Key Features and Possible Benefits of World Heritage Inscription for the Singapore Botanic Gardens

SBG05 by G.Caballero

A close up photo of the beautifully crafted Singapore Botanic Gardens’ Tanglin Gate. Photo by Gabriel Caballero.

Last 4 July 2015, during the 39th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany, the Singapore Botanic Gardens was successfully inscribed in the prestigious World Heritage List. It was a successful culmination point of three years of preparation work from different government agencies, specialist consultants and heritage conservation groups in Singapore that established the site’s ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. The World Heritage inscription serves as a timely reminder to Singapore that is celebrating 50 years of nationhood, that the remembrance of the past is part of its celebration of the future, where heritage sites and new developments can harmoniously co-exist side by side, as part of the vision of having a City in a Garden.

The Singapore Botanic Garden is a 156-year old botanic garden located in the western edges of the city center of Singapore. The Nominated Property for World Heritage listing is 49 hectares out of the total 74 hectares of the Botanic Gardens. Within the context of Singapore, the Botanic Gardens is the green oasis of the city and it serves of the main public open space within the central region. The combination of a variety of historical landscape features, with a diversity of living collections, added to its scientific contributions to ornamental and economic plant research were factors for its inclusion to the World Heritage List.

The initial ideas of finding Singapore’s first bid for World Heritage nomination began in 2010 when the government engaged two conservation experts from the University of Hong Kong, professors Lynne DiStefano and Lee Ho Yin, to identify possible sites that may be inscribed to the List (Tan, 2013). The experts identified several historic and cultural districts such as Kampong Glam, Little India, Chinatown, the civic district, the residential estate of Tiong Bahru, the historic green areas of Fort Canning and the Botanic Gardens (ibid). It was not until 2012 when the Singapore Botanic Gardens was submitted to UNESCO to be put to the State Party’s tentative list. Chris Blandford Associates, a British firm who did the successful inscription of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, was assigned to help Singapore with its nomination dossier (ibid). Several government boards were involved in the nomination process but primarily the National Heritage Board in collaboration with the National Parks Board collaboratively produced the document (Nomination Dossier, 2014). In February 2014, the nomination dossier was submitted to UNESCO and was finally enlisted in July 2015.

Outstanding Universal Value of the Botanic Gardens

In order to become a World Heritage property, heritage sites from different parts of the world are submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris to be included in a tentative list of sites. These sites are then evaluated for their ‘Outstanding Universal Value’, which are based on ten criteria that highlight the cultural, social, historic, aesthetic, scientific and natural beauty of cultural and natural heritage sites. Generally, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) evaluates cultural heritage properties while the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) evaluates natural heritage properties. The heritage sites to be included in the World Heritage List are finally decided by 21 elected representative countries, called the World Heritage Committee, who meet each year to provide decisions on different issues related to heritage policies around the globe. World Heritage inscription usually takes three years and depending on the complexity of a site’s significance, local and international complications and global political issues, the process can take a longer period to decide whether a heritage site could be included in the list.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens was inscribed under criteria (ii) and (iv) of the World Heritage Convention. It is thought to be “an exceptional example of a ‘British tropical colonial botanic garden’, which emerged during the 19th century period of global expansion, exploration and colonization in Southeast Asia” (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.1). It also holds a significant role in the promotion of economic botany in the Straits Settlement and the Malay Peninsula from the late 19th to the early 20th century (ibid). It is seen to retain such legacy until today and it is part of the economic, scientific and social development of the region, particularly because of its pioneering work on rubber cultivation and techniques that boomed in the early 20th century (ibid). The Botanic Gardens’ extensive work in orchid hybridisation that began in the 1920s still continues to this day (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.88).

The landscape features of the Botanic Gardens still shows the initial design intention of a pleasure garden that was built in the 1860s (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.2). It also includes six hectares of primary lowland equatorial rainforest within the site, which is not common for botanic gardens. Several historic buildings that served as staff housing from the 1860s to the 1920s and some designated Heritage Trees of social and cultural value are also within its boundaries. Aside from being a leading scientific institution for tropical botany, horticulture, and orchid breeding science, the Botanic Gardens has an important role on the development of Singapore as it is at the heart of the movement to transform the city to become a ‘City in a Garden’ (ibid).

