Urban Waters II – bridging the nature-city distinction

The extensive reach of administrative control was obvious through the networked flow of waters into the everyday lives of it citizens, creating a new relationship between the citizens, the state and water. However, such ‘hard’ disciplinary governance had to be supplanted with ‘soft’ security mechanisms due to backlashes associated with the ‘blackboxing’ of water flows (Graham and Thrift, 2007). The distancing of water flows from the population gave the impression of a nature-city distinction and inadvertently led to an attitude of indifference towards the water body, undermining the state’s anti-littering drive (Hansard, 1990). Further, these covered systems and impervious surfaces hampered the removal of stagnant water, leading to a series of dengue outbreaks and negative impacts on anti-flood initiatives and biodiversity protection (ibid).

In this respect, the state sought to adopt a more decentralized mode of governance by removing physical barriers and bringing the community closer to the flows of water through the Active, Beautiful and Clean (ABC) Waters programme launched in 2006. It was hoped that by bringing the citizens closer to water and adopting softer approaches of governance, the public would build a stronger sense of relation for the environment through participation and appreciation. This does not mean that the state does away completely with disciplinary approaches however, as fines and surveillance measures are still in place, though complemented with softer approaches seeking to weave water into the everyday lives of citizens forging a stronger bond and affection to this precious resource.

The flagship project of the ABC Waters programme is the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park – a first in Singapore where the concrete canal was redeveloped into a picturesque park as part of efforts to increase the carrying capacity of the waterway and rejuvenating the neighbourhood (resembling Concrete Plant Park on the Bronx River). With the naturalizing of the river, wildlife such as the Common Bluetail damselfly and Common Scarlet dragonfly has been attracted to the riverbank and residents now bring their families out to the park during weekends. Indeed, disrupting the built forms of residential buildings and bringing a patch of nature into the city.

Other projects:

Alexandra canal

Alexandra Canal (source: PUB)

Jurong Lake.jpg

Jurong Lake (source: PUB)

see more

Viewed critically, these projects highlight the shift in governmentality of the state as they incorporate greater elements of security into the once disciplinary mode, adopting softer approaches to complement hard ones – exemplifying how if the ‘sovereign wants to change the human species… it will be acting on the milieu’ (Foucault, 2007: 32). The concept of governance through network flows explored here is relevant not just in Singapore but in many cities where the state is seeking to decentralize governmentality and engage greater citizens involvement, especially in nature conservation (e.g. Hong Kong, Tokyo). How best can that be done? Maybe the answer lies in Foucault’s (2007: 73) saying that ‘to govern is to stimulate and manipulate the naturalness of desire’, where citizens are given greater agency and sense of ownership towards nature.

[473 words]


Graham, S. and N. Thrift (2007) ‘Out of order: understanding repair and maintenance’, Theory, Culture & Society, 24, 3, 1-25.

Hansard (1990) ‘Budget, Ministry of the Environment. Session 1, vol. 55’, Singapore: Official Reports – Parliamentary Debates.

Foucault, M. (2007) Security, territory, population, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Published by

Yi Ming Ang

University College London Undergraduate Year 3 GEOG 3076 Urban Political Ecology Module

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