Wow wow west: Jurong's revamped gardens

When completed in 2017, Jurong's revamped gardens will be one of the largest in Singapore

Often thought of as an industrial neighbourhood with few leisure options, Jurong became the talk of the town this week, after plans to turn it into a "people's garden" were revealed.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, announced major changes to the area, in particular to the 70ha Jurong Lake Gardens.

This comes six years after the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) released plans in 2008 for Jurong to become a key regional hub, as part of a move to bring jobs closer to homes.

One of the major developments involves the Japanese and Chinese gardens being combined with Jurong Lake Park.

The two gardens, surrounded by the man-made Jurong Lake, were built in the 1970s and need an injection of new life.

The Japanese Garden was initiated by the late deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee. Built at a cost of $3 million and completed in 1973, it received funding from the Singapore and Japanese governments. It was designed by Professor Kinsaku Nakane, a leading Japanese garden and landscape artist, and his three assistants from Tokyo.

The Chinese Garden, which is connected to the Japanese Garden, was designed by prominent Taiwanese architect Yu Yuen-chen and opened in 1975.

Once plans are finalised, the integrated space will have a park in the heartland, bigger than the 62ha Bishan- Ang Mo Kio Park, one of the largest urban parks in central Singapore. The new gardens will be completed by 2017, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan in his blog on Monday.

The transformation is not confined to the gardens. Under the URA Masterplan, which includes the Jurong Gateway, the Jurong Lake District will have edutainment attractions and hotel clusters.

The district, bounded by Boon Lay Way, Yuan Ching Road and Ayer Rajah Expressway, also looks set to become more vibrant as the 37-year-old Science Centre moves to a new site. The new building is slated to be completed in 2020.

There are also plans for waterfront housing, hotels and more leisure options.

A call for garden design ideas will go out next year and PM Lee encourages Singaporeans to send in the ideas they have for the area. Residents who spoke to The Straits Times earlier this week gave the plans a resounding thumbs-up.

What would you like to see in the new Jurong neighbourhood? E-mail

Revamped gardens can be testbed for ideas

The Japanese and Chinese gardens have been around for more than three decades, without a major revamp to date. While their physical look is about to get a makeover, a change of perception of the area might be in order too.

DP Architects director Seah Chee Huang says if people see the Jurong district as an industrial part of Singapore, the changes, especially with more developments around the lake, will make it less so.

"If there are hotels and more waterfront housing, that will inject a 'live-in' population to the area. This also has the potential to bring people straight to the heart of the action, which is the lake... This will add to the vibrancy of the area. People will know it's a good place to hang out."

The gardens in the middle of Jurong Lake have long been dogged by comments that they are ghost towns most of the week. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at Sunday's rally the Jurong Lake Gardens were "under-utilised" and looked dated, compared with the nearby Jurong Gateway area, which has educational institutions and new malls.

But Associate Professor Tan Puay Yok from the department of architecture at the School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore, says residents would not think the gardens are not well used. Instead, he feels these areas are "under- visited" - an impression that should change once the new amenities are built.

He says: "Residents get a lot of utility out of them. But those who travel to visit don't return because they think they've seen it all.

"But there are two factors the area has: serenity and natural landscape, much of which should be retained and its biodiversity highlighted. This will get more people in. Keep it natural, rather than a highly managed area, like with other parks."

Indeed, the area has much biodiversity, especially bird life.

The Nature Society (Singapore) has a list of important bird sites in the Jurong Lake area with many uncommon and rare birds. The list was last updated in 2010. The group has records of 123 species of birds in the lakeside area, along the shoreline and at the Chinese and Japanese gardens.

For example, there is the rare Grey-headed Fish-eagle, spotted at the Chinese Garden, that is a resident breeder and is nationally threatened.

The non-profit organisation first wrote to the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2008 to make recommendations on what can be done to the area. The suggestions included growing aquatic plants along the lake to "create marshy habitats and to make the lake more scenic".

Dr Ho Hua Chew, vice-chairman of the society's conservation committee, says the members hope their recommendations will bear fruit now. "We're glad the National Parks Board will be on the team to look at the area's redesign. We're happy to work with them to see how the wildlife here can be protected."

Mr Franklin Po, chairman of landscape architectural firm Tierra Design, suggests the lake can be a good way to test new ideas for the future, especially when it requires "water-sensitive urban design" - a relatively new concept here. The lake could be a catchment area, and different ways to manage water can tried out.

For example, harvested rainwater can be used for irrigation. Mr Po, who is an architect and landscape architect, adds: "Grey water, which is from household water points such as sinks, can be recycled, while small riverines can have turbines within them to generate electricity."

DP Architects' Mr Seah adds that the redevelopment of the area with the new Science Centre as the jewel is an "exciting opportunity to take a more experimental approach".

He adds: "There are plenty of possibilities out there. Key is that the proposals must be sustainable, attractive and inclusive. Remaking Jurong with purposeful planning can show others what a liveable city Singapore can be."

Family staycations and fun

Compared with Orchard Road or Marina Bay, Jurong Lake District may not make a swanky address for hotels. Nonetheless, with its transformation plans, the Government hopes to turn it into a holiday getaway for residents and tourists.

Hotel industry players and academics say there is potential for the area to have a different look from the Marina Bay area, which is about the same size as the Jurong Lake District.

While the southern area of Marina Bay has been decorated with shiny skyscrapers and leisure offerings such as the massive integrated resorts and Gardens by the Bay, the Jurong Lake District can adopt a slower pace of life, says Dr Michael Chiam, senior lecturer in tourism at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Think boutique or mid- sized hotels which cater mainly to families, he says. "There's that possibility of off-city living, which will appeal to many families. Planners need to think about putting in good F&B and entertainment options which will cater to this group."

