] or polluted river corridor crossing the city center, an abandoned or inefficient railway line or industrial grounds, many of these spaces have great potential to be adopted within an interlinked network of open spaces connecting different districts of a city,” he says.  


Though the obstacles which landscape architects need to overcome are different throughout the region, there is one thing, says Dierckxsens, that unites every market in Asia, and which intelligent landscape architecture needs to address.


“Growing urbanization is a challenge for all cities,” he says. “We are all facing the increased consequences of climate change, which has to be absorbed during development.”


To combat population growth, the future will almost certainly see more entirely new cities like Songdo, which are built from day one to mitigate climate change. But with the right governmental policies and a proper foresight from investors, the future for Asia’s existing urban centers can be just as green.

bottom of page