Walk into the Enabling Village and the first thing you notice is the greenery—it’s unusually luscious for a community space that’s not a public garden or a park.

Rich vegetation actually covers about half of Enabling Village’s total land area. If you’re a plant geek, you should look closely: Many of the plants are indigenous to Singapore.

Salad Dressing is the landscape architectural firm behind the project, while Plantwerkz and its gardeners brought the garden to life. We spoke with Mr Chang Huai Yan, founder and director of Salad Dressing, for insights into how the garden in the Enabling Village was designed.

Photo of Mr Chang Huai Yan, founder and director of Salad Dressing, with Mr Wong Qing Xian, landscape designer

Mr Chang Huai Yan (right), founder and director of Salad Dressing, with Mr Wong Qing Xian, landscape designer

Growing with the seasons

The garden is designed as a microcosm of Singapore’s naturally tropical vegetation. Conventionally, gardens are designed to look the same all year–and requires commensurate resources to keep things the same. The Enabling Village’s garden is different, designed to grow and change with Singapore’s seasons: As a system, it draws and stores water during the wet phases of the monsoon, and conserves moisture for the hot and dryer months. Making a reference to Singapore’s national city-in-a-garden design, Chang said, “It’s about recreating nature and bringing it to a place in the city.”

Chang turns a fern leaf to reveal its white waxy underside.

Key to the design is the use of indigenous vegetation for much of the garden. The green spaces have about 140 different plant species designed to support one another. These range from the herbaceous Cat’s Whiskers (Orthosiphon aristatus), which has medicinal properties and is native to Singapore, to the exotic Coral tree (Erythrina fussa), whose brightly coloured flowers attract sunbirds when in bloom. (Yes, we actually get sunbirds.)

Video footage from a year ago, when the Enabling Village was just completed. One of our keen-eyed readers identified it as a scaly-breasted Munia, a local bird.

“The world needs more variety and complexity today, as we all fall into a case of becoming more homogenised,” said Chang. “It’s the same with nature. One single type of agriculture is what’s killing the world. We

[can] do our part in the city. If there’s any place on earth that’s holding biodiversity, it’s the tropics.”

It’s also about sharing the space: The Enabling Village has since welcomed many special guests from the wild, including a hornbill that paid a surprise visit just a few days after the garden was completed. The hornbill was once thought to be extinct in Singapore.

A process of renewal

One major challenge of designing the garden was the existing physical environment and topography. The soil in Redhill is largely reddish clay, which poses a challenge to plants and the gardeners who tend to them.

Photo of one of the cabanas in the Enabling Village's garden

One of the cabanas in the Enabling Village’s garden, providing shade and rest for visitors

Instead of removing and changing the soil, the landscapers treated the soil by selecting and planting plants that enrich the soil by contributing back nitrate.

“It’s not about changing the soil. It’s about understanding which plants can help to enrich the soil,” Chang explained. Once the soil composition improves, it is then possible to introduce new, even exotic, plant species gradually.

“The more bio-diversified the soil, the more chance of things happening, especially when there are millions of different kinds of fungi working in the soil. Sometimes some plants wither away because they don’t get along well with each other, but that’s just like humans.”

Photo of an Enabling Village banner with thick greenery in the backdrop

An Enabling Village banner at the “Village Green” block, hanging against a backdrop of thick greenery.

“It’s an ongoing process. You can’t rush nature. It’s all about succession, giving it time and allowing the garden to change.”

Look beyond the surface

The incorporation of natural water systems in the garden is another refreshing design element. Deviating from common designs that employ ornamental fish in clear water, the natural pools at the Enabling Village are free of man-made filters. The pools make use of the natural cleaning abilities of tropical plants, in an approach known as phytoremediation.

Photo of the main biopond, with the NEST and VILLAGE GREEN blocks in the background

The main biopond in the Enabling Village, with the NEST and VILLAGE GREEN blocks in the background.

Chang hopes the design, which lets nature flourish and demonstrate its ability to renew itself, will serve as inspiration for future public spaces in Singapore.

“Inclusion comes in many forms, including the physical and also the metaphysical,” said Chang. “It is just a small part of Redhill. But is there something that can echo through eventually in a broader aspect? Is there a way to change how we view the landscaping of Singapore?”

“[Through this design,] we would like to allow people to encounter beauty. The role of a designer is to become a catalyst for beauty, so people who visit a place are tuned in. I think sensitivity plays a role. Everyone has it, but it’s whether this sensitivity is being activated or not.”