People

He's got all the green connections

NParks director Yeo Meng Tong, one of the pioneers who started the Park Connector Network 25 years ago.
NParks director Yeo Meng Tong, one of the pioneers who started the Park Connector Network 25 years ago.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN
INVIGORATING WALK: "The Kallang (connector) is always close to my heart… It's a nice walk, I listen to the BBC and when I reach home, I feel fresh." - MR YEO MENG TONG, on the Kallang Park Connector
INVIGORATING WALK: "The Kallang (connector) is always close to my heart… It's a nice walk, I listen to the BBC and when I reach home, I feel fresh." - MR YEO MENG TONG, on the Kallang Park Connector ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

NParks man helped pave way for islandwide cycling, jogging links

When the National Parks Board (NParks) called a tender for the first park connector more than 25 years ago, it did not expect electrical engineers to come forward.

But because of how the term "park connector" was translated in the Chinese newspaper advertisements, many thought it had something to do with electrical connections instead of parks.

"In the 1980s, the concept was so new no one knew what we were talking about," recalled a chuckling Mr Yeo Meng Tong, who spearheaded the project along the Kallang River. "I had to call (the engineers) to explain, sorry but you're not the ones I am looking for."

Now, 25 years later, the Park Connector Network (PCN) has become a "household name", said Mr Yeo, 54, who is director for parks development at NParks.

The PCN has more than 300km of cycling and jogging paths spread over five loops across the island.

The newest, the 36km Central Urban Loop, which links residents in Ang Mo Kio, Hougang and Serangoon, was launched just last month.

Two more loops, the Southern Ridges and Central Nature, are at the planning stage. A Round Island Route, which will circle Singapore and link up the other PCN loops, is in the works too.

Ground support for this public institution - which is set to expand to 360km by 2020 - has been tremendous, said Mr Yeo, but this was not so in the project's early years.

It was conceptualised in 1987 by Japanese landscape architect Junichi Inada, who was then at the Parks and Recreation Department, which later became NParks.

It was a bold plan to link up "fragmented parks and green spaces", so people could walk and cycle between them, said Mr Yeo, Mr Inada's colleague at that time.

Mr Yeo, then a 27-year-old government scholar fresh out of Berlin Technical University, led a team of three to implement the plan.

At the start, the team tussled with the Public Utilities Board (PUB) as Mr Yeo zoomed in on the 6m-wide maintenance strips along drainage canals as the best way to link up parks. "To the layman, this might not seem like much, but think about how many kilometres of canals we have," he said, pointing out that these were now "green veins" connecting the island's parks.

Back then, the PUB was worried about the project affecting the canals' drainage and flood-prevention capabilities, and whether it was safe to have people so close to the canal edge, said Mr Yeo.

"(Preventing) flooding was their main concern, and we needed to make sure that was still being addressed," he added.

It took "a few years" to convince the PUB that canals could also be used for leisure.

"Today, the PUB is the one leading the ABC programme - that's a good thing that has come out of this," said Mr Yeo, referring to the scheme to turn utilitarian drains, canals and reservoirs into clean and beautiful lakes and streams.

Over the years, Mr Yeo has seen the transformation of the PCN. For instance, despite its original recreational purpose, it is now increasingly plied by commuting cyclists.

"When we first completed the Kallang Park Connector in 1992, we noticed that a lot of Bishan estate residents used it as a shortcut to get to the bus stop in Braddell Road," said Mr Yeo, adding that this was one of the first signs that the PCN could be used for more practical purposes.

Indeed, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced in June that it was studying whether the 10km-long Kallang Park Connector could become a seamless commuting route for cyclists into the city.

The PCN now forms most of the 330km or so of cycling paths under the National Cycling Plan, which is led by the Land Transport Authority and aims to have 700km of cycling paths ready by 2030.

Mr Yeo said the growing number of people commuting by bicycle and other mobility devices is "very encouraging". "It shows a direction where we could depend less on cars - which pollute the air and congest the road," he said.

While Mr Yeo drives to work most days, he walks home once a week from NParks' headquarters in Botanic Gardens to Ang Mo Kio, where he lives in a five-room flat.

The walk can take 12-16km, and two to three hours to complete, and often takes him through the Kallang Park Connector.

"The Kallang (connector) is always close to my heart… It's a nice walk, I listen to the BBC and when I reach home I feel fresh," said Mr Yeo, a father of two.

And while the core purpose of the PCN - connecting parks - would always be there, in future the network could connect places too.

"It can happen," said Mr Yeo.

It is something cyclists are eagerly anticipating.

Mr Francis Chu, co-founder of cycling group Love Cycling SG, said the PCN comprises the backbone of Singapore's cycling network, and as more parts of the network are gradually connected, its practical use would "dramatically improve".

Mr Han Jok Kwang, an avid recreational cyclist, said there should be better integration between the PCN and cycling networks within towns. "With more integration, cycling to work, and first- and last- mile travel on bicycles will increasingly be more attractive," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2015, with the headline 'He's got all the green connections'. Print Edition | Subscribe