The advantage of being an outsider/newbie is that one is not (yet) habituated to the local normal. I notice stuff locals have become so used to that they don’t realize anymore that the wider world doesn’t necessarily considers it ‘normal’. As Johan Cruijff, our Dutch Yogi Berra, used to say, every disadvantage is also an advantage, and my advantage is thus rooted in a huge disadvantage. I haven’t got much clue about the reasons behind what stands out for me. I have tagged this post as a running rant. That’s what many will ‘hear’ when they digest my observations below. I cannot deny that my questions are triggered by a couldn’t-this-be-done-differently sentiment (as opposed to a sentiment I also regularly experience here of why-is-this-not-done-everywhere). The one and only defense I can muster, is that in my short time here I’ve heard my sentiment shared by quite some local trail runners and my observations thus seem to hit a nerve.
The route that primarily is primarily responsible for my observations below traverses the big green blob at the heart of the little red dot. Singapore is small. Land is a scarce resource. Anyone delving even superficially into what are the core issues for Singapore’s policymakers will hear it mentioned as the rationale for a multitude of planning decisions. One understandable, even inevitable consequence is that even with maximum policy attention to the importance of nature, for its citizens, for animals, for biodiversity, etc., etc. reasons, there isn’t scope for many kinda wild areas that allow for walks & runs on natural trails and that actually feel like ‘nature’ (however much that may be illusory, second growth forest covering former kampongs is still very much a ‘cultural’ landscape, but what matters experientially to me, to most, is crossing into territory where ‘we’ are not ‘in charge’ anymore).
Some thoughts and observations:
- Singapore hasn’t got many “soft surface” trails. I am generous here: many are way more picky about what they are willing to consider a ‘trail’. I am already happy with anything that isn’t paved (be it tarmac, concrete, flagstones, whatever): gravel, grass, even wood.
- Singapore has an increasing number of outdoor enthusiasts that crave trails.
- Traditional policy thinking seems to be to pave everything that is in use. To avoid any misunderstanding: I have nothing against paving when it makes sense. And paving can be the sensible thing to do for a variety of reasons. Heavy use may erode trails, paving increases accessibility for people with physical limitations, etc.
- But when paving is the default policy option, that sets up a positive feedback loop. Number of trails decrease, number of people of the remaining ones increases, more erosion, more (real) need for paving, and on it goes.
- Increasing accessibility does the same thing. Before trail ‘upgrading’ at Bukit Timah (a mix of paving and building stairs) less people used the more difficult ones. I am not in a position to judge, so maybe even those smaller numbers were already beyond the carrying capacity of the ecosystem who knows.
- But the combination of paving/upgrading some, and closing off other trails – reasons I come across are either conservation of safety related – seems to assure a future Singapore without much trail left.
- Already the little that is there is partially contested territory between walkers and runners on the one hand and mountain bikers on the other. On weekend mornings, for many the only real option to ‘hit the trails with friends’, most dual use trail are overcrowded, some seriously so.
- Increasing number of enthusiasts, decreasing number of trails, the destination of the trajectory is obvious, and the way out of this dead-end also seems obvious: Singapore needs more trails, considerably more trails.
- I’ve been told that the original paved plan for the rail corridor ran into so much popular opposition that trail is still/again an option, which would be testimony to Singapore’s authorities being responsive to the spirit of the times. I don’t know if this is the case, but I surely hope so.
- Although safety and conservation considerations are of paramount importance, prioritizing them over, rather than figuring out acceptable compromises with the growing need for trails, may well result in more destruction and less safety. People tend to vote with their feet.
However, despite what I have said about the reality of land scarcity, I cannot but wonder about the many green blobs on Singapore’s map that are simply inaccessible to anyone other than the military or other designated groups, be they ‘authorized personnel’, ‘golf club members’, ‘outward bound’ or whatever, or blocked because of ‘danger’, or just physically inaccessible because of lack of a trail through that doesn’t involve bush wacking. In general Singapore is a shining example for me of what good governance of the commons means. The explicit attention to offer everyone, irrespective of their financial resources, access to good education, healthcare, housing, and the outdoors (where else is a hugely expensive resource like reclaimed land used to build a – East Coast – park…..) is exemplary. But rightly or wrongly, regarding the use of natural areas (or potential ones – golf courses e.g. often were ‘nature’ before and could become so again) I’m under the impression that specific interests are granted disproportionate and unnecessarily exclusive access. The nitty-gritty observations above are all to be understood within the context of there being really, I mean really little proper trails for walkers, runners and mountain bikers. Rightly or wrongly, given the substantial but inaccessible green blobs on the map, I believe that this context could be different. Not totally different, the scarcity is very real, but not as extreme as it is now.