You’re walking down a lonely, darkened footpath at night. You’re making the journey alone and the footpath is remote, perhaps cutting through a thick stand of trees or a desolate urban area. You quicken your step. And then you look down and notice it: The very earth that you’re walking on is glowing.
This “Stranger Things”-esque scenario might send the more skittish of us running. However, there’s nothing to fear — no aliens or 1950s B-movie monsters — along a luminescent footpath recently tested along a segment of Singapore’s Rail Corridor. This 15-mile swath of former Malayan Railway land is gradually being transformed into a lively pedestrian and cycling link — "an oasis and a place of relief against the increasing density and intensity of urban living" — that will connect numerous communities and existing green spaces throughout the island-bound Southeast Asian city-state.
Per the Straits Times, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) recently tested four different types of surface materials along a 400-meter (roughly 1,300-foot) stretch of the Rail Corridor located behind a major metro station in Bukit Panjang, a hilly residential enclave located in Singapore’s sprawling West Region.
Each taking up 100-meter-long sections of the path, the materials included run-of-the-mill gravel, a grass and gravel mixture, earth tone-colored porous concrete and, last but not least, an aggregate infused with nontoxic strontium aluminate crystals. The very same mineral found in glow sticks, strontium aluminate absorbs the sun’s ultraviolet rays during the day and, at nights, casts a soft green glow that’s both familiar and slightly eerie.
As the Straits Times notes, the URA, which oversees land use planning, building conservation and urban design in Singapore, used all four materials along the so-called “test track” to better determine which will ultimately result in a “safer and more resilient trail” along the Rail Corridor. The public is also encouraged to provide feedback as to which material they find not just the most pleasing underfoot but the most “inclusive for people of all ages and abilities.”
The glow-in-the-dark material is garnering the most conversation for obvious reasons. After all, none of the other materials provide a sensation akin to walking across a starry sky — or a crunchy bed of fireflies.
Although unconventional, strontium aluminate has played a central role trail-making projects before, most notably in the Dutch town of Nuenen, near Eindhoven, where always-engaging artist Daan Roosegaarde unveiled a stunning photoluminescent cycling path in 2014. Given that one of Nuenen's most famous former residents was Vincent Van Gogh, you can take an easy guess as to which famed painting Roosegaarde’s glow-in-the-dark bike path was inspired by.
A bright idea ... but bright enough?
Roosegaarde’s work, however, also relied on solar-powered LEDs to lend the trail its signature nocturnal glow, which made the trail safe to use even at the darkest hours of night. The glow-in-the-dark trail test run in Singapore, however, relied strictly on strontium aluminate, which some users found enchanting but not quite bright enough for practical purposes.
“No matter how bright the path is, without street lights, it still remains risky as it is hard to see what is ahead,” Cynthia Chua, a local resident who tried out the new trail at night with her scooter-riding toddler, explained to the Straits Times.
Singaporean news website Mothership reports that while recent photos taken of the test tract depict an otherworldly pathway that glitters bright under the night sky, the glow, in reality, isn’t all that impressive. “…the glow is usually brighter in photos than in real life. This isn’t Kryptonite after all,” writes Zhangxin Zheng, before going on to note that, despite this, it still “looks better than any track that doesn’t glow.”
Writing for Mashable, Yi Shu Ng calls the strontium aluminate-embedded path “disappointingly feeble.”
“I was hoping it was bright enough to see my face," said Xavier Tan, a 23-year-old local resident tells Ng. "[It's] slightly underwhelming.”
Despite proving to be a touch meh to those who expected a more magical, Disney-esque display, it’s not yet clear which material the URA will move forward with while redeveloping the Rail Corridor. A pathway laced with glow-in the-dark crystals certainly has the novelty factor going for it, although early reactions seem to demonstrate that glow-in-the-dark crystals alone won’t cut it.
In total, the amount of land within the Rail Corridor, acquired by Singapore during a 2010 land swap agreement with Malaysia, is three times the size of Singapore’s famed botanical gardens and represents roughly .24 percent of the total land mass on the island. Campaigners who hope to see the entirety of the defunct railways transformed into a designated green corridor note that connects a half-dozen major natural areas. This protected green spine would not only benefit Singapore residents but also wildlife moving across the island.
Singapore’s Nature Society (NSS) notes that there are “currently scenic vistas of forests and rivers, canals and wetlands right at our doorstep. The construction of simple walking trails, lighting, resting points and directional signage would make all of this accessible and inviting to hundreds of communities nearby. A pedestrian link between communities could also enhance neighbourliness and a sense of “kampong” [a Malay term that means “village” or “gathering together”] atmosphere along the Green Corridor.”