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This article originally appeared in HongKongEcho 84 - REAL ESTATE: The price to pay

 


In Hong Kong, space comes at a premium. And yet we don’t embrace one of our most abundant assets: rooftops. We spoke to Andrew Tsui, co-founder of Rooftop Republic, about how urban farming is changing this for the better.
 

“This is lettuce from prime real estate in Central!” jokes Andrew Tsui, cradling a freshly picked bundle of butter lettuce in his hands. As co-founder of Rooftop Republic, an organisation which manages and promotes urban farming initiatives, he hopes this statement will become something of the norm.

I meet Andrew at one of his rooftop farms atop the iconic Fringe Club, who provides the space for the initiative, in downtown Central. One hundred twenty-five years ago, the building operated as the cold storage depot of the Dairy Farm. The café downstairs, ‘The Vault’, was literally the vault that stored the ice used for cold storage of dairy products distributed throughout Hong Kong.

It’s a fitting location to stage an urban farming revolution.

 

Making the most of the urban fabric

This is just one of the 23 urban farms that Rooftop Republic has established in the past two years. There are neat rows of herbs, vegetables and other miscellaneous greens, as well as a humble compost bin. To the right, an office building looms over us; workers go about the day inside their glass cabins.

“Rooftops are the most underutilised space in cities. But we don’t just work with rooftops; actually it could be any urban space, indoor or outdoor,” he explains. Surprisingly, most of the team’s urban farms are located in highly sought-after downtown areas. “If you calculate the price per square foot of the properties that our projects sit on, we’re pretty well off!” he laughs, “But of course, we don’t own those.”

Skyrocketing rents, the exorbitant cost of land and a cramped living environment are generally seen as impediments to green initiatives. And yet Andrew and his team saw these factors as an opportunity.

“In Hong Kong, like many densely populated cities, the killer triangle is rent, logistics and labour. So we ask, ‘how can we start the collaboration [with a client] in such a way that we can bring value to the asset by transforming it into a green productive space?’ Because that cost is beyond crazy, especially in Central,” he says.

It comes down to challenging traditional notions of property. “We want to encourage city people to rethink the balance of ownership and utilisation. If we limit usage [of rooftops] by ownership only, it falls into the typical zero sum game.” 

 

Open to the community

We pause by a fragrant mint crop; a favourite of the bartender downstairs who, Andrew tells me, is known for liberating handfuls of the leaves for his cocktails. “I’m sure a lot of property owners would value having a green productive space, especially on their rooftop. So it’s a question of giving them the confidence that, in the process of [us] unlocking and maintaining that space, they can still preserve a comfortable level of control.”

Working on a number of projects with corporates, the hope is to open up spaces to the wider community over time. “We’re very encouraged to see that, increasingly, owners and corporates are open to ideas about inviting the wider communities to come in and enjoy their private space,” he says.

It can be argued that part of the discontent felt by the city’s inhabitants can be traced back to the living environment; compartmentalised living and high rents have a stifling effect people’s daily lives. Andrew believes that equipping people with the skills to grow their own food, while introducing them to nature within the urban environment, acts as a process of empowerment. “In cities like Hong Kong, there is always a part of us that seeks for a relational space to be reconnected with nature and our communities. That need has real value.”

 


Image: 

Commercial Building in Central, Hong Kong managed by Jones Lang LaSalle Management Services Limited.

Photo Credit: Sarah Thrower

 


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