SBG06 by G.Caballero

The Botanic Gardens grounds still shows the initial design intention of a pleasure garden that was built in the 1860s. The Botanic Gardens contains layers of memories and is a popular destination for social gatherings, educational trips and leisure exercise for people living in Singapore. Photo by Gabriel Caballero.

Key Protected Areas, Buildings and Features

Based on the management plan attached to the Nomination Dossier, several landscape features, buildings and character areas are protected by different national heritage and environmental laws. Most of the Nominated Property was designated in 1990 as part of the National Park under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Trees Act a the nominated property is also part of the Tree Conservation Area, designated in 1991 under the Parks and Trees Order (Management Plan 2014, p.72). This summary of other legally protected features and further shown in the map in Image 15, in the following page:

Conserved Buildings designated by URA, mandated by the Planning Act

Several buildings that have been used by the former directors of the Botanic Gardens have been conserved to provide a glimpse into the lifestyle of these early directors and their contribution to the study of plants, economic crops and ornamental plant cultivation (URA, 2014a). They also serve as key landmarks and cultural markers for those who visit the scenic grounds of the Botanic Gardens (ibid).

  • Burkill Hall

Built in 1869, this building became the residence of Superintendents or Directors of the Botanic Gardens. It was named after Isaac Henry Burkill, who served from 1912-1925 and his son, Humphrey Morrison Burkill, who served from 1957-1969 (Nomination Dossier 2014, p. 34). Isaac Burkill was the author of the book, “Dictionary of Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula” (1935) which is one of the most comprehensive literature on the uses of tropical plants (ibid). Humphrey Burkill was best known for steering the Botanic Gardens during the difficult years prior to and after Singapore’s independence in 1965. Burkill Hall is a rare example of a two-storey symmetrical Black and White bungalow that has a plantation style design (ibid). “Plantation houses” were named as such because they usually were the focal points of agricultural estates (URA, 2014a). It is the oldest surviving building in the Gardens, which has been designated for conservation since 2008.

  • E.J.H. Corner House

Built in 1910, this building served as the residence of the Botanic Garden’s Assistant Curators but it has currently been converted to become a restaurant (Nomination Dossier 2014, p. 37). The building was named after Eldred John Henry Corner, assistant director who served from 1929-1946. He specialised in mycology and the collection of local fungi in Singapore (ibid). He was also well known for his written work, “Wayside Trees of Malaya,” which remains a key reference for those with keen interest in the region’s diverse tree species (ibid). The building is a part of a generic group of two-storey Black and White style timber bungalows that was built during the colonial period. The interiors have been restored and updated to house restaurant functions but the main elements of its layout have been preserved (ibid). It has been designated for conservation since May 2008.

SBG03 by G.Caballero

Holttum Hall served as Eric Holttum’s office and orchid laboratory and it was converted to become a heritage museum in 2013. The building is a rare example of Edwardian Architecture in Singapore. It has been designated for conservation since 2008. Photo by Gabriel Caballero.

  • Holttum Hall

Built in 1921, this building is a fine example of a colonial style bungalow in Singapore (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.42). It was named in memory of Eric Holttum, who can best be remembered for his methods on propagating orchids, which paved way for its mass production (ibid). Holttum hall served as Eric Holttum’s office and orchid laboratory and it was converted to become a museum in 2013. The building is a rare example of Edwardian Architecture in Singapore, which has a vernacular Arts and Crafts style pitched roof porch. It is the only building in the Gardens that has a distinctly European style of construction and it has been designated for conservation since 2008 (ibid).

  • Ridley Hall

Built in 1881-82, this building is one of the oldest administrative buildings in the Botanic Gardens. It was originally used for the herbarium and library collections but Henry Nicholas Ridley, the first Botanic Gardens’ director, used it as his office and laboratory (Nomination Dossier 2014, p. 43). Ridley was best known for his work in rubber cultivation, which was crucial for the industry’s expansion to the Southeast Asian region (ibid). The building consists of two blocks, separated by an open lobby and a service wing. The construction is based on Anglo-Malayan traditions and there are hints of Chinese joinery details for the roof support structure (ibid). The building has been designated for conservation since 2008.

