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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  How Well Are Human and Wildlife
Sharing 'Green' Corridors?

Clive Briffett, Lily Kong, Belinda Yuen and Navjot Sodhi of the National University of Singapore share the preliminary findings of their research into the Park Connector System, which is the beginning of 'networking nature' in Singapore. All photos by Clive Briffett.

Nature is barely surviving in the highly polluted and congested environments of most Asian cities.

But what if green corridors were created and an entire network or web of such corridors (i.e., links) were to be spread out throughout Singapore island? How well will the pockets of nature outside our nature reserves survive? And how will people respond to these nature corridors?

View of Ulu Pandan Canal
park connector from
Ghim Moh estate
Many park connectors will comprise long linear trails with vegetation and paved access trails. At Ulu Pandan, the concreted water culvert, walking and cycling trail with planted trees on either side of the culvert are supplemented with an adjoining grass bank and secondary forest area.

A more remote part of the trail
This trail engenders greater feelings of harmony with nature, solitude and a sense of openness and freedom from urbanised enclosures. The water-filled canal improves aesthetics, attracts more wildlife including waterbirds, monitor lizards and turtles but has floating rubbish that is an eyesore.
In fact, green corridors, known as the Park Connector System, have gradually been created in various parts of Singapore by the National Parks Board.

This (the government says), is addressing the need to 'enhance the quality of life in urban Singapore', a planning objective of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, as outlined in their Revised Concept Plan of 1991.

What the Park Connector System provides are 'links' along which people can cycle, jog, walk, exercise or simply watch nature. How well these 'green' corridors serve our urbanised people and also nature was (and still is), the subject of an ongoing survey by a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) led by NSS stalwart Clive Briffett. The researchers are Lily Kong, Belinda Yuen and Navjot Sodhi and their studies cover 10 different linear habitats. In all 10 of the sites, they are assessing how birds use the corridors and up to five of these sites are also being monitored.

To get a flavour of what this research involves, each researcher states his/her expertise and interest, and here present their personal comments.

"People may not use the ' Corridor'
but they like knowing it is THERE!

says Lily Kong
Social and Cultural geographer, Geography Department

How do people feel about having nature at their doorstep? That's what Lily set to find out as she talked to families living close to some of the park connectors such as Ulu Pandan Canal, Bishan Park and West Coast Park. "It's as important to know why people do not use the corridors as it is to understand why (some) people do."

Bishan Park
A popular place for numerous recreational activities and also
attracts a good variety of birdlife
"An interesting observation is learning that many people who do not use the facility do get a lot of satisfaction from knowing it is there—and seeing it as an urban landscape feature". Lily also found that adults who showed an "inherent love of nature" were people who fondly remember childhood experiences with nature, "perhaps in a kampung environment." Those who grew up in a totally urban environment tend to have some fear of nature (nature being equated with the "unknown"). But these same people said they "welcome opportunities to be guided through nature areas".

Lily also found that many of those who do use nature areas appreciate the presence of birds, butterflies and small mammals (like squirrels and monkeys). But they do not want to encounter rats or snakes. These users of green corridors are also concerned about adequate lighting, seating, landscaping (they appreciate ponds as part of the natural landscape) and toilet facilities. They also said they like having eating facilities conveniently sited near nature areas. Bringing a picnic basket and mats do not seem to be something that occurs to most spoilt Singaporeans!

"Tree Hugging—yes it happens,
along with bird- and butterfly-watching"

Findings of Belinda Yuen
Town planner, School of Building and Estate Management

It doesn't happen often, but Belinda Yuen, researching into who uses the corridors and how they use them, came across the odd person who named tree hugging as one of the activities they indulged in. The tree hugger is also likely to be a person who admires birds and butterflies. (Why do people hug trees? If you've read the runaway best-seller The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, you'd believe that old trees not only make life-giving oxygen but they have tremendous energy and hugging a tree can be therapeutic when one is feeling down.)

But of course most people use the corridors for more mundane activities such as jogging, walking, cycling, skateboarding, rollerblading and walking the child or dog. Then there are those who use the corridors for tai chi, to fly kites, model planes, fish and even to motorscoot along. But the most frequent users are very likely those who say they use it as a "convenient route" to get to work or school.

Then, there are still others who go there simply to relax and enjoy the green views. These are most likely to be above 40-years-olds. Most prominent are the retirees or older housewives, who have more leisure time. A contrast to the junior patrons of corridors, that is, the children. They are "usually the most deviant of users" as they have been seen to chase lizards, birds and butterflies and trap spiders, ants and stick insects—deplorable activities. But a couple of such 'deviant' users of nature areas grew up to become passionate nature conservationists. They include Lim Kim Seng and Ho Hua Chew. So, there is hope for these children! But if there is no exposure to nature, then fear is the dominant emotion that urbanities experience when they find themselves in the forest.

