The world is urbanizing at a rapid pace and high-rise, high-density living is becoming the norm.
A country like China has developed and urbanized so quickly in the past two decades that 56 percent of its 1.35 billion-strong population were living in cities in 2016. With limited space in cities like Hong Kong, concrete towers soar over the streets below.
With more skyscrapers than anywhere else in the world, Hong Kongers feel like they rarely get to see blue skies or any greenery in their daily lives. Can such a densely populated, tightly built-up metropolis change the way its people look its buildings and effect social change? My short answer is yes.
While cities are still competing to erect their next iconic high-rises complexes on the surface of the earth, we can in the process help shape their perception of how their projects can contribute more to our cities. Because buildings are more than faceless monolithic complexes. They have many areas like rooftops which can be turned into productive spaces through urban farming.
There is a growing interest in urban farming around the world. City dwellers are increasingly looking to have a sustainable lifestyle – they want to find out where their food comes from, work with their hands as a way of unwinding from office jobs and get to know the community around them. We can achieve all these by building urban farms. Much like how Airbnb doesn’t own properties it rents out and Uber doesn’t possess any cars, applying a sharing economy concept for urban farming could be a way of scaling the movement.
Cities like Hong Kong offer ideal spaces for urban farming. With a bit of creative thinking and structure planning, derelict spaces can be transformed into green oases. Take the Bank of America Tower in Admiralty where a decommissioned helipad has been transformed into 800sq feet of organic farm area right in the centre of the CBD. The rooftop receives unobstructed sunlight, it has water access and of course, sound structural integrity for the farm to be installed successfully. What has allowed it to thrive, however, is the work of employees managing that building who have spent hours attending to the farm with the support of local urban farmers – and they get a huge sense of satisfaction to see their work bear fruit.
More buildings are now joining the rooftop farm movement across the city; Rooftop Republic has installed 25 rooftop farms in buildings such as the Cathay Pacific headquarters near the airport, the Manulife Financial Center in Kwun Tong and Nan Fung Tower in Central. Together, these farms yielded thousands of kg of organic produce last year and more crucially, engaged tens of thousands of city dwellers.
The idea is also taking hold in other cities: Singapore and London also have a growing number of gardens producing herbs and vegetables for use in local restaurants while the roof of an abandoned building in the Hague in the Netherlands is home to Europe’s largest urban fam.
For us, the produce can also be viewed as the bonus. It’s increasingly clear that urban farms are platforms that nurture meaningful relationships and bring value to different parties involved.
For tenants and occupiers, it is a common space where colleagues – many of whom have worked in the same building for years yet have never had an opportunity to speak before – can gather in a relaxed setting and build cohesion in the workforce. For developers, urban farms help buildings and the companies inside to contribute and connect with the larger community whether through public open days or school visits for local children. Urban farms engage these groups by educating the younger generation about the possibilities of their city and better equipping city dwellers to lead more sustainable lives.
More importantly, urban farms can be excellent platforms to empower socially vulnerable groups and build a more empathetic society. Through the right training and guidance, individuals with disabilities – such as those with hearing impairments or individuals on the autistic spectrum – can seek meaningful employment in farming and make valuable contributions to the communities.
It’s not just commercial buildings that benefit from urban farms; they can easily be set up in residential developments to encourage interaction between neighbors and promote a self-sustaining lifestyle.
The power of farming can be transformational. Growing our own food in shared spaces could just be the best and easiest way for us to create friendlier, greener and more sustainable cities.
Andrew Tsui is the founder of Rooftop Republic.