Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


The Role of the Living Landscape as an Element of Sustainability In Asian Cities during the 21st Century

Tobias Edmund Forster
Able Charity
Team 73 Hong Kong
Hong Kong SAR

Tobias Forster is an urban planner who has been working in Hong Kong for the last three years for a Canadian / Cantonese consultancy called Team 73 HK. The scope of his work includes Southern China and Viet Nam as well as a broad range of work in Hong Kong. He is also the Secretary of a local "grass roots" environmental charity called Action for a Better Living Environment (ABLE).

The following paper was presented 25-27 November, 1997 as part of the POLMET 97 Conference - Sustainability in the 21st Century - The Challenge for Asian Cities.

1.0 Introduction

The Cities of Asia have started to grow. Upwards, outwards and onwards. Crops are being sown and trees are being planted by urban dwellers in urban areas. Essentially, to provide food for the population, to digest pollution and to beautify metropolitan environments.

Throughout the urban landscape of the Continent, a belief in tradition will provide the basis for the development of urban agriculture and urban forests in the 21st Century. The physical tradition expressed by vegetable plots, poultry farming, parks, combined with the social tradition of religion, community and the family. Tradition will combine with necessity to ensure that community farming and tree planting play a central role in the sustainable development of Asian Cities.

The ability of the world to increase the food supplies and overcome pollution effects is approaching the limit. A brief glance at China in the near future will illustrate the critical situation. In the second decade of the new century the food requirements of the Chinese cities will exceed the food stocks within the country. In fact, the demands created by the urban areas will become so large that all the global reserves presently accumulated will be inadequate. To prevent a situation of catastrophic proportions the Chinese Government has just announced plans to buy land in Brazil upon which to produce additional food. As the outdated Western development patterns of waste, excessive consumerism and suburban sprawl are copied, the country will become the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions.

The acceptance and support for change is now critical! For the first time in modern history there is an understanding by global thinkers and city managers of the important role that agriculture and forestry can play in the creation of modern, dynamic, ecologically, sustainable cities. Pioneer ideas and initiatives have been successful across the world. In the future they will be incorporated within the existing management arrangements at the community and municipal levels throughout Asia to create innovative, ecological, design solutions. The indigenous socio-economic and cultural structures of an urban area are the foundation stones upon which to build a strategic superstructure of Urban Agriculture and Urban Forestry.

The foundation for a sustainable urban environment is a healthy natural ecosystem, our life support system. A system designed to support the needs of the global community and the global economy. The new century will lead rapidly to a merging of lifestyle, economics and the environment.

Picture the Asian jungle! One can think of the jungle with dense forests and wild animals or the concrete jungle. Now imagine an urban jungle with vast areas of agricultural plots, rooftop farms, parkland and street trees in every available space. Let the living urban landscape grow!

2.0 Content

2.1 Definitions

The paper will provide an insight into two principles of sustainable development, two principles that will be adopted within the Asian townscape in the 21st Century.

Urban Agriculture: any and all enterprises, commercial and non-commercial, related to the production, distribution, sale or other consumption of agricultural and horticultural produce or commodities in a metropolitan / major urban centre.

Urban Forests: specific planting of tree species either individually or in groups as part of an urban forest to play a crucial role in a city's life support ecosystem.

2.2 Methodology

Initially, the two inter-dependent concepts of urban agriculture and urban forests will be outlined. The phenomenon will be defined, the benefits listed and examples briefly described. Subsequently, the framework of an Asian City, which acts as a living ecosystem, will be illustrated. The paper will show how the concept of the living landscape will be integrated with the fundamental theories and practices of sustainability to produce living cities.

3.0 Urban Agriculture

3.1 Phenomenon

Farming plays a vital role in reclaiming, revitalizing and renewing urban environments. Whatever the socio-economic and ecological rationale for the existence of a city, agriculture is practiced in all Asian urban areas. The integration of the countryside within the town, through urban agriculture, produces wholesome low-priced produce, reuses waste and greens the environment. Throughout the continent cropland loss is one of the most pervasive and least noticed costs of industrialization. The growing of vegetables, rice, grain and fruit within the urban areas is imperative. A realization of the potential offered by urban agriculture has lead to the creation of many local and global organizations to direct and support the urban growth of foodstuffs. On rooftops, out in the backyard, under electrical pylons, on vacant lots. It is essential that food be grown as a major requirement of urban sustainability within the 21st Century.