The peak periods of use of these corridors on weekdays tend to be early morning, shortly before dawn and evening. By 10am very few people are about these places. But when the sun is low, from about 5pm onwards, the corridors start filling up with people again. On weekends there are many more users in the afternoon—this is when families congregate with their kites and bikes.

"Unpolluted water sources are where
Bird and Man share Habitats quite happily..."

The findings of Navjot Sodhi
from the Department of Biological Sciences

A wide variety (about 90 species) of birds appear to use the man-made corridors. Not surprisingly, the greater diversity occurs near forested areas such as the Dairy Farm Trail and Sime Road. Some parks close to water catchment areas, such as Bishan Park, also appear to have a greater variety of birds.

What also enhances the biodiversity of bird life in the corridors is not just the diversity of the habitats themselves (ranging from landscaped parks to mangrove, from marsh to the fringe of forests), but also the presence of life-giving water. This is particularly noticeable in Bishan Park and Ulu Pandan where long culverts are filled with water (rainwater in Bishan and tidal water in Ulu Pandan) at all times and as such attract a good number of herons, egrets, kingfishers, waterhens, sandpipers and perhaps more surprisingly, also terns and pond herons.

But ponds found in the East and West Coast Parks and in Kent Ridge Park do not seem to attract the same numbers and diversity of bird, fish and insect life (like dragonflies). This may be because there are more human users nearby and these ponds also seem to lack diverse edge vegetation, like weeds and rushes. Here again it appears that the Singapore passion for keeping everything looking 'tidy' and insect-free through weeding (and possibly the use of chemical weedkillers and insecticides), may be causing siltation and pollution and keeping wildlife away.

But in those corridors where wildlife congregate, surveys show that birds, besides flying through and resting on a branch, also carry out a variety of activities such as feeding, singing (to attract males) and even mating and nesting. Birds also use both the natural and the man-made features of the corridors. (Navjot Sodhi adds that "with this research I hope to be able to make a recommendation regarding bird biodiversity maximisation in man-created linear habitats".)

White-throated Kingfisher
An easily seen, attractive and colourful resident often
perched on the canal railings although surprisingly, usually prefers large insect prey to fish

Blue-tailed Bee-eater
A beautiful flyer often seen
taking acrobatic forays around
the old railway bridge and
in close proximity to
the wooded areas

Asian Glossy Starlings
They are well adapted to
built environments where they
nest inside the roofs of
buildings and will flock in
large numbers towards dusk

Yellow bellied Prinia
A less common urban bird, but
will quickly take up residence
if long grass habitats are
allowed to develop using
planned management strategies

"How Natural and Built environments
can be designed to successfully interact"

That's the job of Clive Briffett
Nature Environmentalist and Building Professional
Clive Briffett, NSS stalwart for more than a decade, says that his split personality tendencies enable him to double up as a nature environmentalist and a building professional. This stands him in good stead when he designs environments where both wildlife and humans can successfully interact.

Clive has been involved in most of the surveys his researchers have conducted and he says that he is "particularly interested in how the birds and their habitats are impacted upon by human users".

Studying the interaction
of humans and monkeys
at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve could be a useful source of
data for defining planning
and design parameters for
the island-wide park
connector network

A keen birder, Clive conducts bird surveys in 10 locations every month, throughout the year. Besides this he has assisted in a site-based nature survey to discover what users know, appreciate and like about nature. "Limited results so far suggest that there is an underlying but not a necessarily very knowledgeable interest in nature," is Clive's cautious conclusion. In addition, he says, "There is a desire to obtain more information on nature and to support the creation of more interesting and diverse habitats that would attract wildlife."

Clive is happy to note that in locations where there is "specific interpretative information on nature, such as the mangroves at Pasir Ris Park and the marsh garden at the West Coast Park, these places are well used and appreciated".

But he notes with bemusement that some facilities are being misused—pond platforms are used for fishing while bird hides are sometimes used by the amorous as lovers retreats. "My students are learning many facts of life during their survey visits," he smiles.

The next stage: How close a human can get to a bird?
How close can a human get to a bird before it flies off? This is what Clive intends to find out with techniques he plans to devise. He also wants to study how the normal activities of birds are affected by the presence of humans and assess how much trampling of grass results in soil erosion. So far, he says, this research project has been sometimes exhausting but always very interesting and absorbing.

The main household and site user studies completed comprise a pilot scheme in Ulu Pandan Canal (an account of this has been published and is available). The main survey has started and surveys on Bishan Park and West Coast Park will be completed by September, 1997, while the survey covering Duxton Plain, a CDB location, East Coast Park, Dairy Farm Trail, Kent Ridge Park, Sime Road and Jurong Canal will be done in 1998.

Thanks to the Sponsor: The pilot study for this project was funded by a grant from the HongKong Bank Fund for Nature. The main study is being financed by the NUS. Clive Briffett and his researches express their thanks.

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