The two heritage structures below were added for conservation in 2009 to complement the historic character of the Botanic Gardens.

SBG04 by G.Caballero

The Bandstand is an octagonal structure which was erected at the band parade area in the 1930s. The structure has been continuously used for early evening military band concerts until 1976 when the concerts were transferred to the Symphony Lake. Photo by Gabriel Caballero.

  • Bandstand

This octagonal structure, which was completed in 1930, is located in one of the oldest parts of the Botanic Gardens (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.35). It was erected at the band parade area, which is the highest point of the southern part of the Gardens. The parade area has been continuously used for early evening military band concerts until 1976 when the concerts were transferred to the Symphony Lake (ibid; URA, 2014a). It has been designated for conservation since December 2009.

  • Swan Lake Gazebo

The structure is believed to date back to the 1850s where it originally stood in an old house in Grange Road, which is a nearby street (URA, 2014a). It was transferred to the Botanic Gardens in 1969 and has been relocated a couple of times within the site (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.43). The structure is a cast iron shelter of Gothic Revival style with decorative brackets and slender columns. It was a typical structure in gardens of the English Landscape tradition and it was often situated near lakes and water features (ibid). It has been designated for conservation together with the Bandstand in December 2009.

Some buildings within the Singapore Botanic Gardens were part of the campus of the former Raffles College, Singapore’s first tertiary educational institution, which have educated generations of students for more than 80 years (URA, 2014b). These buildings are conserved to preserve the campus’ rich history while providing amenities for its current occupant, the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law.

  • Raffles Building

Built in 1958, the building was originally named Raffles Hall, which served as the first residential hall for students (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.31). The building is mainly of reinforced concrete with three connecting wings. Its façade have different materials and textures, which provide a well-proportioned visual composition (ibid). It was designated for conservation in October 2006.

  • The Garage

Completed sometime between 1924 and 1928, the building was originally intended to be used as sheltered parking spaces for high-ranking officials and professors (ibid). It is a well executed and well-proportioned Art Deco style building with a modernist inspiration. It is currently used as a storage space and was designated for conservation in 2013.

Five bungalows, now called House 1-5 were used to hose academic professors during the time it was still Raffles College. They are of Art Deco style situated at the perimeter of the education blocks (URA, 2014b). Even if the buildings are very utilitarian looking, all have a well-proportioned front porch and have lattice design in the windows and main door (ibid). These building including other national monuments in the area are part of the change of design aesthetic in the late 1950s to 1960s where a more modern look was adopted from the International Modern style (ibid). It serves as a historical evolution away from Neo-Classical designs that were prominent in the colonial period.

Protected Natural Assets

Aside from the fact that the Nominated Property is protected as a National Park and it is also part of a Tree Conservation Area, within the boundaries of the Botanic Gardens are special designations for culturally significant trees and ecologically important nature areas. Here are their designations:

  • Heritage Trees

There are 44 heritage trees within the Botanic Gardens. This designation is part of the non-statutory register that started in 2001 Heritage Trees Scheme by the NParks Tree Panel (Management Plan 2014, p.73). Heritage trees are within a certain age, size and quality and their girth should also be more than five meters, of historical significance and have a certain degree of rarity (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.30). There are some trees in the Botanic Gardens that are more than 100 years old and some have already existed before the site’s creation (ibid).

  • Lowland Rainforest Area

Within the original 22 hectares land that was acquired in 1859 to establish the Botanic Gardens, six hectares of primary rainforest was included in it located at its eastern side (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.52). This rainforest is only one of the few remnants of its kind in Singapore and is considered a rare example of primary rainforest reserve within the confines of a major city (ibid). This forest is a habitat for 300 species of native plants and more than 80% of the plant species are endangered or rare in Singapore (ibid). It is also the home of some tropical animals that have already disappeared in other cities in the region. The Rainforest has been designated in 2003 as a Nature Area, which is a non-statutory designation by the Parks and Waterbodies Plan (Management Plan 2014, p.73). Nature Areas have development controls under the Singapore Masterplan of 2008 and are considered areas of high biodiversity (ibid).

