It is heartening that a part of Coney Island has been designated as a nature park, serving as a natural green lung in a zone of burgeoning concrete in the once rural Punggol area.
However, given its ecological characteristic and the tremendous influx of visitors, a careful consideration of the future development plans for the island, in particular the non-park portion of it, is highly pertinent.
Coney Island is a long, narrow island, about 2.3km long, but only about 500m at its widest. The nature park covers less than half the island, but has the same shape, running all along the seaward coastline, with an average width of about 200m.
As a nature park, this is a big handicap in terms of ecological assets, as its narrow elongated shape lacks an ample interior space and hence can be very much subject to external pressure impacting adversely on the habitat and its wildlife. This will be a significant negative factor for its long-term eco-health, especially if the landward non-park portion is planned for future development that is not eco-friendly.
At present, the non-park portion is slated by the Urban Redevelopment Authority for housing development.
The National Parks Board's information board states that 157 animal species have been recorded on the island. The Nature Society has learnt that this covers 85 bird species, inclusive of such nationally endangered species as the spotted wood owl, changeable hawk eagle, rusty-breasted cuckoo, oriental magpie robin and the red-wattled lapwing. The island also provides resting and perching sites for the white-bellied sea eagles and brahminy kites hunting for prey along the coast here. It is also important as a haven for migratory bird species, such as the black baza and the large hawk cuckoo.
Other noteworthy records are the moderately rare butterflies such as the spotted black crow and the king crow, among others, as well as a rare reptile, the mourning gecko.
The whole island is dominated by casuarinas, with sea almonds and other tree species (for example, morinda) scattered here and there. In between the trees and shrubs are wild grasses. There is a small patch of mangrove in the middle part hugging the coast.
The park, being dominated by casuarinas, is generally sparse in trees and undergrowth. You can easily see visitors moving around at a longer distance compared to, say, a secondary forest at Bukit Brown. The greater the influx of visitors, the greater will be the disturbance to the wildlife, especially if there is also a lot of human noise-making.
HOUSING DEVELOPMENT ISSUES
The housing development, if carried out, will intensify the disturbance caused by:
More visitors using the park, say for jogging and other exercises, as it is conveniently close by for the residents;
Lighting up of the park at night by house-lighting and moving vehicles' headlights, especially given the sparseness of the vegetation;
More day-to-day noises from residents, such as moving vehicles, conversations, music.
Given these problems, it is preferable to leave the non-park zone as it is - to be integrated into the park area as much as possible.
Eco-friendly development is recommended, such as small low-rise chalets, camps, canoeing clubs and similar structures.
However, if housing is definitely a must, low-rise housing with a cluster style design is preferable, with height well below the general canopy of the park trees.
In the interim, before housing developments come up, some measures can be taken to minimise the current disturbance due to the influx of visitors.
For example, cyclists should be restricted to the main track that runs in the middle of the island and that currently serves as the border boundary of the park on the landward flank.
But they can be given access to the beach to sample the breeze and coastal scenery at the designated openings through the feeder tracks running tangential from the main one.
Next, plant trees and shrubs to provide density of vegetation in the open and sparser areas.
The emphasis should be trees and shrubs with soft fruits and berries as these are rather rare on the island. Such planting will attract more birds and other wildlife.
PRESERVING ITS RUSTIC CHARM
Recognising the rustic charm of the island, NParks is keen to keep the park "as basic as possible". However, the problem is the slated housing development on the island itself, which will be facing the main Punggol development zone that will eventually become a concrete jungle. Coming from the concretised main island, you will be immediately confronted by a wall of concrete on Coney Island itself, which will shield from view the green park behind on the seaward flank.
Even if you know that there is a nature area behind, the sense of the park's rusticity will not kick in, given the close proximity of the housing. The taller and denser the buildings, the more the park's rustic lure will evaporate. What is to be planned for the area outside the park is critical to its viability as a rustic haven and wildlife sanctuary.
The writer is vice-chairman of the conservation committee in the Nature Society (Singapore).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Safeguard rustic appeal of Coney Island Nature Park'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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