3.2 Benefits

The small base of literature is in clear agreement that urban agriculture has many benefits across the environmental, social and economic arenas. A few of the beneficial results of urban agriculture, many of which are in-direct multiplier effects, are outlined below:

Existence of a commercial farming and gardening community creates a demand for inputs and outputs, i.e. industries supply the farm sector and businesses receive the output of the farm sector.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that neighbourhoods adjacent to community gardens experience revitalization and a reduction in undesirable activity.

Income to producers (market and in-kind) which in poorer countries increases the ability to withstand shocks from external or internal natural or economic sources.

Avoided costs of solid waste disposal and wastewater treatment through the reuse of composted yard waste, livestock manure and sewage etc.

Reduction in need for transportation of food from rural to urban areas reduces air pollution.

Transfers skills and knowledge of farming to the city environment and supports interaction between human, plant and animal species.

Increasing access to private outdoor green space at-home / or work in the urban environment.

3.3 Examples

The basic techniques have a long history, but the development of a support network for practice of urban agriculture is contemporary. A belief in the financial and cultural viability of farming within city limits is a common feature of non-governmental bodies, public sector departments and private sector farmers across the globe. The nurturing of all forms of urban agriculture is helping to both, prevent the destruction of the environment and create sustainable communities.

In 1992 the National Development Board of Mongolia initiated a programme to improve the level of nutrition within the country. The Agricultural Consultancy Exhibition, based in Ulan Bator, Mongolia offered outreach services to spread the principles of vegetable growing.

The Government of Switzerland has passed a law specifying that all new buildings must be designed to relocate the green space covered by the footprint to the roof.

The milk production waste from small dairy stables in the east of Mexico City is used to grow Napal in the south of the city. Napal is an edible plant native to Mexico.

In recent years, the people of Russia have experienced severe basic food shortages. The main function of the Rooftop Gardening Program in St. Petersburg, Russia was to conduct research and development of garden techniques.

The Khrob Khrua Diao Kan (United Family) in Bangkok, Thailand teaches that vegetables can be grown in gasoline containers or plastic buckets stacked on top of each other.

In Los Angeles, California, the Top Vegetable Family Farm located under the electricity pylons owned by Edison Utility is a thriving commercial success. In purity tests their produce was far superior to the vegetables available at the supermarkets.

4.0 Urban Forests

4.1 Phenomenon

Trees provide a cure to the symptoms of disease that is destroying our cities. They offer prevention before a cure is required. The planting of trees in an urban area, either individually or collectively, actively contributes to the development of sustainability in urban areas. A single tree planted in a garden, a row of trees along a street, a small group on waste-ground or a forest encroaching into neighbourhoods. During the past few years organizations within both the public and private sector have been founded to support and facilitate the planting of trees within the community. These bodies are pioneers. There is an intensity and necessity within their actions, which has not been present in the past. As actions in support of sustainability become part of our everyday life, the number of Asian City dwellers who simply plant a tree will dramatically increase. Trees, simultaneously, heal the environment and offer a sense of spiritual well-being for human beings.

4.2 Benefits

Trees in urban areas are beneficial. Beneficial in so many ways that it is imperative to list seven of them as outlined in the "Identified Benefits of Community Trees and Forests" by Dr. Kim Coder of the University of Georgia.

Community trees and forests generate many traditional products for the cash and barter marketplace that include lumber, pulpwood, fruits, composting materials and nursery plants.

35%F lower hard surface temperature under trees than in full summer sun.

Contact with nature in many communities may be limited to local trees and green areas (for noticing natural cycles, seasons, sounds, animals, plants, etc.). Trees are critical in this context.

One sugar maple along a roadway removes in one growing season 60mg of cadmium, 140mg of chromium, 820mg of nickel and 5200mg of lead from the environment.

Stressed individuals recuperate faster when viewing tree filled images.

7db-noise reduction per 100 feet of forest due to trees reflecting and absorbing sound energy.

Culture, socialization and co-adaptive history psychologically link tree and people.

