Farms atop skyscrapers gradually taking root in HK

Local | 27 Mar 2018 2:01 pm

High above downtown Hong Kong’s bustling, traffic-clogged streets, a group of office workers was toiling away on harvesting a bumper crop of lettuce atop a skyscraper.

This is rooftop farming taken to the extreme, and more about reaping happiness than providing food.

The volunteers were picking butter lettuce, Indian lettuce and Chinese mustard leaf in rows of low black plastic planters on a decommissioned helipad on the 146-meter-high roof of the 38-story Bank of America tower.

"It’s pretty dirty but still I really enjoy it,” said Catherine Ng, one of five volunteers who works for the property company managing the tower.

The farm is run by Rooftop Republic, a three-year-old startup whose founders are tapping growing interest in organic food and taking advantage of unused roof space in the cramped, high-rent Chinese city.

Hong Kong has rural suburbs, but farming only takes up 700 hectares of its land and agriculture accounts for 0.1 percent of its economic output. Rooftop Republic’s founders say the appetite for their services is growing among Hongkongers.

"We have been getting more and more interest from people who want to grow their own food,” said Michelle Hong, one of the founders. "A lot of it is triggered by concerns about food safety and the realization that a lot of the food they consume might be laden with pesticides. I think people want to have more control and also more trust.”

Rooftop Republic has set up on average one farm a month since its founding and now manages 36 covering more than 30,000 square feet, including one in mainland China, Hong said. It also provides workshops for companies, building owners, schools, and community groups.

The Bank of America farm was a milestone because it was the first in the city’s financial district. The company has since set up two more in the area and is looking at a few more sites, Hong said. Vegetables from the tower are donated to a food bank for uses in lunch boxes distributed to the needy. Some of its other farms are at hotels or restaurants, which use the herbs, eggplants and melons for dishes on their menus.

Plenty of other groups or individuals have started cultivating their own rooftop vegetable gardens, said Matthew Pryor, a Hong Kong University architecture professor who has counted at least 60 and thinks there are a lot more he does not know about.

Pryor’s research found 1,500 rooftop farmers in the city, cultivating a total area of about 1 ½ hectares. He thinks there’s potential for that to easily grow to 50,000 people working on a suitable rooftop area of 600 hectares.

He helped set up a farm on top of a university building where volunteers, mainly staff, grow tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, lettuce, dragonfruit, papaya, beans, peas and squash.

Pryor said he discovered through his research that their main product isn’t edible.

"The rooftop farms here produce virtually nothing” compared to Hong Kong’s overall consumption, Pryor said. "What they do produce, however, is happiness, and this social capital that they generate is enormous.”-AP



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