Sky-high farms in downtown Hong Kong
Words by Suzanna Knight
Photos by Ann Woo
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. There are high rises as far as the eye can see, waves of steel and chrome and thousands of office windows reflecting the grey afternoon skies. It is easy to feel completely disconnected from nature in an environment like this, but thankfully there are people trying to reverse this effect. In 2015, Andrew Tsui, Michelle Hong and Pol Fabrega founded Rooftop Republic: an urban farming initiative which aims to reconnect city dwellers to the natural world and the origins of their food. We met up with the enthusiastic urban farmers to talk about the importance of local food production in cities.
Rooftop Republic’s mission is to ‘shape the future of food, one rooftop at a time’. Why is the future of food production so important to city dwellers?
Food is an essential part of everyone’s life, but we don’t always connect to it in the same way. Some people grow up on or around farms and are very close to the origins of their food, but for people like us who live in densely populated cities like Hong Kong, food is an imported product.
Could you elaborate on why this might be problematic?
Although we currently all benefit from this globally connected food system, it is very unsustainable in the long run. It affects the environment and our own health – think carbon emissions and the use of chemicals and preservatives in conventional farming – and it ruins smaller, local farming communities who are powerless to compete against larger companies that dominate the food system. We believe that the best way to break this food system is to reach out to the end consumers themselves. And since in 2050, 70% of the global population will live in urban areas, those end consumers are and will be city dwellers.
You all have very different professional backgrounds - none of which have to do with farming. What made you decide to initiate an urban farming movement in Hong Kong?
We see our role in the urban farming movement not necessarily as just farmers, but also as agents of change. We want to change behaviours, mindsets, the city itself, and believe we can achieve this change by empowering city residents to make urban farming part of their everyday lives. So while farming and food production is a vital element of the Rooftop Republic initiative, education and awareness is equally important. And our past experience and skills came in handy for that.
How do you hope to change city dwellers’ perspective on food?
We want to change the relationship city dwellers have with their food. Right now, it’s a unidirectional relationship, one in which consumption is the only transaction between a person and their food. We want to involve people in the process of growing their own food, and create a sustainable food ecosystem everyone can be a part of. Ultimately, Rooftop Republic wants to make urban farming an everyday part of the lifestyles of city dwellers. We want people to feel like an integral part of the food system, be more engaged, and be more inclined to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.
We’ve also designed a series workshops and educational programmes to give city dwellers hands on experience in the process and principles of organic farming. No matter how old, young, experienced or inexperienced you are, you will leave with some solid knowledge on how to eat more in tune with the seasons, how to maximise your food’s nutritional value, and how to be more kind to the environment.
“We want people to feel like an integral part of the food system, be more engaged, and be more inclined to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.”
When you founded the project in 2015, urban farming was a fairly new concept in Hong Kong. Why do you think the movement didn’t catch on here as fast as it did in the rest of the world?
The major issue there would be space. There are some leisure land farming concepts and government subsidised programmes in the New Territories part of the city, but the sky-high rents in the Central District make similar projects in the city centre simply impossible.
With Rooftop Republic, we worked out a model that focuses on transforming idle, unused spaces (usually rooftops) into edible gardens, and designed and established a programme involving the right stakeholders. Through this, we were able to unlock assets within the city and open them up to the community.
What other challenges did you face when starting the project?
At the beginning, there were definitely doubts and hesitation from communities, partners and potential clients about the feasibility of an urban farming project and how to keep the farms running after they’d been installed. Also, acquiring farming experience was always and is still an ongoing process. It requires plenty of trial and error and perseverance! Farming is very much about applying your skills to different conditions specific to your local climate and microclimate. The best learning moments occur when adapting to the different growing conditions at each site and dealing with unexpected or inevitable issues like typhoons or erratic temperatures.
Is there a specific rooftop project or client that exemplifies your mission here at Rooftop Republic?
We are very honoured to have partnered with a local Hong Kong NGO for the hearing-impaired. Together, we run a certification course on urban farming for a group of hearing-impaired folks. Through a programme that includes theory lessons and hands-on experience in a production farm as well as an urban farm, we aim to offer more vocational opportunities and equip these people to become urban farmers in the future. We had a very successful pilot and are looking to continue this programme and replicate it with different social organisations.
In what other ways do you think we can promote urban green living, besides building more urban farms?
Loads of ways! First, buy local products and support your local farmer. Second, make the best use of available space and start your own mini-garden at home; nothing beats the experience of eating something that you have helped grow, nurtured with your very own hands. And third, recycle and make your own compost – from anything from coffee grounds to leftover food scraps – and help minimise the burden on our landfills.
“Nothing beats the experience of eating something that you have helped grow, nurtured with your very own hands.”