Park Royal on Pickering Singapore – The Power of Horticulture and Living Infrastructure

Shane Sadkowsky and Jerry Coleby-Williams

Shane: I’m here with Jerry Colbey-Williams on a tour of Singapore. It’s a garden tour that Jerry has organised and it has been a fantastic couple of days. We are staying at the Park Royal on Pickering, which is an incredible example of green infrastructure. Jerry, I would like to have a quick chat with you about it and get your thoughts on green/living infrastructure. What’s your thoughts on the potential that living infrastructure has to help enhance the quality of life for people living in cities in places like Brisbane, and what can we learn from a place like this?

Jerry: Well, I think everybody needs to have best case examples, otherwise, people have only just got the theory. Here around us, people have invested a vast amount of money into the Park Royal on Pickering to prove how sustainable hospitality can actually be and they’ve invested so much money on it. It’s gonna be 25 years before it actually returns a profit for that investment.

Shane: People find it hard sometimes to see the value in investing in horticulture and in plant life so what would be some of the biggest incentives and some of the best returns that people could see from investing in a project like this?

Jerry: I think in a place like this, I actually gave a talk to the Accor Hotel Group in Southern Queensland only last week and what I explained to them that this can be part of the visitor’s experience in a hotel even if it doesn’t have a garden. It can have an interesting flower displays and so that is an experience with nature and you can expand on those experiences with nature when you’re staying somewhere and that affects the mood and the whole experience of being in the place. For example, here we have wonderful hanging gardens – we’ve got a modern landscape, so the first thing you see is something which is distinctly different, visually – the gardens are all around us so whatever room you’re in, you have a green experience in the heart of an urban part of the world so that effect of greenery is calming, you cannot escape beauty. It reminds you, you’re in the tropics and whenever they (Singaporeans) can, they saved all the rainwater that falls on this property, they store it underneath in reservoirs and they use it to irrigate the gardens so they’re conserving a huge amount of water by doing this, otherwise, it would have gone into the stormwater system.

There are all sorts of other things that they’ve done small things around the hotel to encourage recycling and best practice and I think the package of this hotel is that it pushes the boundaries. They’ve improved the streetscape around here. It’s not just sitting inside the street, yet they built out into the street.

And it’s not just low-grade greenery, it’s high quality greenery they’ve headhunted the head gardener here from Singapore Botanic Gardens. They’ve affirmed that plant life is more than just some passing thing – it’s not just a token. They’ve really embraced it in a way you said it – “it’s well-landscaped”.

You know, the moment you arrive, you realise you’re stepping out on an enormous sort of holiday experience into this particular hotel experience.

Shane: It is an incredible experience for me here. You only need to be here, down in this section and to feel like you are immersed in the Singapore experience.

Jerry: And when you turn around the corner, you can pop into a little kitchen garden as well where you can see some of the stuff which will end up being served to guests downstairs.

Shane: What about when we start looking at city like Brisbane. Do you think we are far off before we start seeing hotels like this and adopting this sort of grand scale in bringing in plant life?

Jerry: I guess the environment in Brisbane is different to the environment in Singapore. Singapore, ever since I’ve known it since 1982 when I first came here, they had a very grand long-term plan. The original plan was to Singapore to be a garden city. They realised the value of trees in regulating the temperature in setting a green environment, making people feel happy and helping improve their health. It ticks a number of initiatives which the government want to achieve. That was 40 years ago that they have achieved the garden city and now when they’ve renewed the plan they want to create a garden city within the garden so they’re expanding even further on it and so what they’ve got that Brisbane doesn’t have is a long-term vision.

They’ve also encompassed conservation on trees, landscapes and greenery. They put a much higher value on it. In Brisbane, you’ll go around and finds lots of suburbs with inadequate tree coverage which are quite hot whereas in Singapore, everywhere they’ve gone around to make sure that everywhere that needs trees has had trees planted. Singapore is dealt with its weed problem whereas in Brisbane, they’re still struggling. So I think an example like this could be a real benchmark in Brisbane because it would go further than Brisbane currently goes.

Brisbane has yet to make the commitment. They say we love Brisbane but are we becoming more sustainable. In what rate are we becoming more sustainable and in comparison with other cities, how well are we faring? See, we don’t benchmark ourselves from other people so we don’t have to try quite so hard in Brisbane to do what everybody has to do here in Singapore. When I was running Sydney Botanic Gardens and we were talking about how we can be a better botanic gardens and how we can engage the public in appreciating the value of plants on conservation and horticulture in general, I used to say well, we can look to Singapore, use them as an example of what we can be achieved.

Shane: It’s incredible to be here with you on this tour and would like to say thank you. It’s incredible to see the city through your eyes. It’s been great, so thanks for taking the time to do this interview.

Jerry: Before we go, the most important thing for me about your participation in this trip was the way you reacted yesterday when we went into the Forest Dome and Cloud Forest by the bay. These are the two things that came together there. Firstly, Gardens by the Bay is an example of how a country can build an entire segment of tourism. They have created an international tourist drawcard in the Gardens by the Bay. They’re two of the largest single-span glasshouses on earth and they are making a small fortune for the government by bringing people in.

Shane: I can understand why.

Jerry: So I wanted to share that with you and everybody else that came on the trip because it’s that wow factor.

Shane: Definitely.

Jerry: But you can never guarantee how people will react to it until I saw you going there and I just thought: what do you think? do you like the vertical garden here because they are very good vertical gardens.

Shane: Yeah, they’re the best I have seen.

Jerry: And just seeing you just gobsmacked and just wanting to see as much as you can, for me that was why I do these trips because a lot of gardening is about experiencing things. I can tell people how wonderful certain aspects of Singapore life can be but until you’re here in the heat, the humidity and in the experience of the tropics and seeing how good world class horticulture, can be… it’s an emotional thing.

Shane: That’s right, it was an emotional response, what I was seeing and experiencing, you could see so many other people having the same experience all around, everyone was gobsmacked. You can see people reacting and being emotionally removed. When I was studying my degree in Sustainability, I realised that’s the key. People need to have these emotional responses when they realise how important, beautiful and incredible nature is and then want to do more and to protect it. I’ve seen the educational side of what they’ve [Gardens by the Bay] got set up there as well is fantastic, not only just having that emotional response but explaining the ways people can go out and use that emotion to do something positive for the environment.

Jerry: That’s it. They use emotions to open their mind and they teach you something while you are receptive and they go away changed by the experience. This is exactly why I’m doing this simple little thing. Anybody can come to Singapore, seven hours by air is not terribly expensive, but you can see what can be achieved by the power of horticulture and the power of gardening and through direct experience. You have to experience this tangible thing. It’s not something you’re learning at the university necessarily even on a gardening program. You have to get out there and get your hands dirty and smell the roses.