One hotel is already on its way up in the area.

Last year, Genting Singapore broke ground for a 550-room outfit, slated to open in the first half of next year.

The company is behind Resorts World Sentosa and owns six hotel properties there - Crockfords Tower, Hotel Michael, Festive Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel Singapore, Equarius Hotel and the Beach Villas.

The hotel in Jurong, which sits on a 9,027 sq m site along Jurong Town Hall Road, is the first hotel to launch in the Jurong Lake District.

There are also plans to develop a business and medical hub nearby. The Ng Teng Fong Hospital, which will be completed next year, and Jurong Community Hospital will be there. It is also possible that the area would be home to Singapore's first high-speed rail station.

Leveraging on the proximity to the lake, Mr Yap Beng Tiong, founder of Gravity+Form, a hotel design consultancy firm, says hotels can be built for medical tourists and businessmen who make work trips to the area.

His home-grown company designed the Wyndham Grand Plaza Royale Hotel in Changsha and conceptualised the new Hotel Ruigao in Changde, a district city in the Hunan province, in China.

But Mr Yap notes that the look of hotels in the Jurong Lake District should be different from their city counterparts.

"Travellers should be spared brand fatigue, which is a result of the unfortunate tendency of international brands to replicate," he explains. "Also, there should be a different resort design from those in Sentosa. And these resorts shouldn't be connected to the lake superficially."

The lake is a major plus point which should be used to full advantage, experts interviewed point out. Many suggest that the leisure developments explore setting up water-sports attractions such as wakeboarding, kayaking and paragliding, which will not only draw overseas visitors, but also residents, through the year.

Atelier Dreiseitl Singapore's Leonard Ng, whose company was behind the well-received Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, says that currently, the lake is hard to access.

In the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, the revamped river, which once had fences and traditional concrete canals, has an "inclusive" design. Now, park visitors can wade in the 3km-long river.

Mr Ng, who is a landscape architect and managing director of the firm, says: "Planners must think about how to get people to interact with the water. At this moment, there's very little that brings you close to it. There should be a more seamless transition to get to it.

"To bring the crowds, you can emulate what has been done in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. It's not just a park, but there are also restaurants, biodiversity and exercise stations."

Ms Emma Tapang Meyer, course chair for the diploma in tourism and resort management at the Singapore Polytechnic Business School, believes the Jurong Lake District will draw the crowds when it is completed.

"By virtue of it being new, it will pique a lot of interest from locals. Marry that novelty with seamless accessibility and excellent customer service, and the place will market itself through word-of- mouth and generate fans and ambassadors," she says.

Exciting exhibits still in store at Science Centre

Science Centre Singapore chief executive Lim Tit Meng is used to unflattering comments about the 37-year-old building on Science Centre Road.

Once, he recalls, a visitor, a chairman of a science centre in another country, told him she thought the building looked rundown and was poorly maintained.

The 54-year-old, who is also an associate professor at the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore, says: "Her reaction is typical. Many people don't bother to step in to see what we have. They see the same building through the years and assume that the inside will be worse."

But that visitor did change her mind when she entered the building. "She was impressed. It's a vibrant place with many things happening," says Prof Lim.

The science centre will get new premises on the north shore of the Jurong Lake, near the Chinese Garden MRT station.

The centre has had to overcome numerous hiccups over the decades. In 2010, it was announced that plans for a new centre had to be put on hold for four years due to budget constraints.

Then there were the challenges with attracting visitors. Over the years, 29.5 million students have visited the centre, which was opened in 1977. Visitor numbers hit more than one million in 2009.

After hitting a high that year, visitorship started to decline in 2012. Last year, it drew about 850,000 visitors.

Prof Lim attributes the decline to the opening of new attractions. "Legoland Malaysia opened and the Sentosa theme park, Universal Studios, and aquarium also came up," he says. "Also, the Singapore dollar was strong, so parents took their children for holidays. Because of the economic uncertainty then, we couldn't do major revamps to the building."

The new premises will serve as a chance to design a building that interacts with its surroundings. For example, Prof Lim says the lake and the surrounding gardens can be an exhibit on water quality, horticulture and biodiversity.

He envisions a space in the new centre dedicated to science and technological inventions made in Singapore, such as the ThumbDrive by Singapore company Trek Technology and how treated waste water, or Newater, came about. "We shouldn't shy away from our successes. The exhibits should be a statement for our people, for what Singapore can do."

He also hopes that the new building will have malleable spaces. The current centre, which sits on a 6ha site and was designed by architect Raymond Woo, has no columns.

While the current space is "iconic", Prof Lim says: "The new building should be able to change like a transformer, or like how stages at pop concerts can be shifted around. This means the same area can be used for different purposes. A seminar area in the morning can turn into a performance space or a place for socialising in the evening."

Despite the impending move, the centre's team remains committed to new programming at its current premises. New exhibitions, such as the ongoing Human Body Experience, where visitors can take a close look at the human anatomy, have been drawing crowds.

A children's Science Centre was also set up this year. It now has 6,000 members, up from its initial 2,000 target. Both programmes are "runaway successes", says Prof Lim.

Upcoming exhibits include a planetarium and a virtual aquarium. The line-up is part of a five-year plan for the centre.

Prof Lim says: "We're not going to stop focusing on the centre, since we have six to eight more years before we move. This place must still be relevant."

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