East Coast Park

Text by Simon Chiang

The East Coast is not just a sleepy coastal residential estate, but also the urban incubator of modern Singapore. What is today the 'City in a Garden' came about from meticulous architectural experimentation, social reorganisation, and bioengineering conducted along the 15 km stretch of sandy bays.

Promotional postcard for Bayshore Park, East Coast Parkway (Image source: Simon Chiang)

In 1963, the newly elected political leaders deem the original 582.5 km² (Tan, 1976) of land insufficient to create a modernized country. They desire a blank slate to trial a new version of Singapore. The resulting East Coast reclamation scheme is the first manifestation of this coastal urban laboratory, ripe for the infusion of Charte d'Athenes, Le Corbusier's urban planning document from 1942 promoting the functional city as a desirable product of top-down zoning into dwelling, work, recreation, and transportation.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew inspecting the plans for the East Coast Park reclamation scheme

The new coast replaces an informal coastal settlement, described in historical records and archival photography as "an image of chaos". In and around 1955, the East Coast is an agricultural hinterland, with large private estates and swathes of coconut plantations, family farms, and kelongs (Tan, 1976). Malay Muslim fishermen live and work on the coast, harvesting and selling coastal produce in villages such as Kampong Siglap, while up to 20 Malay kelong communities off the coast of Bedok and Tanah Merah thrive. Upon reclamation, these various communities, memories, livelihoods and ecosystems are evicted. All the villagers are relocated into the HDB flats in Bedok.

Land reclamation phasing in Singapore's East

The new East Coast evokes Robert Moses' frenzied construction of New York's infrastructure and parks during the 1930s in both context and scale. With collective amnesia as an urban redevelopment tool, in front of the old villas and villages, parklands, expressways and Corbusian concrete towers on piloti emerge.

Corbusian modern visions at East Coast Park Singapore

"Garden City (1963)", "Tropical city of excellence (1991)" or "City in a garden (2012)" are not only variations on the "theme park city" (Sorkin, 1992), but take cues from the unmistakable semiotics of high modernism in urban design from visions such as Le Corbusier's La Ville Contemporaine.

At East Coast, nature is rigorously selected, tested and evaluated as an urban infrastructure to aid economic, political and social goals. Part of the reason for this was Lee Kuan Yew's belief that there "can only be (social) equalness in a clean and green Singapore when rich or poor can enjoy the same public spaces" (Lee, 2011).

Rain tree tunnel of East Coast Parkway ECP

To facilitate the quick access from Changi Airport to the city centre, the landscaped 19km East Coast Parkway (ECP) was constructed in 1981. Built adjacent to East Coast Park, this expressway features one type of imported tree - the South American Samanea Saman, selected specifically for its shade. With crowns up to 30m wide, the trees engulf the expressway in a shroud of greenery. All first glimpses of Singapore are experienced through this high-speed tunnel and the visage of neat rows of Raintrees become the ubiquitous mascots of the Garden City. Reminiscent of the landscaped motorways seen in Corbusian sketches, the imported Raintree is celebrated as a hybrid of urban infrastructure and nature, providing pedestrians with both shade and greenery.

Artificial lagoon at East Coast Park after construction

The simulated, constructed landscape is also manifest in East Coast's lagoons. Despite the formation of bays, the sea front is considered unsafe for swimming in certain areas as the foreshore underwater has a rather steep 30° slope subject to strong currents. Thus a gargantuan 6.1 ha seawater public swimming lagoon was constructed to provide a safe swimming environment. Two lakes separated by a thin bund were excavated, a shallower wading pond for children and a deeper one capable of accommodating 6000 swimmers. Out of the total $12 million spent on developing the park, $3.8 million was spent creating these lagoons.

Japanese garden design influence in rock formations at East Coast Park Singapore

Though the development of East Coast Park has always been cast in a nationalistic light, Singapore receives help from Japanese landscape architects Yokoyama and Fujiyama. At Area D one notices architectural features that are dissimilar with the rest of the park, sampled elements of Japanese garden design. There are undulating knolls of about 5 m in elevation and an adoption of shakkei or 'borrowed scenery' techniques found in many Japanese Gardens. Similarly, Area D features a quiet contemplative garden with pond and rock formations, and forested paths through a bird sanctuary. By 1973, Yokoyama completes Area D of the park, the first landscaping to take place on the reclaimed coast, urgently designed as a standalone interim park catering to the residents who are already moving in to their sea-view homes at Marine Vista.

A Corbusian urban vision of green spaces and high-rise dwellings at East Coast Park Singapore

This version of East Coast is in stark contrast to the sleepy seaside town that most Singaporeans view it as. It is a symbol of relentless engineering and maintenance, planning policies, modern urban theory, and social control. The reclaimed coast is fetal Singapore; ironically fitting that an artificial coast is also proving ground for "an artificial man-made country" (Lee, 1996).