top of page

Singapore's Urban Heat Island Effect: The Hidden Consequence of Rapid Development

Singapore heat
Visitors explore Kampong Lorong Buangkok, Singapore's last standing village. Secondary forests, which have flourished over deserted villages, play a vital role in supporting wildlife but lack legal protection. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Singapore Rising Temperatures and Urban Heat Island Effect

From 2016 to 2021, Singapore experienced a significant rise in temperatures, attributed largely to the urban heat island effect. In this phenomenon, urban areas become significantly warmer than their rural surroundings due to human activities. This effect is exacerbated by the extensive use of concrete and asphalt, which absorb and retain heat, coupled with the decline in natural green spaces.

Historical Context of Singapore’s Urban Greening

Historically, Singapore has been a pioneer in urban greening, starting with the "Garden City" initiative in the 1960s under former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. This initiative aimed to transform the harsh urban landscape into a lush, green environment, improving the quality of life and enhancing the city’s global reputation. Over the decades, this vision evolved into the "City in a Garden" plan and, more recently, the "City in Nature" vision, focusing on restoring natural areas and creating interconnected green spaces.

Loss of Secondary Forests and Habitat Destruction

One of the critical issues is the loss of secondary forests, which comprise about 20% of Singapore’s land area. These forests, grown over abandoned kampungs (villages), serve as vital habitats for wildlife and help mitigate urban heat. However, they are not protected by law and are increasingly being cleared for housing, industrial estates, and infrastructure projects. A scientific paper published last year warned that Singapore could lose 7,331 hectares of secondary forest—about 10% of the island—over the next 10-15 years due to urban development plans.

Efforts to Combat Urban Heat Island Effect

To combat the urban heat island effect, Singapore has implemented several initiatives, such as constructing wildlife bridges over arterial roads and launching the "One Million Trees" tree-planting scheme. However, local conservationists argue that these efforts are insufficient compared to the rate of forest loss and urban expansion. They also express concerns about genetic bottlenecking in isolated wildlife populations, which can lead to inbreeding and decreased genetic diversity.

Health Risks and Human Impact

The increasing heat not only affects the environment but also poses significant health risks. The urban heat island effect, combined with global warming, has led to extreme temperatures that make outdoor work perilous. An average of 34 migrant workers have died yearly in work-related incidents in Singapore since 2020, with heat stroke being a contributing factor. By the end of the century, maximum daily temperatures in Singapore are projected to reach an average of 35°C to 37°C, up from today’s average of 28.6°C.

Impact on Fertility Rates

Extreme heat also impacts Singapore’s fertility rate, which has declined from 1.8 children per couple in 1980 to less than one child per couple in 2023. Heat stress has been found to lower sperm count, further complicating efforts to address the country's low fertility rate.

Lessons for Regional Development

Singapore’s experience offers valuable lessons for other cities in the region, such as Indonesia’s new capital in East Kalimantan. As Indonesia develops its "sustainable forest city," it must consider the environmental impacts of urban expansion, including deforestation, biodiversity loss, and urban heating.

Conclusion: Balancing Development with Environmental Protection

While Singapore continues to be a model of urban development, it is crucial to remember that forests are not just patches of land waiting to be developed. They play a vital role in maintaining a livable environment for both people and wildlife. As urban planners in Singapore and beyond look to the future, balancing development with environmental protection will be key to creating sustainable, resilient cities.


bottom of page