FEATURE-Asia's high-rise gardeners unearth key to cooler cities

SINGAPORE May 9 (Reuters) - Koi carp, goldfish, and a collection of giant tropical ferns: The only thing missing from this model modern Asian garden is -- the garden.

Complete with white reflexology pebbles underfoot, the breezy oasis is situated high on the twelfth floor balcony of one of Singapore's ubiquitous government-built high-rises.

Having an apartment garden relieves the "monotony" of living in concrete, said creator Furn Li.

"We needed something natural, like plants and fish, to add some life. It's a far-fetched idea for us to own a landed property, but, anyway, we have a nice garden here".

The rapid post-sixties rise of the urban tower block saw Asia's low-level landed properties demolished for mass housing projects; and made backyards the domain of the minority who can afford detached homes.

It also created a unique urban gardening culture which is starting to flower as new voices popularise the idea.

Setting himself the goal of "bring gardening to the masses" Singaporean Wilson Wong, 28, started the Green Culture website in September 2004.

With no gardening shows on television and plant nursery staff often puzzled about how to advise apartment gardeners, the forum has attracted hundreds of active high-rise gardeners, keen to swap ideas and plant cuttings.

"I thought I was the only one -- the only odd nut, the only crazy person interested in growing vegetables" said Wong, whose balcony-less flat houses 80 African violets, South American bromeliads and pitcher plants.

"Now people get to know each other. They exchange plants, they meet, they make nursery trips together. It makes gardening so much less painful".

The same desire to fill the void of local knowledge drove Hong Kong's Arthur Van Langenberg to write Urban Gardening, his response to the wealth of "glossy books dominated by sweeping lawns and massed tropical plantings".

Like others he started small -- growing vegetables in wooden packing crates on verandahs as a teenager.

Now the 66-year-old doctor, who never dreamed of owning a tree, has avocado, papaya and lemon trees in metre-deep troughs. Hundreds more plants grow in pots and in the lawn that he planted on his first floor apartment's bare concrete yard 15 minutes from Hong Kong island's CBD.

"When people first looked at the photographs in the book they didn't believe I could grow all those plants. The Hong Kong Gardening Society came over to check!" he said.


Engineer Furn Li's four-year transformation of his concrete balcony won him Singapore's inaugural apartment gardener of the year award last year. Created for his wife, it reminds him of growing up surrounded by trees in Malaysia, he said.

While others lack the time and resources to build beautiful fountains and custom-fit fibreglass fish tanks, many share the desire to connect with pre-high-rise roots.

Eighty-two percent of Singapore's 4.5 million people live in cookie-cutter tower blocks built by the government Housing Development Board (HDB), with the rest either in high-rise private condominiums or private houses.

But memories of pre-high-rise life in the "kampung" -- the Malay word for village -- remain strong, explained Boon Kiat, whose lush seventh-floor balcony is alive with orchids, violets, ylang ylang, and a red flowering rose.

"People miss their kampung days when they had durian and banana trees; so they try to bring their childhood back into the apartment," the 36-year old engineer said.


In cramped cities, owning green space ties into wider issues of who can afford what, said Singaporean academic Lai Ah Eng, who studies community social relations.

"Where you live and in what type of dwelling is one of the main status markers in land-scarce and status-conscious Singapore... Though there are also those who don't care a hoot".

A green image has long been a hip selling point for property developers knocking up condominiums with names like Orchard View and Blossom Grove.

Now governments are touting greenery's many benefits.

As well as reducing air and noise pollution, plants lower ambient air temperatures through evapo-transpiration, and by blocking heat from the sun with their leaves.

Beijing has pledged to add 100,000 square metres of roof gardens every year from 2007-2010. And last month Singapore, the "garden city", unveiled its first "green" housing estate, with walls of cooling greenery hardwired into its architecture.

"From the scientific point of view, every plant produces a cooling effect," said Professor Nyuk Hien Wong, of the Department of Building at the National University of Singapore, who designs the green walls.

"The rule of thumb is one degree less is a five percent (energy) saving".

Against this backdrop, Asia's apartment gardeners are taking a small, but important, step in the right direction, he said.

"If you look at it as one individual unit doing that, it may not be that significant. But if everybody is doing it, there may be a very big impact".