To get a sense of just how fast Singapore - Asia's wealthiest country - is changing, head to the top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, opened in 2010, whose three 56-storey towers are connected across the top by an astonishing, 340m-long platform known as the SkyPark. If you're staying at the hotel, you can enjoy stunning views from the infinity pool, the highest of its type in the world. Otherwise, a cocktail at the bar may help you appreciate the scene below, which is even more breathtaking at night. Half of what you can see in every direction wasn't there five years ago, and construction cranes mark the locations of even newer projects that will sprout up this year or the next.The Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Image by Daniel Robinson / Lonely Planet.
Marina Bay Sands, not surprisingly, overlooks Marina Bay - or, more precisely, a body of water now known as Marina Reservoir. Once the saline estuary of the Singapore River - the city's mercantile focal point since 1819 - it was transformed into a freshwater reservoir by the Marina Barrage (www.pub.gov.sg/Marina), completed in 2008. The 350m dam is now a very popular venue for strolls and picnics.
The barrage was also designed to prevent flooding in low-lying areas. When there's very heavy rain (a frequent occurrence in Singapore) and the tide is low, crest gates open to allow rainwater to escape out to sea. When the tide is high, the dam remains shut, keeping out seawater. If necessary, giant pumps suck excess water out of the reservoir, keeping its level constant. Storm surges associated with rising sea levels are likely to pose a growing threat to coastal areas, and more countries are facing serious water shortages, in part because of climate change, so other cities may consider adopting - or adapting - some of the technologies on display here.Skyscrapers surrounding the Marina Reservoir. Image by Daniel Robinson / Lonely Planet.
The reservoir serves as more than just a giant water cistern - and as a reflecting pool for the skyscrapers of the high-rise Central Business District. It is also the focal point of a huge new leisure and recreation centre. Over 1 sq km of reclaimed land west of Marina Bay Sands is being transformed into Gardens by the Bay (www.gardensbythebay.com.sg), which include a series of themed gardens. The Heritage Gardens, for instance, showcase plants used by Singapore's three main ethnic groups (Chinese, Malays and Indians) as well as by the British colonialists who transformed this remote equatorial island into a major trading city.
Towering above the gardens are the Supertrees, an ensemble of 25m- to 50m-high steel structures, each shaped like an idealised palm tree, carpeted with plants and vines to create vertical gardens. Their function, beyond serving as yet another iconic element of the park, is - just like real trees - to provide shade, absorb heat and collect rainwater.Supertrees in the Gardens by the Bay. Image by Daniel Robinson / Lonely Planet.
The centrepiece of Gardens by the Bay is the world's largest greenhouse complex, housed in two soaring, irregular glass domes. In most locales, greenhouses add heat and humidity so tropical plants can flourish despite the cool climate, but the Flower Dome does the opposite, recreating a semi-arid, Mediterranean climate (23C to 25C) so thousand-year-old olive trees, imported from Italy, can live alongside 'exotic' temperate plants that would wither (or rot) outside in the equatorial mugginess. The second greenhouse, the Cloud Forest, recreates a highland rainforest. Its centrepiece is a mist-enveloped 'artificial mountain', 35m high, with a spiral walkway inside and a towering waterfall tumbling down one side.
The Marina Bay area is served by Singapore's bright, shiny metro, part of the superb - and ever-expanding - Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (www.smrt.com.sg) system. Stations, many built of stainless steel and gleaming granite, are crisply air-conditioned, train cars are spacious and comfortable, and if you're so inclined you can walk the entire length of the train. Someday all metros will be just as attractive and efficient.Inside the world's largest greenhouse. Image by Daniel Robinson / Lonely Planet.
Until the end of last year, the Gardens by the Bay were separated from the Bayfront MRT station, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the Central Business District by the East Coast Parkway (ECP), a busy expressway. But a S$4.3 billion project to excavate a 5km-long, 10-lane highway, most of it underground (or under water), has rerouted traffic and united a significant swathe of territory with the city centre, freeing up ultra-valuable real estate that was once on 'the wrong side of the tracks'.
Another divide, though one less likely to be bridged in the near future, is apparent inside the Shoppes at Marina Bay (www.marinabaysands.com/shoppes), Singapore's swankiest mall. Situated next to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, under the vast casino, its boutiques include the jeweller Leviev, whose sparkling offerings included, on one recent day, a diamond necklace with an asking price of S$29,300,000 (yes, that's eight digits). Nearby, in a pavilion surrounded by the waters of Marina Reservoir, Louis Vuitton sells plastic flip flops for S$760. Is catering to the uber-rich the future of Singapore and other 'global cities'? Singapore has long had an egalitarian ethos epitomised by the modest, functional and remarkably well-maintained public housing in which over 80% of its citizens live. As in some parts of New York, London and Paris, that seems to be changing, though Gardens by the Bay and the MRT are meant to be enjoyed by people from all walks of life.
Marina Bay and the surrounding area are a remarkable achievement. A public park almost a third the size of New York's Central Park, some of the most striking skyscrapers built anywhere in recent years, public performance spaces and superb venues for strolling or jogging have been integrated into a visionary scheme to collect and store rainwater. If Gardens by the Bay and nearby initiatives succeed, political leaders, architects and engineers around the globe may be inspired to undertake more projects of this scale and ambition.
Daniel Robinson has been covering Southeast Asia for Lonely Planet for 25 years, starting with LP's first, award-winning guides to Vietnam and Cambodia. His latest project is on Malaysian Borneo and Brunei.