Jul-Aug 2018

In Conversation with Lena Chan by Heather Banerd

Lena Chan has been called Singapore’s Mother Nature, a title that is certainly well earned.

Her passion for ecological conservation, and love of the plants and animal species she considers ‘citizens’ of Singapore, is contagious.

She has been instrumental in developing the City Biodiversity Index, also known as the Singapore Index (SI) on Cities’ Biodiversity, which has established Singapore as a world leader in urban ecological conservation; the Nature Conservation Masterplan; and in developing ways for enthusiastic residents to get involved in biodiversity conservation.


HB: You have an interesting background, beginning your career in parasitology rather than ecology. How did you become involved in biodiversity conservation?
LC: I have always been the tomboyish kind, right from childhood. My parents had a plantation and i used to help them on the weekends—well, I hoped to be a bit helpful but mostly ran around, went fishing in the stream, and was a bit of a nuisance. But I learnt a bit about integrated agriculture and wildlife, and I was always very close to nature. Through my first degree, my masters and PhD, I did a lot of fieldwork and I was always extremely interested in ecology. My PhD was on treating and controlling human worm infections in a slum community in Kuala Lumpur, where they had limited access to medicine. This doesn’t seem to relate to ecology, but actually it does because I was testing how to apply an epidemiological model on parasitic infections.

I’ve always looked for a job where there is meaning, scientific credibility, social cause and equity. So all my
experiences have accumulated and enabled, in some way, my present work. After my degree, I was awarded
a research fellowship by World Wildlife Fund Malaysia to do a state-by-state conservation plan for Malaysia.
This was a dream job, because we got to travel to remote natural areas and find innovative solutions to carry
out biodiversity conservation. At that time, no one had really heard of conservation—they associated it with
saving cute animals like pandas, but no one thought about conserving natural resources, including plants
and animals. We were given a great opportunity to do pioneering work in the collection of relevant data for
biodiversity conservation from 1981 to 1987. This was all on a state-by-state basis, because at the country
level, conservation was too broad a scale to be effective, so the state controlled land use and utilisation of
natural resources. Through this, I learnt how to work at the right scale, and how to move between scales;
scaling up and scaling down. When you scale down from the state level, cities are the next big thing. In 2008,
UN-Habitat said there are now more people living in cities than rural areas, and therefore we are moving into the
Age of Cities. Singapore is unique in that it is both a nation and a city—complex with diverse issues to take into
consideration, but small enough to be able to integrate and incorporate multiple sectorial concerns.


"If you have clean water, clean air, you recycle your materials, but you have no trees, no birds singing—is that environmentally sustainable?"


HB: One of the major initiatives you’ve been involved in at NParks was developing the
Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity in 2010. Could you tell me how this came about?

LC: It actually began in 2007—all these ecological things have a long gestation period. We were looking
at different environmental performance indices, and noticed that they all tended to focus on brown issues,
like water conservation, air pollution, recycling, with only one or two biodiversity indicators. It seemed like
biodiversity conservation was just about how many parks a city had, and the total size of their protected areas.
At that time, many didn’t include small countries like Singapore, as anything below a certain size had to be
counted out. So I started wondering firstly why we weren’t included, and secondly why they weren’t considering
biodiversity conservation in cities. If you have clean water, clean air, you recycle your materials, but you have
no trees, no birds singing—is that environmentally sustainable? I always say if humans were gone, biodiversity
would happily thrive without these ‘pests’ around, but if biodiversity was gone, humans could not survive. So
biodiversity needs to be included in the environmental sustainability equation.


At the same time, the biodiversity community was noticing that globally, biodiversity has been really suffering, but cities were doing some fantastic things. New York, London, Vancouver—regardless of national policies, the cities had great motivation, the resources and political will to improve on their own; many of the mayors were really pushing to make their cities sustainable. Even now we still see cities leading the way.

This made me think that we should have an index for measuring biodiversity conservation in cities, so we met with the then executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Dr Ahmed Djoghlaf, who was trying to figure out the best way to push implementation of the CBD. At CBD COP 9 in 2008, our then minister for national development, Mah Bow Tan, suggested that Singapore could help to develop a self-assessment tool for cities monitoring biodiversity conservation, because Singapore’s strength is that we are very good at the technical side of things. So we ended up really taking a leadership role in the development of the index. By 2009, we were organising the first workshop in Singapore. We invited people from the municipal councils, then we brought in the academics for their expertise, then the NGOs for technical support and opinions, and finally in 2010, we could actually share it with the international community, at COP 10 in Nagoya.


"With climate change, we have more extreme conditions putting stress on the environment—so increasing ecosystem resilience is very important."

If you don’t know what you have, you can’t manage it well and you don’t know whether you’re losing it or not."


Aerial shot of Sisters’ Islands Marine Park (Photo courtesy of National Parks Board (NParks), Singapore; Karenne Tun)

To read the complete interview, get a copy of the Jul-Aug 2018 edition at our online shop or at newsstands/major bookstores; subscribe to FuturArc or download the FuturArc App!


Previously Published 'In Conversation' (Abstracts)
Mar-Apr 2018
IIn Conversation with Avneesh Tiwari & Neha Rane of atArchitecture by Heather Banerd

Gold winner of the 2017 LafargeHolcim Awards, Asia Pacific region, atArchitecture is a Mumbai firm founded by Avneesh Tiwari and Neha Rane in 2013. Born and raised in Mumbai, the pair met while studying at the Sir JJ College of Architecture.

Jan-Feb 2018
In Conversation with Yatin Pandya by Nitika Agarwal

Yatin Pandya is the founder of the Indian organisation Footprints E.A.R.T.H (environment, architecture, research, technology and housing) that is dedicated to research, documentation and demonstration of a lifestyle evolved from multiple approaches towards sustainability. As the associate director at Vastu Shilpa Consultants for more than 20 years, he has established standards and norms that are contextually, socially, environmentally and economically appropriate to the Indian context. His projects present a diverse scale, ranging from townships, mass housing schemes, slum improvements, institutions and residences to installations.

Sep-Oct 2017
In Conversation with Nripal Adhikary by Bhawna Jaimini

Architect, designer and painter Nripal Adhikary truly believes in small is beautiful. He is the founder of ABARI, which he set up in 2006 with the aim of doing socially and environmentally committed research, design and construction. He seeks to examine, encourage and celebrate vernacular architectural traditions by starting a conversation around adapting traditional materials into the modern context, which was absent from the architectural narrative of Nepal.

Jan-Feb 2015
He is an architect and environmentalist that believes that the purpose of housing should be to create communities and responsible societies where each individual is not treated as just a number that needs a shelter. He has been working on the issues of water harvesting, organic agriculture and renewable energy for years in the region through setting up an NGO, Sahjeevan.

Nov-Dec 2014
Architect, town planner and author AK Jain has helmed the master plan for Delhi 2021 and conservation of Delhi's heritage and planning for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
Sep-Oct 2014
Architect, town planner and author AK Jain has helmed the master plan for Delhi 2021 and conservation of Delhi's heritage and planning for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
May-Jun 2014
Phillip G. Bernstein is vice president at Autodesk, a leading provider of digital design, engineering and entertainment software, where he leads strategic industry relations.
4Q 2012
Luke Hughes is one of the UK's most accomplished furniture designers and has 30 years experience in the industry.
3Q 2011
Niclas Svenningsen is the head of the Sustainable United Nations (SUN) at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based in Paris, France.

3Q 2010

A Rough Path to Sustainable Community by Sirimas Hengrasmee
Passionate community architect and founder of CASE Patama Roonrakwit does what she loves with what she has by reusing and recycling old building materials or adapting from everyday objects...

4Q 2009

In Conversation with FREDERIC SIMON by Candice Lim

What goes into the designing and planning of some of the most environmentally friendly and tastefully designed villas in the region? Passionate hotelier and Alila’s Managing Director Frederic Simon chats with FuturArc Managing Editor Candice Lim, and shares his thoughts on what it means to be Green for Alila properties, and then some...


2Q 2009


For the first time, FuturArc is celebrating a select group of individuals who have been quietly (or not so for some) changing the built environment for the better, specifically
in Asia-Pacific. These 18 people, some of them unsung heroes, have all contributed to making urban spaces more sustainable, whether through advocacy, consultancy...

1Q 2009

In Conversation with RAY ANDERSON by Candice Lim

Ray Anderson had an epiphanic moment some 14 years ago, which led him to take the first step to boldly transform his petroleum-intensive carpet manufacturing business into one of the world’s greenest companies today.


1Q 2009

In Conversation with PHILIP WHITE by Carlos Alberto Montana Hoyos

Philip White is an ecological design strategist who develops ecologically intelligent products and systems. He specialises in helping students and practitioners apply ecodesign strategies and advanced environmental impact assessment methods.



SGD 67.00*
* Regular Price SGD 90.00 for 6 Issues  

FuturArc Collaborators


FuturArc Supporters