SBG02 by G.Caballero

The Botanic Gardens contains six hectares of primary rainforest within the site. This rainforest is only one of the few remnants of its kind in Singapore and is considered a rare example of primary rainforest reserve within the confines of a major city (ibid). It is a habitat for 300 species of native plants species. Photo by Gabriel Caballero. 

Possible Benefits of World Heritage

Several studies in different parts of the world have documented the direct and indirect benefits of World Heritage inscription (Galla, 2012; Buckley, 2010; Tuan & Navrud, 2008). Different case studies have been compiled by Galla in 2012 in the book, “World Heritage: Benefits Beyond Borders” and it looked at the experiences of World Heritage Sites tackling different spheres of benefits to local communities and the ecosystem. Examples of possible benefits are providing connections between nature and culture, emphasising sustainable urban development; creating integrated planning strategies with local communities, valuing living heritage and promoting the role of sites to a bigger sustainable development framework (Galla, 2012). Below are possible benefits of World Heritage Inscription gathered from different examples, which may possibly happen to Singapore:

Additional Offering for Garden Visitation

There is an increasing amount of garden visitation worldwide. The Singapore Botanic Gardens alone has received 4.4 million visitors from 2012 to 2013 and it has been identified as the most visited Botanic Gardens in the world (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.11). In the UK, gardens received 16 million visitations in 2003 and from 1985, British gardens have seen increasing amount of visitors each year (Connel, 2004). As a newly established World Heritage Site, the Botanic Gardens has the capacity to attract new types of tourists, such as cultural or heritage visitors who would be interested with the cultural offering of Singapore (Yu as interviewed by Tang, 2015). Tang (2015) also noted the possibility of Singapore capturing the rise of so called ‘free and independent tourists (FITS) who value alternative ways of exploring the country. These types of tourists plan their own itinerary and do what locals do as an authentic, immersive cultural experience (ibid).

The possibility of appreciating the Botanic Gardens heritage is not only limited to international visitors, Singaporeans and local residents have the chance to visit the Gardens with a new purpose, seeing the site not only as a tranquil green space near the shopping district but as a site filled with memories and historic elements that are part of their own heritage, which people can be proud of. The World Heritage inscription is also expected to capture the interest of local volunteers who would like to learn more about the Botanic Gardens and sharing this knowledge it to other visitors (Kotwani, 2015).

Increasing Variety of Heritage in Singapore

In the 1980s the government has identified the value of heritage conservation and its possible link to economic development (ibid). Soon after, heritage districts of Chinatown, Boat Quay, Kampong Glam and Little India became part of the first Conservation Masterplan (Yuen, 2006). It was recorded in 2010 that there were 61 national monuments and 94 conservation areas that are under protection, constituting to more than 7000 individual buildings (Henderson, 2011). Since the World Heritage List is seen as the highest form of heritage protection in a global scale, such status requires best-case practices in management, legal protection and conservation for sites. With the inscription of Singapore Botanic Gardens as World Heritage, it highlights the possible increase in diversity of heritage typologies that can be considered in the future. Not only are conservation districts necessarily confined to historic districts, residential historical districts, secondary settlements and bungalows, the Singapore Botanic Gardens opens the possibility of protecting cultural landscapes, which are the combined works of nature and man. A historic garden is just one example of a cultural landscape but cemeteries, playgrounds, and railway zones, which are part of Singapore’s history can also be protected if designated as heritage in the future. In a recent news article by Valerie Koh (2015), she has noted that heritage experts are currently thinking of the possibility of designating sites like Pulau Ubin, Jalan Kubor cemeteries, Bukit Brown and the Jurong Industrial Estate to be part of Singapore’s heritage sites. Experts also believe that creating new typologies of sites will be an opportunity to discuss with the public to identify and value the different periods of development of Singapore and to understand the meanings of local, national and world heritage to people (ibid).

