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Forum: “Urban Edible Spaces and Sustainable Communities” 
Thoughts from Hong Kong and Singapore

On 22 February, a panel session featuring speakers based in Hong Kong and Singapore was held virtually to discuss the topic of how urban edible spaces can facilitate sustainable communities. Titled “Urban Edible Spaces and Sustainable Communities”, it is the first session of a two-part forum organised as part of the impact project titled  “Urban Edible Space Initiative: Growing Food and Happiness in a Sustainable Community”. The impact project is co-organised by the Sustainability Office and CEDARs-General Education and is supported under the Knowledge Exchange (KE) Funding Scheme. The session featured Mr Mathew Pryor from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Ms Idy Wong from Kadoorie Farm and Garden as well as Ms Cuifen Pui from Foodscape Collective.

 

Happy Urban Farmers and Reconceptualizing the value of urban farming

 

First, Mr Mathew Pryor, the Head of the Division of Landscape Architecture at HKU as well as one of the founding members of the HKU Rooftop Farm shared his research findings on how urban productive gardens can help to build sustainable communities and cities. Having spent years visiting and researching urban rooftop spaces in Hong Kong, he made the observation that the value of urban farming is not necessarily the amount of food grown. Instead, people find urban farming to be individual endeavour where they get to express themselves and take pride in growing their own food. Time is also spent more on socializing and sharing about growing and cooking food rather than growing food. What is produced then, is not just food but rather joy and satisfaction. 


Therefore, instead of measuring the value of urban rooftop farms in terms of their productivity, Mathew suggests that it might be more meaningful to highlight the social value they bring to people’s well-being and happiness when it comes to persuading the authorities of their value in the city. After all, Hong Kong is a high-density city facing issues such as ageing and stressful lifestyles. 

Revitalising History and Building a Sustainable Future

 

Ms Idy Wong, the Head of the Sustainable Living and Agriculture Department at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden then gave a sharing on how edible landscapes feature in the Green Hub project. Besides conserving the heritage of the Old Tai Po Police Station as part of the “Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme”, the project aimed to create a space where people can learn how to lead more sustainable lifestyles. 

 

To achieve such an aim, the inclusion of edible landscape features was invaluable as an entry point for visitors to Green Hub to become interested in where our food comes from and thereafter pick up knowledge and skills to transform their own lifestyles. Besides the edible garden, there is also a canteen serving vegetarian food prepared from locally-sourced and fairly-traded ingredients and composting food waste, thereby serving as an example of what a sustainable food system could look like. 

 

Revitalising History and Building a Sustainable Future Collective Leadership and Regenerative Neighbourhoods

 

Finally, Ms Cuifen Pui from Singapore, a former scientist and founding member of the Foodscape Collective ecosystem, shared about the various community initiatives that she is a part of in Singapore. 

 

Coming across a community garden in Sydney, Cuifen thought of how such spaces can build community by allowing people to come together and share food and ideas. She thus decided to take the initiative to start a community garden in her own neighbourhood back in Singapore. Since this initial success, she has gone on to initiate other projects such as Project Black Gold, which supports neighbourhoods in starting a community compost as well as a food forest permaculture project in a nature park. These projects opened up great opportunities for the community to learn new practices from one another. 

 

Cuifen also shared about the idea of a RegenHood, whereby these ideas of regenerative cultures, i.e. how to be more connected to each other and the earth, are not only found within the confines of community gardens, but rather integrated throughout the neighbourhood such as through programming such as music and meditation events.

 

Reconnecting to the Land and Collective Learning

 

Mathew pointed out that a common theme in these projects is that people are really interested in reconnecting to the land given their living in such intense urban environments. Idy agreed that food is a great way to spark these discussions around sustainability and the environment. 

 

On the same topic of who participates in edible farming and for what reasons, Cuifen made the observation that many people who join these initiatives are really passionate about restoring their relationship with the environment and put in vast amounts of effort to participate and learn. Mathew agreed and added that these communities bring together people from different walks of life and bond them in this common project of growing food together. Cuifen referred to this phenomenon as the practice of ‘human-to-human interaction’. 

 

Idy then emphasized how the idea of ‘gardening’ makes it less intimidating for people to participate. Mathew echoed this idea of how participants of rooftop farming rarely refer to themselves as experts, and the culture is thus one of collective learning.

 

The Influence of COVID-19

 

Responding to questions from the audience, Cuifen shared that while Covid-19 has initially stalled some projects, it also led to some innovations in the way people organise with the help of technology. For example, elderly participants learnt how to use Zoom while Whatsapp also allowed people to coordinate with each other effectively when it came to sharing the work for caring for the garden. Similarly, Idy shared that while Green Hub had to be closed due to the pandemic, the public response has become greater because people started to recognize how participating in food-growing related activities can help them recover from the crisis, and also had more time at home. Therefore, Zoom workshops for growing food at home were carried out. Mathew agreed that the pandemic has perhaps brought personal health and the importance of healthy environments to the forefront of people’s minds.

 

Bridging the Rural and the Urban 

 

Idy also added that another added benefit of urban edible spaces is how public participation in urban farming can also support farmers because people start to better understand the difficulties of farming as well as the effort that goes into it. Mathew also chimed in with a personal anecdote on how participating in urban farming can really make one rethink the value of the vegetables they buy at the supermarket. 

 

Embodying Urban Sustainability

 

Coming back to the topic of how edible gardening can encourage people to live more sustainably, Idy shared about how Green Hub is a green building not because of any innovative technologies but because of the edible landscape - as it is not only about producing food energy but also receiving waste and using it as an input for doing so. On that note and responding to a question about how to farm sustainably in the city, Cuifen talked about how it is tempting to buy soil rather than to spend time making their own. Idy also shared that their response to people who ask where to get the best soil is that people have to build and cultivate soil themselves, through the resources they have. Cuifen further shared how her communities tried out the practice of Hügelkultur, where entire tree logs can be used to create soil bed. Mathew agreed that good soil can be created through many different types of resources, and communities should see it as a longer-term project rather than something they simply buy from shops.

 

On the Future of Urban Edible Spaces

 

The panellists were finally asked about their dreams and hopes for the future of urban edible gardening. Cuifen first shared how she sees Project RegenHood as not just a project, but an ongoing effort to transform neighbourhoods in their day to day practices so that people can have good, joyful lives. Idy said she would hope to see more parks being transformed into edible landscapes so that they may not only serve aesthetic purposes but bring more benefits to people who can enjoy them in a different way. Mathew’s hope for the future is that urban farming will become so mainstream that there’s no need to talk about it, because it is just one part of a sustainable urban community. He also expressed hope that in the near future, the authorities will recognize the immense value of urban farming, and begin to actively promote it with the help of community groups and researchers. 

Published on March 4, 2021 | Written by Sammie Ng (BA Urban Studies Y4)