A butterfly perching on a lettuce leaf is not normally a cause for marvel. But I am standing on the roof the Bank of America Tower, a 39-floor building in the heart of Hong Kong’s busiest district, to see one of its highest farms. The butterfly must have flown across miles of tower blocks to reach this small oasis amidst the concrete desert.
“You just plant it out and nature comes and enjoys it,” says Andrew Tsui. We are joined by Michelle Hong and Pol Fabrega, who together lead Rooftop Republic, a social enterprise that aims to turn the city’s dizzying skyline green.
If it weren’t for the fact that we are 146 metres (482ft) above street-level, this farm would look like any allotment site or garden courtyard – row after row of rectangular crates, some with fresh sprouts poking through the surface, others with established plants almost ready for harvest. The loudest noise I can hear is not the traffic below, but the wind.
Although it is only February when I visit, the sun is so strong I end the morning with a slight tan, and Hong tells me that the local climate offers ideal growing conditions for most of the year, meaning that despite the exposure, they can cultivate a range of plants. “We have things like cherry tomatoes, salad, broccoli – all of that can be grown here,” explains Hong. The greens I see today are as lush as anything you would find growing at sea level. Workers from the offices below tend it day-to-day, and after harvest, the fruits of their labour are sent to a food bank, where they fill lunchboxes for the needy. “We want to share the good products – not just the leftovers,” says Tsui. On other projects, however, the farmers would take the produce for themselves.
Truly fresh, locally grown vegetables are something of a luxury in Hong Kong. To demonstrate why, Tsui points from our rooftop to the rings of mountains that encompass the city. In between are the two bands of dense urban development, straddling the harbour. “Five to six million people are squeezed in these two narrow belts,” he says
Thanks to these crammed conditions, the city imports more than 90% of its food – much of it from mainland China. But after some well-publicised cases of food contamination in China, more and more people are now looking for locally grown goods. And if they can’t grow it on the ground, they have to take it to the sky.
Food production is only one of the project’s aims, however. Their greater goal is to revolutionise the city’s fast-paced culture. Like most urban areas, Hong Kong’s society is highly stratified, and its citizens are often isolated to their particular niche, formed of their colleagues and close friends. The Rooftop Republic team hope that the farms can help break through those barriers. “It’s a bit of a social experiment,” says Tsui.
Read more at the BBC.