City Weekend

Hong Kong urban farmers find bliss in rooftop gardens

Sustainable living proponents praise benefits but lament regulatory hurdles

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 November, 2017, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 November, 2017, 4:03pm

Rooftops in densely populated Hong Kong are fast turning ­greener and more fertile as urban farmers seek to grow crops from their homes and offices and create a more liveable community.

Kale, cherry tomatoes, ­radishes, and all kinds of herbs are blossoming atop commercial and residential buildings, with ­farmers believing that they can surmount space restrictions and make the city a more pleasant home for its urban dwellers.

Some 60 rooftop farms and 1,400 farmers have emerged locally over the past decade, and a handful of farms are added each year, according to Mathew Pryor, an associate professor and head of the landscape architecture ­division at the University of Hong Kong.

More than 7.38 million people now live in just 2,754 square km in the city, and only 24 per cent of the land is developable urban area. Hong Kong is likely to stay the world’s most densely populated city in 2025, according to a Bloomberg study.

Will a lack of open space damage generations of Hongkongers?

Sustainable living group Rooftop Republic is one of the city’s most active farming groups. It now manages 33 farms spanning 30,000 sq ft.

“Growing up in high-rise, high-density cities such as Hong Kong naturally disconnects us from nature,” says Andrew Tsui, co-founder of the two-year-old start-up.

“So I started thinking, as ­ordinary working city dwellers, how we could incorporate nature into our lifestyle.”

Working at a private equity fund until five years ago, Tsui has always been interested in ­sustainability in his projects. He grew curious to see whether it could take root in Hong Kong.

“[Urban farming] was still mainly in the US and Europe at that time, where people have bigger pieces of land and can build community farms around neighbourhoods,” he says.

The key product of urban farming is really happiness
Mathew Pryor, HKU

Tsui then started a part-time interest group and tested out ­rooftop farming. In 2015, he co-founded Rooftop Republic with Pol Fabrega, who had worked in the non-profit and education sectors, and Michelle Hong, whose expertise included marketing, communications and project management.

Now the social enterprise serves corporate clients such as local developer Swire Properties by turning their rooftop space into farms. The group also provides workshops and organises community activities.

All the city’s rooftop farming groups are formed spontaneously from the bottom up, Pryor claims.

His research shows that the farmers are usually either young professionals or early retirees concerned about the environment.

To them, rooftop farming is much more than just about producing food, Pryor says. In fact, none of the farms produces much food or even intends to.

“The key product of urban farming is really happiness,” he says.

“It’s the social cohesion and the community interaction.”

Hong Kong quest for the Tesla of food, so world can still feed itself in 2050 by changing diets and farming more sustainably

“Everybody I met in a rooftop farm, community farm, or weekend farm – they are blissfully happy,” he says.

“They grow a few tomatoes that you wouldn’t buy in the shops, and they are really, really happy, spending weeks posting images on Facebook of their two tomatoes.”

Pryor describes the potential for urban farming as enormous. He estimates that Hong Kong has more than 600 hectares of ­farmable rooftop area.

Demand for farming in the city is also high.

Some 1,500 people, for ­example, have entered a lucky draw for 55 planting plots in the community garden at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park in Sai Ying Pun this year, according to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which operates the space. The planting plots can be rented for four months at a time.

But Tsui and other urban farmers face significant regulatory hurdles.

To transform an idle rooftop into a farm or set up a garden for a new building, one must secure several approvals from the ­Buildings Department and other government offices.

Why Hong Kong is scared of trees: the fight for urban forestry in city that sees them as a threat, not an enhancement

Officials should recognise the positive impact of rooftop ­farming, Pryor contends, and clarify how to navigate regulatory issues, as many building owners are reluctant to transform their rooftops due to legal uncer­tainties.

“Once you do that, I think everybody will be doing it,” he says. “Hong Kong could be a huge model for citywide farming as a social activity.”