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One of the ‘supertrees’ of Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay.Edwin Koo/The Globe and Mail

The tropical rainforests that once covered Singapore were long ago lost to the clear-cut of development. But today its historic port is home to an entirely different kind of tree.

The Gardens by the Bay is a larger-than-life, multimillion-dollar project designed to show off Singapore's prowess in green technology and commitment to innovation.

A collection of 18 man-made "supertrees" that are up to 50 metres tall, parkland and two climate-controlled conservatories housing rare plant species from across the globe, the Gardens was a seven-year labour of love for the botanist who spent his career creating Singapore's botanical gardens and championing its city parks.

"We had to convince people this was going to be developed as a people's garden," said Kiat W. Tan, the cheerful CEO who watches over the rare orchids scattered throughout the two biomes with grandfatherly attention. He hand-selected many of the trees and plants in both the Flower dome, which includes a Mediterranean garden with centuries-old olive trees brought in from Spain, and the Cloud Walk dome, an indoor mountain complete with rainfall, planted with species native to cloud forests around the world.

Built on 101 hectares of land reclaimed from the sea, at a cost of $800-million (U.S.), the Gardens' first phase opened its gates last summer. Promoted as a tourist attraction, they're meant to restore public parkland to this fast-moving city and, in the biomes, provide a cool respite from the intense equatorial heat.

But just as important is the message Singapore is trying to send about itself as an up-and-coming centre of green technology. Both the supertrees and the biomes use cutting-edge window glazing, cooling and water capture and recycling technologies to maintain the indoor temperatures. A biomass furnace deep underground is entirely fuelled by wood waste collected from Singapore's parks, leaving the entire Gardens power-neutral and not dependent on the local grid. Irrigation for its plants is drawn entirely from collected rainwater.

The hope is that architects and developers will begin looking to Singapore in their quest to develop greener buildings. So far, Dr. Tan says, the architects have received inquiries from as far afield as mainland China, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.

Like many of Singapore's accomplishments, the gardens were largely designed by foreigners – a team led by Britain-based Grant Associates designed this first phase, the Bay South garden. The designer of the conservatories, Britain-based Wilkinson Eyre, won the 2012 World Architecture Festival's World Building of the Year award for its efforts.

But there are efforts toward localizing the project; a third and final phase of the Gardens still to be developed is expected to be done by local firms.

Gardens' management say they have already recouped 75 per cent of their first year's operating budget in nine months of operation, from admissions charges which run up to about $16 for adults, as well as food-and-beverage sales and special events. Jennifer Lopez played the Gardens this year and so will Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.

"We have brought the plants of the world to Singapore and in consequence we introduced Singapore to the world as a garden nation," Dr. Tan said. "We are helping to change the brand and image of Singapore from a hard-nosed, business, no-nonsense nation to a nation where quality of life takes precedence."

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