Remembering the Principles of the City in a Garden

The Botanic Gardens plays an important role in the development of Singapore, as part of the vision of the founding Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, in transforming the city into a ‘City in a Garden’. Singapore’s urban greening strategy that began in 1963 is an innovation to urban development thinking. This idea came even before the concept of sustainable development was created in the 1970s and the idea of liveable cities became a trend (Tan et al, 2013). Part of the current goals of the National Parks Board of Singapore in creating the City in a Garden is establishing world-class gardens in the country. The government has opened Gardens by the Bay in 2012, which showcases innovative horticulture and garden artistry while the Singapore Botanic Gardens serves as its premier botanical institution with a long history and rich heritage (NParks, 2015). The inscription of the Singapore Botanic Gardens to the World Heritage List embraces the historical urban greening processes and it reinforces the continuous success of Singapore in creating an efficient, compact, high-rise, high-density city-state that is constantly increasing its green spaces.

SBG07 by G.Caballero

The Botanic Gardens has a long history in the field of economic botany, which affected the scientific, economic and social development of Southeast Asia. Its extensive work in orchid hybridisation that began in the 1920s still continues to this day. Photo by Gabriel Caballero.

Recognising the Scientific Achievements of the Botanic Gardens

The World Heritage inscription highlights the long history of the Botanic Gardens in the field of economic botany, which affected the scientific, economic and social development of Southeast Asia. The Gardens is important because of its pioneering work on rubber cultivation that boomed in the early 20th century that further expanded as a global industry. The Botanic Gardens’ extensive work in orchid hybridisation that began in the 1920s still continues to this day (Nomination Dossier 2014, p.88). There is also vast collection of living and preserved plants contained within the Botanic Gardens’ herbarium and library. A lot of the past and present achievements of the Gardens are now compiled because of the World Heritage nomination process, which Singaporeans and visitors can get access to.

Employing creative interpretation and improved educational tools, the public can learn more about the unique character of the Botanic Gardens and celebrate its extensive scientific achievements spanning more than a century of scientific research. Training volunteers for heritage tours for to showcase the different heritage assets to visitors will be important to transmit the heritage significance of the site. There are currently heritage tours that focus on showcasing the heritage trees and heritage buildings within the Gardens (Kotwani, 2015). There has also been interest from students from the Institute of Technical Education in understanding the Gardens’ significance and helping with the exhibition and guiding tours (ibid).

SBG01 by G.Caballero

Heritage tours are becoming more frequent in the Botanic Gardens. Educational tools that easily explain the history and global significance of the site are good for the site for people to engage with its different historic elements, create new meanings and encourage pride and ownership of heritage. Photo by Gabriel Caballero.


The World Heritage Status of Singapore Botanic Gardens is an important marker to Singapore. As a site that has attained global importance, different stakeholders are called upon to protect and enhance the Botanic Gardens ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. It ushers in new avenues for collaborative thinking that will look at the dynamics of heritage conservation, careful urban planning and sensitive landscape architecture to protect and develop the site. In terms or research, new approaches looking at diverse aspects of the Botanic Garden’s heritage values and the dynamics of other local cultural landscapes will be opportunities for heritage thinkers in Singapore.

As Singapore celebrates its 50th year of nationhood this month, the World Heritage inscription of the Singapore Botanic Gardens compliments the national celebration. It serves as a reminder of the country’s long history in improving the socio-economic conditions of the region through the spread of its scientific research in economic botany and the implementation of its pioneering urban greenery model, which is an aspiration of many cities in the world. It also reinforces the importance of public parks and open spaces in increasing the liveability of compact urban areas. Developing educational tools that will easily explain the history and global significance of the site will be good for the Botanic Gardens for people to engage with its different historic elements, create new meanings and encourage pride and ownership of the site. World Heritage status is only the beginning of a new chapter for the Singapore Botanic Gardens. There will be new opportunities for its growth and the different range of benefits can only be progressively discussed in the years to come after careful monitoring, cyclical public consultation processes and further in-depth research.


About the Author: Gabriel Caballero

Gabriel Caballero



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