Green In The Face: A Serious Laugh At Natural Capital & Urban Agriculture

Sea Cucumber Chek Jawa

Slumped over sea cucumber at Chek Jawa. Photo: Wong Wai Ying

Green In The Face: A Serious Laugh At Natural Capital & Urban Agriculture
by Kuan Chee Yung

When the logic of living with natural capital and/or urban agriculture is incorporated into the passive design strategies of either a master plan or a building in land scarce Singapore, one is apt to imagine a return to the primitive lifestyle, complete with woven attap-roofed homes populated not only by oneself but a menagerie of farm animals, and on every  day-lit surface sprouting a profusion of scrumptious vegetables, set against a backdrop of urban wilderness swarming with critters and creepy crawlies. This would have been a logical conclusion given the current knowledge and interest we have on both subjects.

But no sir-ree, we of the Red Dot have decided apply our city-slicker logic and be so bold as to declare that a City Biodiversity Index (proudly named Singapore Index, currently in its third version and possibly on its last legs too) can actually be defined and measured.  We have also unveiled incredible farming gizmos like the pricy rotating vertical hydroponic farming system that gives a new definition to farm rides.

Either way, the idiomatic elephant in this whole shebang is whether these high profile acts towards addressing natural capital and urban agriculture make any sense at all. Can residents and architects in Singapore contribute less fancy but more grounded ideas to ensure mother-nature is accorded her true value? Can our efforts towards food security stem from the individual’s stewardship to care and culture a living product, that eventually finds its way into sustaining our bodies?

This article does not directly point to answers but highlights a personal journey that mostly includes stumbling from project to project seeking answers, often times finding more questions, while being fascinated by the quirky users and clients who seek to live differently with nature and with food.


Brave is the architect who embraces edible softscapes and has the cheek to sprinkle a few genera of organisms that may bug or otherwise bite, into urban abodes. We are not referring to designing a farmhouse where pollen and soil make up for most of the pollutants nor are we talking about creating zoos or arks. We speak of introducing such ridiculous ideas into our everyday comfortable and secure homes and spaces such as suggesting we can pluck food at our leisure while assuring our clients that their fight or flight reflexes need not be unduly triggered. Brave, foolish or idealistic or all of the above, I have unfortunately stumbled upon such projects and situations that fuel my dreams of re-creating Eden complete with edible fruit and friendly fauna.


Entrance and Roof Garden. House@ Jalan Inggu. Photo: Kuan Chee Yung

I had parked outside the home of Dr HL Tan, off Sembawang Park. Seeing that the decorative roadside trees were already transformed into stout members of the mango and papaya family, I knew Doc had been busy expanding his food crops. I chuckled as I remembered the TOP inspection where the amazed officers were invited to have fresh free range eggs, retrieved from an indignant hen nesting behind a shrub, with cups of home brewed mint tea leaves plucked from a convenient flower bed. The garden was already mature in the 3 years we took to build the house within,  consisting of a simple rc  frame, recycled nail-punctured chengal wood and blocks of quarry stones. Construction was slow as we had to ensure no cement or other toxic construction waste flowed into the ponds already populated with fish. True to Singapore’s current ‘City in the Garden’ approach, this was truly a ‘House in a Garden’.

Foodfish pool. Photo: Kuan Chee Yung

Organic Vegetables at the Roof Garden. Photo: Kuan Chee Yung

The maid let me in as the shrill melodies of songbirds drowned all vehicular noises outside. Doc was pruning his tea shrub and greeted me with youthful enthusiasm. The result of a healthful lifestyle, the man had hardly changed in the 8 years since we last met while I was working for the architect KS Foong.

‘Hi Doc, are the five themed food-gardens and linked ponds surrounding the house still growing and flowing?’

‘Well yes Kuan, the ponds still collected rainwater and re-circulate them. They also hold 1000 delectable tropical rainforest food fish like Kelah and Jelawat that can feed me for more than a year.’

‘How about the food gardens? ’

‘I still have my herb garden for fresh Peranakan spices, fruit trees that don’t grow too tall for this old man, and my concrete fish tanks at the roof garden converted into snail-proof vegetable planters. I leave the mata-kuching (longan) fruits for the squirrels and birds now. They are my wild pets and beautiful to watch and listen to after a long day. Ah, there goes that little monitor lizard. Good creature for culling the weaker fish. The chickens are mostly gone. Attracts pythons that frighten neighbours.  Bad enough that some folks, while loving the morning chorus, complain incessantly about bird droppings. What are a few splats in exchange for some pure birdsong?’