4.3 Examples

Policies and programmes for urban forestry are being formulated around the world. Most of them are indigenous answers to indigenous questions. Although, if a concept is tried and successful, then the subsequent initiative can be copied and changed to suit the situation within a given country. The main trunk of an idea can be planted in a different location and its roots will take hold, adapting to both changes in climate and culture. From the formulation of policy at the national level to the implementation of programmes at an individual level, the planting of trees is joining countries together to support a sustainable planet.

The Tree Canada Foundation envisages the time when all inhabitants "appreciate and understand the economic and environmental value of trees and get personally involved in the planting and care of trees." The Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles, California is managing major projects which push green forest fingers from the mountains down into the suburban plains. In the State of Ohio, public sector financed "Tree Foresters" preach and demonstrate the effectiveness of unison between community and state. The City of Fort Lauderdale in Florida operates an Adopt-a Tree Programme whereby the public sector can form a partnership with homeowners to improve city streets. ACRT Environmental Services, based in Cuyhoga Falls, Ohio markets tree inventories. These can include some or all the trees in a specified urban area to provide a critical database. This can subsequently be utilized by a public or private organization to steer a new plan or building through the development process or to provide the framework upon which to plant a new town park, walkway or forest. The plea of the Tree People, a non-governmental tree planting think-tank based in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles is to "Plant a Tree".

5.0 Model of the Asian City as a Living Ecosystem

5.1 Asian Development Pattern

In the 21st Century the urban areas of the Continent of Asia will be characterized by rapid spatial and economic growth. In respect to the poorer nations there will be a mass movement of population from the wilderness regions and rural hinterland to the cities in every country. Continuing modernization of the primary industrial sector and destruction of the farming areas will cause such rural de-population. Urban areas will become the recipients of in-migrants attracted by the inherent economic opportunities and standard of living. The cities of the richer nations will have a more stable population with the large majority of the inhabitants having been born or spent most of their life in an urban environment. The socio-economic expectations of the existing "upwardly mobile" urban population will place intense pressure on the provision of available infrastructure and services. Within all the Cities of Asia there will be a very high demand for a continuous supply of food and low pollution levels. Aesthetics will play an increasingly important role within the minds of the urban dwellers. For all pan-continental urban environments, the embracing of sustainability will happen.

Since the dawn of the urban age farms and forests have been integrated within both types of Asian Cities. Firstly, in cities with a recent and on going rise in mass in-migration. Secondly, in cities with a long history of urbanism and the accompanying stability within the population. To support the livelihood for which we are all aiming, the remains of the urban agricultural and forestry systems left at present must be nurtured and supported. Otherwise, the Continent will enter the second decade of the next century with critical pollution and nutritional problems.

Outlined below is an indicative structure of policies and programmes that will support the development of Asian Cities as Living Ecosystems. The structure embodies many of the existing polices and programmes which have proven successful around the world. These existing initiatives will be changed to reflect the make-up of a particular city and incorporate new ideas which are grounded in the indigenous surroundings and socio-economic culture of the particular city. From the local level to the global level the different parts of the framework will operate inter-dependently to ensure that all the Asian nations, from Turkey to Japan and from Russia to Indonesia, will withstand any climatic and economic shocks.

5.2 Local Level

District Ecosystem Association, Partnership Body, involving individual, community, private and public sector bodies, with the aim of formulating and supporting small-scale agricultural and farming businesses and projects. An Association will maintain a small office to provide cyberspace access and offer help and advice. The Association will conduct research and development, provide financial services and acquire the required inputs at lower cost due to economies of scale. In the richer nations one important role of the Association will be to operate the "Adopt-A Scheme", whereby the inhabitants of a city can adopt a local farm, tree, park or shrub bed in their city. The inhabitants of one city will be able to adopt a farm or tree in another city or nation.

5.3 City Level

Living City Alliance Organization, incorporating members elected by the District Association and elected representatives from the rural hinterland directly affected by the City. The organization will lobby on behalf of members at the City, State and National level and provide vital data on the operation of Urban Agriculture and Urban Forestry across the city. The Alliance will provide independent advice and guidance on behalf of all the related non-governmental, public and private sectors in a City. Two main areas of their work will be attending inter-city conferences and organizing the "Open Living City" weeks whereby, the residents and non-residents of a city will be able to learn about planting techniques, join project teams and visit local Urban Agriculture or Urban Forestry sites.

