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  The Straits Times 4 Jun 06
Want Orchard Road buzz? Cut down the trees
by Ignatius Low ignatius@sph.com.sg

A COUPLE of months ago, after catching a Japanese horror flick at Lido, my friend and I had dinner in one of the many basement- level food courts scattered along the length of Orchard Road. It was about 9pm, maybe, when we emerged onto the street.

As usual, it was starting to get quiet. 'Don't you find Orchard Road kinda dark?' my friend said as we strolled down the clean, wide and immaculately paved sidewalk. 'What do you mean, dark?' I asked. 'You know, this is supposed to be Singapore's most famous shopping street, yet it's not like other streets overseas,' he replied, struggling to find the words.

'It's not that there are no shoppers on the street or no nice shops. There is a kind of hustle and bustle, but Orchard Road is still somehow, you know...dark.' When I asked him what he thought the problem was, my friend - a hopeless Tokyo-holic - just pointed skywards.

Suddenly, I saw his point. For even though the pretty bright lights in the shop windows across the street were beckoning to me, they were only half-beckoning. I couldn't really see them through the leafy foliage of the trees.

'I think they should just cut down all the trees in Orchard Road,' he concluded. 'Otherwise, Orchard Road will never be a vibrant, world-class shopping street.'

At first, I baulked at the idea. Singapore is after all a place where citizens, when asked for an adjective to describe their country, will proudly come up with 'green', as if it's a properly positive descriptor like 'romantic' or 'dynamic'.

But the more I thought about it, the more it became that type of bold observation I wish I had come up with myself.

Let me just say first that I like trees. Really. I especially like stocky, muscular trees with huge, fat trunks. And old trees that are full of character, privy to everything that has been going on around them for decades.

I also recognise that the trees on Orchard Road are there for a reason. They provide much-needed shade from the year-round heat in Singapore and are admittedly quite pretty to look at - especially the ones that save us from the sight of ugly buildings like Lucky Plaza.

More importantly, the trees on Orchard Road are part of the street's heritage. The street was built as early as the 1830s and became famous for the trees in the fruit orchards and nutmeg and pepper plantations that lined it.

But today, some of these reasons have become less relevant. Many buildings on Orchard Road are now connected to one another, in response to pampered shoppers who want comfortable, seamless transfers from one mall to another. Indeed, many people drive or take the MRT to get from one segment of Orchard Road to another.

Buildings have also become prettier. Some, like Wisma Atria and Paragon, have been refurbished to look brighter and more inviting. The buildings now want to 'communicate' more with the street, installing big shop windows instead of the old monolithic, impenetrable blocks.

Other buildings are also coming up as part of an overall push to rejuvenate Orchard Road and give it renewed buzz. Various plots of vacant land in the Somerset area have been sold and the new buildings there will eventually fill up many of the 'gaps' in Orchard Road frontage that you see today.

Further down the street, a joint venture led by the Indonesian Lippo group has just bought the Meritus Mandarin hotel and will be enhancing the retail space in front of the hotel. And finally, above Orchard MRT Station, Capitaland and Hong Kong's Sun Hung Kai Properties are building an eagerly anticipated $2 billion 'modern, iconic building' on the famed Orchard Turn site.

As the buzz around Orchard Road picks up, many of its older fixtures will undoubtedly be sold and give way to shiny new developments. Once these buildings are up, in perhaps 10 years' time, they will look superb all together on both sides of a street as straight and wide as Orchard Road.

Or rather, they could potentially look superb, just as long as you have an unobstructed view.

I'm not being facetious at all. As you drive down Tanglin and approach the start of Orchard Road, the view is of an ERP gantry and thick green foliage. The buildings on either side clearly take second place. And if you stand outside Lucky Plaza and look across the street to Wisma Atria and Ngee Ann City, all you see are trees, trees and trees.

What's the use of Capitaland engaging world-famous architects to build a dramatic 'translucent glowing lantern' on Orchard Turn if your view of it is going to be blocked anyway?

In many other countries where the weather is inclement, restaurants and cafes inside malls, with a prime streetside view, have become the preferred alternative to alfresco dining. But what's the point of doing that on Orchard Road if trees will block the view, from the third and fourth floors of any mall, of the busy sidewalks below and across?

And why bother to mount any eye-catching building displays or banners, or even put up more ambitious Christmas decorations, if they can't even be seen in their entirety from the road or across the street?

So, to be sure, the trees on Orchard Road are there for a reason and have served their purpose well. But as with many things in life, there are trade-offs. And here, on a world-renowned shopping street that wants to go First World, the balance of pluses and minuses is surely changing.

Take the trees away and the two sides of Orchard Road will be better able to interact with each other. The collective energy and excitement of a row of malls - each with its own character and vibes - will become more apparent to the shopper on the street, especially at night. And the interplay between the cars on the street, the people on the sidewalks and the activity in the shops - so central to the vibrancy of the world's most famous shopping streets - will be unbroken.

Perhaps the change only needs to be contemplated much later, when the rejuvenation of Orchard Road is more complete. And there will be ways to preserve the street's heritage, such as moving the current trees to another location or replacing them with shorter, thinner trees.

But as a shopping destination, Orchard Road clearly has to move on and none of its current inhabitants should hold it back.

That would be really missing the woods for the trees.

Discussion on the issue on the nature-singapore list
Keep Orchard Road Greenish on Bandon Seah's blog
Save Our Orchard Road Trees on The BoKoLoG blog
Singaporeans and the Environment on the The Field Marshal blog
Related articles on Heritage Trees of Singapore
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