Mon, Nov 11, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Crops in the clouds

The rise of rooftop farming in space-starved Hong Kong

By Marianne Bray  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, HONG KONG

An employee of urban farming start-up Aeromate in August 2017 checks on vegetables and aromatic herbs growing on the rooftop of a building owned by French public transport group RATP as part of a rooftop farming project in Paris.

Photo: AFP

At the top of a three-storey building in Hong Kong, with car horns blasting on the streets below, Jim Fung teaches a dozen students how to thin out choi sum vegetables.

“Always use the resources you have,” the instructor said as he placed shredded office paper into soil-filled plastic crates and wound string around bamboo sticks to make support frames.

Fung was coaching the first cohort of students in an academy run by social enterprise Rooftop Republic to teach a new generation of urban farmers as demand for their skills soars.

The organization is spearheading a movement to turn Hong Kong’s idle rooftops and urban spaces into farms to help residents reconnect with nature and make the finance hub more liveable.

Once a cluster of fishing and farming villages, Hong Kong is now one of the most densely packed cities on Earth, with 7.4 million people living on a quarter of its 1,100 square km of land.

The rest is mainly country parks and rural areas, but living in skyscrapers and working long hours has caused Hong Kongers to lose touch with the nature around them, say students at the academy.

“We’ve become detached from the history of the sea and land that Hong Kong had,” said Jessica Cheng, a Rooftop Republic student who works for a philanthropic organization.

Andrew Tsui, one of Rooftop Republic’s three co-founders, said he wants the academy to be “Le Cordon Bleu” (a famous cookery school) of urban farming.

To him, that means a place where graduates become masters of the practice and at the same time become “stewards of our planet, our wellbeing, and our communities,” he said.

Founded in 2015, Rooftop Republic has set up more than 50 urban farms so far.

It launched its academy in March, starting with events and workshops. The organization’s first urban farming course, which began last month, teaches students botany, organic farming and how to manage soil, pests, weeds and water resources.

Their classroom sits atop the headquarters of Hong Kong’s Business Environment Council, a non-profit promoting sustainability in the world’s second most-expensive city for property after Monaco, according to global realtor Knight Frank.

Since 2008 more than 60 rooftop farms have sprouted up around Hong Kong, covering 15,000 square metres, said Mathew Pryor, who heads the University of Hong Kong’s landscape architecture division.

He estimates another six square km of rooftop space could be available — about half the size of Hong Kong’s airport and just less than the seven square km of agricultural land in the city.

Hoping to expand that potential, Tsui said that Rooftop Republic has been working with developers to include rooftop farms in their design blueprints.

One day, he predicted, rooftop farmers will be as necessary as facility managers who look after clubhouses and pools.

His organization will train about 150 urban farmers over the next year, he added.

“We have the power to shape the future city we live in ... through demonstrating how adopting an urban farm lifestyle helps the end consumer become aware of ecology, biodiversity, nature, wellbeing and a circular food system,” Tsui said.

SOCIAL VALUE

In the 1,200-square-metre Sky Garden in Metroplaza Mall — the largest urban farm atop a retail mall in Hong Kong — residents can cultivate edible flowers and fruit trees as they attend lifestyle classes like mindful gardening.

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