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Skyscraper rooftops go green

Rooftop Republic
Rooftop Republic/Business Environment Council farm at the Jockey Club Environment Building

Every lunchtime in buildings across Hong Kong, city workers leave their desks to tend to their gardens. It gives them a pleasant break outdoors, engaging with colleagues outside of work. At weekends, they can bring their children to the plots, and at harvest time, they reap fresh, healthy produce to take home.

Hong Kong is embracing the worldwide urban-farming trend, where productive gardens are established to use otherwise idle space, such as rooftops. Since its inception in 2015, pioneering social enterprise Rooftop Republic has led more than 50 of these projects on rooftops of commercial or industrial buildings, housing estates and schools.

An early corporate adopter was real-estate services firm JLL. Its first urban farm, on top of the Bank of America Tower in Admiralty, was initiated in 2014 to raise awareness of the possibilities of creating a more liveable, healthy and sustainable city.

Perfect site conditions

Andrew Tsui
Andrew Tsui, co-founder of Rooftop Republic, manages urban farms across Hong Kong

Chung Chi-hung, Executive Director of Property Management at JLL, said it is rare for commercial buildings in Hong Kong to have the capacity and right conditions to create rooftop farms but Bank of America Tower was “perfect”. “The farm provides JLL the opportunity to engage staff and the community in building a better tomorrow,” he said.

The project was implemented with consultation from Andrew Tsui – who went on to co-found Rooftop Republic – for the design, build and management of the urban farm with weekly services that support local farmers.

In late 2018, JLL established another urban farm atop YKK Building II in Tuen Mun, a collaboration with the property owner YKK (HK) Limited.

JLL’s YKK farm
A seasonal harvest from JLL’s YKK farm in Tuen Mun, a collaboration with the property owner

That project’s leader, Chan Chi-keung, Senior Director of Property Management Department at JLL, said that by encouraging healthy interaction between the landlord and the tenants, as well as fostering a cooperative community, the YKK farm “has fully utilised the idle space in the industrial building to add green elements and a new image to the property”.

The YKK farm aims for a self-financing model over the long run. Money made by recycling and selling cardboard boxes and related materials discarded by the tenants is used to purchase seeds, equipment and soil needed to cultivate the farm, and support the project’s day-to-day operations. The participants keep half of each harvest, and donate the rest to another local non-government organisation (NGO), Food Grace.

In both cases, various stakeholders of the corporation and building have the opportunity to tend the farms and bring their families for a mindful session about sustainable lifestyle and responsible food consumption choices. In addition to the positive social and environmental impact generated through these projects, each farm produces hundreds of kilograms of a wide range of fresh produce over the year.

Community building

Metroplaza rooftop farm
Office workers and their families celebrate a harvest at the Metroplaza rooftop farm in Hong Kong’s Kwai Fong district (photo: Rooftop Republic Marketing)

Mr Chan said the farms bring communities together. “The property owner and its tenants’ employees take an active role in the farming activities, and the restaurant adjacent to the farm has helped to cook the produce harvested for these employees free of charge,” he said of the YKK project.

“Through this project, the building has become a gathering hub for people to carry out recreational activities. In addition, half of the produce harvested from the farm is donated to food recycling organisations such as Food Grace, in order to support needy families and groups in the community.”

JLL’s urban farm projects “serve as an example that showcases to the public what sustainable city living looks like through a flexible operating model”, he said. “We are proud to play a part in creating a more inviting community in a city regarded as one of the most densely populated places in the world, and helping to improve its urban landscape.”

Sotomi Funasugi, Director & Factory Manager at YKK (HK) Limited, said the company is a strong supporter of green initiatives. “The rooftop farm atop the YKK Building helps turn the building’s under-utilised space into a place where our tenants can come together, hence strengthening our community bonds,” he said. “It also allows us to enjoy the fun of farming, offering an opportunity to learn about growing food despite the hustle and bustle of city life. We find it rewarding to work together in growing the produce, and then sharing the harvest with local charities and those in need.”

Partnerships sought

Both farms are run under the professional guidance of Rooftop Republic, which hosts various gardening workshops, events and guided tours of its projects.

Co-founder Mr Tsui said Rooftop Republic actively seeks collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders such as corporate partners, property developers, architects, landscapers, organic farmers, chefs, nutritionists and horticulture therapists to develop and deliver urban farming solutions.

He said Hong Kong, renowned for skyscrapers and vertical space development, also offered the rest of the world great examples on how business, social and environment innovation can be seamlessly integrated in urban farming projects.

“By focusing on long-term corporate social partnerships, a social enterprise can become a valuable strategic partner of businesses for positive impact,” Mr Tsui said.

Sharing Hong Kong expertise

Rooftop Republic has been invited to share its case studies in cities around Asia, demonstrating how a lean approach can bring value to idling urban space.

In addition to its many urban greening projects in Hong Kong, Rooftop Republic now exports its expertise to Mainland China. Recently, by awarding the design contract to a Hong Kong design studio Beams Creative, the company took a lead role in developing a rooftop farm atop the clubhouse of a luxury residential development in Changsha – the capital of southern China’s Hunan province – where the residents will grow their own organic vegetables and embark on seasonal green-lifestyle events.

“Projects like this send a strong signal on the shift in consumers’ need to get ‘back to basics’ as the new urban lifestyle,” Mr Tsui said. “What people simply ask for is a more livable urban space where air is fresh, water is clean, sky is clear, food is nutritious and people are connected, not only digitally, but in reality with each other, the wider community and nature. This is our vision.”

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Rooftop Republic

Content provided by Hong Kong Trade Development Council
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