From Lower Pierce Reservoir in the centre of the island, the Kallang River begins its journey, winding its way past high rise heartland neighbourhoods and low rise industrial estates. It flows dutifully through lush parks and concrete canals alike, under massive bridges and expressways with ubiquitous acronyms like CTE (Central Expressway) and PIE (Pan Island Expressway) and a heritage bridge named for Merdeka, the call for the nation's independence.
Singapore’s longest river is 10 km long, but if ever a river symbolised the power of nature, the steady flow of time and the ever changing nature of life itself, the Kallang River is it.
We trace the river’s beginnings, re-experiencing its life and pathways and peek into future possibilities and ideas unveiled at URA’s latest exhibition, “A river runs through it” on 29 March 2017, inviting the public to share their views and feedback to continue to make the river exciting and accessible for all.
Otters and purple heron
An oasis of lush growth amid the cityscape, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is more than just an idyllic site for a river to run. It’s a testament to the will and the ability of people to reclaim their natural heritage. Where the river once passed through a gaping concrete gash of a canal, it now feeds 62 hectares of parkland frequented by wildlife, thanks to the Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters Programme (ABC Waters) by the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and National Parks Board (NParks).
“The greening of the river along this stretch is very effective in terms of biodiversity and aesthetics,” says Dr Ho Hua Chew, vice-chair of the Conservation Committee at the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS).
Speaking from his own experience, he’s noticed more marshland birdlife feeding along the river and the marshy banks.
“Very significant is the appearance of a family of smooth otters, and recently the nesting of a purple heron on an angsana tree by the riverside,” says Hua Chew. “Frequent and regular otter sightings indicate that they have made their home here and not just visiting or exploring. The nesting of the purple heron is a first for Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park and is very important, as nesting sites of this species are rare in Singapore. It’s a good sign of the health and viability of the wetland at this stretch.”
Hua Chew believes we can dig further into our natural heritage by literally digging deeper under the river itself. In the NSS 2007 feedback on Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park ABC Waters Programme, in which Hua Chew was involved, the society advocated for the removal of concrete from the entire river bed and not just the banks.
“The uncovering of the mud-bed of the former canal, even to some extent, would attract wildlife that haunts the softer mud-beds at the shallow waters as well as the river-bottom,” he says. “This will make the river more alive and interesting as well as ecologically beneficial.”
Living along the river’s edge
More than 800 000 residents live within 2 km from the river. Gently down the stream in Geylang Bahru, residents can be seen fishing every day and, on rare occasions, kayaking. When the Ng family moved here in 2007 they had no idea how much they would enjoy the river. They chose their block, which is nestled in a fork where a canal branches off towards Whampoa, in part for the unobstructed view that follows the path of the river where it runs to the sea. On a clear day you can spy tiny cargo ships on the horizon. This wouldn’t be possible if not for the river, says Bernard Ng. He spends time with his family by the river jogging, scooting and fishing.
“In Singapore, there is so much water around us, but there is comparatively very little interaction with the water,” he says. “Basically you just look at the water because there’s a railing that will stop you from engaging in the water.”
“There’s a lot of safety concerns about getting into the water,” he says, “but that issue can be explored progressively.” There’s no need for planned water activities, either, he adds. “Just go in and dip your feet in and that’s enough.”
Rich with landmarks
To see Kallang Basin now, it’s hard to imagine the swamplands where early Javanese settlers, the orang kallang, lived on boats over 200 years ago. They were resettled long before decades of land reclamation began in the 1930s, permanently changing the river’s course. The 1960s saw kampong houses making way for Housing Development Board flats and industrial blocks. By the late 1970s the water had turned to filth, prompting a cleanup that would spark Singapore’s water story.
Over time the area grew rich with landmarks. Still today, the circa-1888 Sri Manmatha Karuneshvarar Temple welcomes Hindu devotees, and the Merdeka Bridge, built in 1956, connects the riverbanks via Nicoll Highway.
The former Kallang Airport that hasn’t seen a plane since 1955 is now used for sports, recreation, working or other forms of community uses in the interim. The terminal building has been gazetted for conservation in 2008. The airport was Singapore’s first purpose-built civil airport built by the British Colonial government in the 1930s. When it first opened, it was touted as one of the most modern airport of its time with revolutionary facilities. Its runway is now Old Airport Road; its control tower vacant. Over the years, it has housed the Singapore Youth Sports Council and Peoples’ Association offices, and even the Singapore Biennale 2011.
Remembering the old Kallang Gasworks, Lim Leong Seng, the sculptor created The Spirit of Kallang, using pipes and other fittings from the gaswork itself. Kallang Gasworks was built in 1862 by the Singapore Gas Company to supply piped gas for street lighting. Many locals would avoid the Kallang area due to the strong stench of gas and fears of the Gasworks exploding, giving it the name “fire city”, or huay sia in Hokkien. After over 130 years of service supplying the nation’s first piped gas to fuel streetlights and employing generations, it was phased out in 1998.