5.4 National / International Level

National Urban Agriculture and Forestry Confederation, Formal body, incorporating elected representatives from every Living City Alliance in the country. The Confederation will promote the policies and programs within the country and offer financial and technical advice to other nations. A very important role will be to offer expert advice to the Urban Agriculture and Urban Forestry "Global Initiative" operated by the United Nations in association with directly elected members from the National Confederations. The Global Initiative will develop strategies on an international scale and operate a think-tank to direct and predict the future operation of urban farming and forestry.


6.1 All the great cities of the Continent are unique. They offer a multitude of approaches to urban survival. But, in common, all the urban inhabitants require and expect a stable food supply and a clean environment.

6.2 Are we to believe that Asian Cities in the 21st Century will be able to satisfy these needs based on a continuation of the current trends? It is plainly obvious that without a shift in consciousness and strong support for the creation of a global farming and forestry network, incorporating all rural and urban areas, that the future will offer the same urban chaos that is a feature of all Asian Cities today.

6.3 Let us consider a future in which the principles of sustainable development dictate and direct the urban growth. All the decision-makers must assess future developments within the built urban environment in respect to maximizing the benefits and minimizing the costs to the living ecological system.


[Many of the following documents can be found on this web site.]

  1. ACRT Environmental Services, "Street and Park Tree Inventories", Cuyahoga Falls, USA, 1997

  2. Anderton F and Thompson M, "Agriculture in a Megalopolis and Farming in the Heart of LA", Top Veg Farm, Los Angeles, USA, 1997

  3. Coder, Dr K D, "Identified Benefits of Community Trees and Forests", University of Georgia, Atlanta, USA, 1996

  4. Community Connections, "People, Plants and Homes", BC Housing Management Commission, Ministry of Housing, Vancouver, Canada, 1996

  5. FAO, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, "Urban Agriculture: A Global Initiative", New York, USA, 1997

  6. Frick F, "A Seaside Archology for Southern China", Hong Kong University, China, 1997

  7. Funches B, "The Role of Urban Agriculture in Reclaiming the Urban Environment", Sustainable Cites Conference, Los Angeles, USA, 1992

  8. Gillard S E, "Black Gold And The Power Of One", National Science Teacher's Association Conference, San Francisco, USA, 1996

  9. Lawrence J, "Urban Agriculture: The Potential of Rooftop Gardening", North York, Ontario, Canada, 1996

  10. Lipkis A, "Urban Forests: The Lifeblood of an Eco-City", Sustainable Cities Conference, Los Angeles, USA, 1992

  11. Maidar Ts, "Combating Hunger in Mongolia Using Urban Agriculture", Poverty Alleviation Study Centre, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 1995

  12. Nugent R A, "The Sustainability of Urban Agriculture : A Case Study in Hartford, Connecticut", Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, USA, 1997

  13. Nugent, Rachel A, "The Significance of Urban Agriculture", Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, USA, 1997

  14. Rooftop Garden Resource Group, "Rooftop Gardens", Toronto, Canada, 1996

  15. Smit Jac, "What would the World Be Like in the 21st Century if Cities Were Nutritionally Self-reliant?", The Urban Agriculture Network, Washington, USA, 1996

  16. Smit Jac and Ratta Annu, "Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs and Sustainable Cities", The Urban Agriculture Network, UNDP: Habitat II Series, New York, USA, 1996

  17. Tha Hla P, "Bangkok Gardens: How Does Your Garden Grow?", Bangkok Post Newspaper, Thailand, 1994

  18. Thompson R, "The Elements of Sustainability in Urban Forestry", CalPoly, Los Angeles, USA, 1994

  19. Tree Canada Foundation, "Our Vision", Toronto, Canada, 1996

  20. Underhill K, "Public Opinion of Urban Forestry in California", CalPoly, Los Angeles, USA, 1995

  21. Walter B, "Gardens in the Sky", Sustainable Cities Conference, Los Angeles, USA, 1992

  22. Woodsworth B and Levenston M, "1979: City Farmer's Vision of Urban Agriculture", International Science Education Symposium, Vancouver, Canada, 1979

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Revised November 21, 1997

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture