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Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) and the Response of Landscape Architects

EIAs in Singapore

An Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is a study that assesses the potential impacts of a development on the environment. Common biophysical conditions assessed include air and water quality, hydrology, soil, in-ground vibration, air-borne noise, flora, and fauna. An EIA is usually conducted at the pre-design stage of a project, by a qualified external consultancy. The findings guide decision-makers to modify the planned development in order to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the project.

While most of Singapore’s forests were denuded by 1900 (Corlett, 1991) and urbanisation intensified exponentially in the 1960s, EIAs have only been formally carried out since around 1989 (Hesp, 1995). Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Planning Act, all proposals are reviewed by technical agencies before the planning permission is issued and at this point, an EIA may be called for if deemed necessary.


A Growing Interest in Contemporary Times

In recent times, examples of major projects around the Nature Reserves such as the Cross Island Line, the Mandai Attractions and Tengah’s Forest Town have undergone the EIA process. As part of the process, feedback may also be sought from stakeholders, such as nature groups. For example, the redevelopment plans for Ulu Pandan Forest were revised following the findings of the EIA and a strong public interest. In 2020, the National Parks Board released the Biodiversity Impact Assessment Guidelines which aim to guide projects towards a more respectful development approach, especially in ecologically sensitive areas such as the Nature Reserves. These guidelines are focused upon protecting the biological diversity of a site.


EIA and the Landscape Architect

Within the field of Landscape Architecture, seminal publications such as Ian McHarg’s 1969’s “Design with Nature” have highlighted the role of Landscape Architects in environmental stewardship. Through their guiding role in design and construction sectors, Landscape Architects play an important role in the planning, design and management of the built and natural environment.

In order to mitigate environmental impacts, the hierarchical sequence of avoid, minimise, restore and offset is recommended to achieve a net positive impact for each project. Within the context of the profession, some examples are described below:


Avoid: On a macro-scale, can Landscape Architects advise on development footprints to allow for known areas of conservation to be retained? On a micro-scale, can Landscape Architects conserve and reinforce the presence of existing trees?


Minimise: Can Landscape Architects advocate for changes to the building footprint to allow biodiversity corridors to be retained or created within and between sites? Is it possible to integrate local nutrient recycling activities such as natural farming into the development? How can materials be sourced locally/ regionally through sustainable practices?


Restore: How can remnant or degraded areas of natural habitat be enhanced through the introduction of plant species which will increase the vegetative complexity and in turn attract more fauna?


Offset: Can multi-functional landscape features be considered? Rain gardens and natural-edged ponds provide opportunities for recreation, hydrological and ecological benefits.


The mitigation hierarchy and approach to managing risks to biodiversity (UN Global Compact and IUCN, 2012)

Some perceived challenges that may need to be addressed with developers include the drawback of such strategies on developable land area and the benefits of these functions to the project.


A Call to Think Bigger

Certain and immediate financial profits have been the main indicator of success in the current economy but this is changing. Firstly, long-term sustainability is now also considered, as evidenced by increasing societal pressure to reduce negative externalities. This is demonstrated by the change in plans to retain about a third of the Ulu Pandan Forest. Secondly, intangible assets such as goodwill and branding make a significant part of a company’s value. Who wants to be associated with the clearing of a forest?


More significantly, regenerative development is no longer considered “good-to-do”, but a “must-do”. Since the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, more than 2000ha of mangrove forests have been planted. This Nature-based Solution buffers against future tidal surges and creates new livelihoods, such as small-scale aquaculture (Spalding, 2014). In Thailand, cocoa farmers have found that by implementing permaculture practices, plants grow healthier (Anarchy Chocolate, 2021), and in Singapore, green roofs have been estimated to reduce urban temperatures by up to 78.9% (Wong & Tan, 2011). The planet cannot continue to sustain growth at its current pace, and we cannot build without considerations to the environment – designing a “good-looking” outdoor space is not enough.


Timber and crop trees planted in communities help restore biodiversity and allow on soils to regenerate (Agroforestry World, 2018)

Besides considering what an EIA is and how to address it, imagine it in the larger framework of urban development and how we can positively impact our world. Climate action, access to clean water, affordable and clean energy are some of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals which do not require an EIA for design motivation.


Dig deeper to develop lighter.

 

Further Reading


A Landscape Architecture Guide to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals: https://www.iflaeurope.eu/assets/docs/SDG%2BFINAL.pdf Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment: Towards an Integrated Approach: https://www.unep.org/resources/report/environmental-impact-assessment-and-strategic-environmental-assessment-towards

 

About the Author:


Bronwyn Tan has worked on biodiversity impact assessments and advised on habitat creation in the past few years. She is the co-founder of Shubin + Tan Landscape Architecture, a studio which believes development must be beneficial to the environment and society, both presently and for the future.

 

References


Anarchy Chocolate (2021). Combatting Climate Change with Cocoa https://anarchychocolate.com/combat-climate-change-cocoa/?v=080005527060 Accessed 19 Sep 2021


Corlett, RT (1991) Vegetation. The Biophysical Environment of Singapore, pp. 134-154. Singapore: Singapore University Press.


Hesp, P (1995). The Environmental Impact Assessment process in Singapore with particular respect to coastal environments and the role of NGOs. Journal of Coastal Conservation. 1. pp 135-144. 10.1007/BF02905122.


Spalding M, McIvor A, Tonneijck FH, Tol S and van Eijk P (2014) Mangroves for coastal defence. Guidelines for coastal managers & policy makers. Published by Wetlands International and The Nature Conservancy. 42 p


Wong NH and Tan AYK (2011). Greening the Urban Landscape: Effects of Skyrise Greenery on Building Performance. CITYGREEN, #2. pp 90-93.


UN Global Compact and IUCN (2012). A Framework for Corporate Action on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

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