“Preserving memories of these public places is important since it highlights the social obligation of the citizenry and gives them a sense of belonging despite a relative short historical heritage,” says Leong Seng. “Public art imparts values and ideas for society while challenging citizens to reflect more, to connect to our history, and to cherish this little red dot,” he says. “It is that sense of responsibility that shapes the identity of a community.”
The kallang wave
As the river nears the sea, its banks widen to form the Kallang Basin, a large body of water made fresh after the construction of the Marina Barrage in 2008. It’s hard to miss the Singapore Sports Hub, the massive complex built to house virtually every sport Singaporeans can imagine.
Kallang has been synonymous with sports since the 1973 opening of the original National Stadium. The new mega sporting complex which replaced it in 2014 will build on that legacy.
“It’s unlike other stadiums which are built for the sole purpose of hosting major games,” says Chin Sau Ho, Singapore Sports Club senior director of corporate communications and stakeholder management. “We have a long-term vision of serving as a catalyst for the emergence of sport in Singapore.”
Around the shores of the basin, joggers run through shady parks and kayakers launch their boats from palm-lined beaches, and not a day passes without spotting a dragon boat plying the calm waters.
“Kallang is the main venue for our events,” says Jason Chen, founder of Dragon Boat Innovate, organising corporate dragon boating activities. For over 20 years Jason has been a competitive paddler, coach and dragon boat advocate. “I live for dragon boating,” he says.
He launches his events from a few of the parks surrounding Kallang Basin, which he says are very impressive to his clients, who are mainly international meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions (MICE) travellers. “They also get to see the Central Business District from the middle of the Kallang Basin, and the natural side of Singapore they don’t get to see from the inside of a hotel room,” he says.
Jason remembers when paddlers had the freedom to travel upriver all the way to Bishan, exploring the network of canals that carved through distinct neighbourhoods from the water’s vantage point. It is an unforgettable experience for him.
A look at future possibilities
The river offers fresh possibilities for more to enjoy its meandering streams, strolling, cycling and mingling through neighbourhoods and communities and living and working close to the water’s edge. And for more to come out to play, with a wider range of sporting activities and community spaces, celebrating its spirit and beauty.
Along the riverbanks, greenery can be further enhanced with more green lungs and community spaces. Upcoming developments along the river can be designed sensitively where greenery within developments can be developed to extend the riverside landscaping, adding to the overall lushness around the river.
URA planners together with other agencies dream up new ideas and possibilities for the river. “A river runs through it” exhibition presenting new ideas to revitalise the river will be exhibited from 29 March to 2 May 2017 at The URA Centre. For more information and to give your feedback, go to ura.sg/kallangriver.
Here are top 10 ideas and possibilities from the exhibition:
Green, thriving corridor
1. Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park to Gardens by the Bay – greenery along the river can be enhanced to turn the river into a thriving corridor, tapping on the rich biodiversity within these two parks.
2. Underpass below the Central Expressway (CTE) – this space could be turned into a vibrant community space with better headroom, lighting and seating.
3. Across Kallang Bahru and Upper Boon Keng Roads – possible underpasses could be developed across these roads for seamless and barrier-free access for pedestrians and cyclists.
4. Below Sims Avenue – a possible underpass link can be developed for greater connectivity along the riverfront all the way towards the Sports Hub.
5. Across the Pan Island Expressway (PIE) – What if you can cycle or jog across the PIE? As part of URA’s Bishan-City planning study along the Kallang park connector network, a conceptual design of a possible cyclist-friendly crossing over PIE was drawn up, featuring spiral ramps over Kallang River, a link bridge across PIE and an underpass beneath the Central Expressway slip roads to link to Serangoon Road.
Building new homes & communities
6. Kallang Distripark – conveniently located close to the upcoming Geylang Bahru MRT, this private industrial estate has the potential to be transformed into a quality residential precinct in future, with park and recreational spaces, contributing to the larger network of green spaces along the river.
7. Kallang Industrial Estate – this 73 ha estate can be turned into a vibrant mixed-use precinct with high-rise facilities to meet modern industrial needs, as well as potential co-working spaces for the working community. The estate will also be closely integrated with future residential developments along the waterfront and parks, bringing jobs closer to home.
8. Kampong Bugis – a stone’s throw away from the Lavendar and Kallang MRT stations, the area is planned to be developed into an attractive precinct that supports active mobility and environmental sustainability, and a place that fosters community interactions.
Enlivening the river
9. Kallang Riverside – this area is envisioned to be a vibrant mixed use district in the longer term. In the interim, the conserved Kallang airport terminal can be put to adaptive re-use for community sports and recreational uses, making the place more accessible for everyone.
10. Waterfront along Jalan Benaan Kapal – a possible 8 ha play zone with recreational and sporting facilities for all ages from a football hub, BMX cycling facility to a therapeutic herbal community garden is being studied by Sport Singapore.