Dr Tan enjoying his birdsong from the roof pavilion. Photo: Kuan Chee Yung

We wandered between to the lowest catchment pond and he raised a keep net to reveal some fine table sized Tilapia. The ponds have a shallow edge with a drop off into deeper levels. The edges held soil and were lined with kangkong, pandan leaves and lilies. Little guppies flit in the shallows. I spied a marbled goby waiting to snap up gullible guppy for breakfast.

‘Every drop of rainwater either flows into the ponds or into the soil. I’m careful not to allow puddles and the guppies control mosquito larvae perfectly.’  We stare at a compost/bio-char corner. ‘Nothing leaves the garden as waste. The pond water is fertile and all plant waste goes into making good soil. The vegetables that I harvest are very tasty and naturally sweet.’

‘So Dr Tan, why not hydroponics?’

‘Nothing can replace the rich soil Kuan, the hands need to work the soil. We want gardens but we loathe soil. You are right that growing food comes from a commitment to nurture plants and from the need to be in contact with mother earth. Urban agriculture needs a change in the Singapore Mental Landscape.’

I remembered the day I got this job designing his new bungalow. I had met Dr Tan at his other home at Changi to discuss his new gate design. I could not help mentioning to him the chillies and myriad varieties of ginger shrubs that pepper his garden looked pretty edible and with a twinkle in his eye, he exclaimed that he found his architect. Mental Landscape indeed! And with a greedy disposition to identify everything edible too, if I may add.

‘Were there any mistakes Dr Tan?’

‘Sure, I rotated the plants around to find the best soil and light for each species. Some fruit trees like the Bread Fruit grew too large and had to go as a food garden constantly evolves and has to be manageable. I also grow some plants for fragrance and colourful blooms. You cannot eat everything even though many floral and herbal species have insect repellent and medicinal value.’ He pointed at the Catnips, Citronella and spearmints. ‘ I’m fine with some bug holes in my vegetables since no insecticide is used. The medicinal plants make great tonics and heals cuts.’ I remembered one TOP officer commenting that the new bungalow with a mature garden did not look like a new erection. I had cheekily pointed to and identified an infamous Tongkat Ali plant at a corner and this reduced the officers into doubled-over helpless laughing figures. Yes, this project was fun and continues to teach.

The KTP Hospital Gardening Club Organic Vegetable Garden. Photo: Jerry Ong Chin-Po

KTPH produce. Photo: Jerry Ong Chin-Po

Driving off I turned into KTP Hospital. I’d wanted to view the communal vegetable and fruit garden at the roof. It would be fun therapy to have ‘wheelchair-weeding’ and ‘meals on banana leaves’ but being practical Singapore with a fear of complaints, this was not the case. The vegetable plots were neatly spaced, banana trees framed the plots and compost bins dotted the edge.

‘It is a great success’, said architect SK Lee. ‘ Gardening Club comcrop participants love growing and taking home fresh produce. Some of the organic produce is used in the hospital’s kitchen. Combined with the more decorative landscape, the image of the hospital is transformed from a taboo place for the sick to that of a homely healing resort. The roof slab is cast to fall and proper cell-drainage, waterproofing and root protection are provided to avoid leakage to the hospital areas below.’ said Lee.

Soil instead of hydroponics is used again and I wondered why. ‘It’s the touch factor to garner communal support and the fact that we are going organic with composting.’ Ah, the commitment and tactile matters again. Farming really gets under the skin pretty quickly. I stared at a man wielding a changkul or hoe with some consternation. Yup, a guillotine like that nearly did away with some of my toes in my youth and might chop up waterproofing pretty quickly. But the light garden soil gave way with little effort and that made digging light work.

‘Only 300mm of soil is provided in most areas and trees are planted in raised boxes. Drip irrigation is provided from the rainwater collection tank below. Separating this 7th storey roof garden from adjacent lower gardens makes pest control quite easy.’ assured Lee. Looks like not many are donating food to squirrels and other critters. But the bees take their nectar and do their part with the sweet corn. It is still production with a fair amount of sweat put into the growing. Maybe Doc could stop by sometime and add his Mental Landscape into this garden to make it blossom further and share a laugh.

My wife tolerates my many habits but this stops at my garden aesthetics. Having been brought up beside a forest my preference leans heavily towards ‘the Full Tarzan’ look. In my jungle-green hands, the usually delicate looking money plants tend to explode into broad leaved climbers with liana-like roots, threatening to hang unwary guests. Pots of lemon grass overflow into full safari density prompting my better half to claim that I harbour a Panthera Tigris within. But I do dream of a garden that blossoms into an eco-system where natural fauna to play out the Darwinian struggle for survival and self perfection.

Chek Jawa boardwalk. Photo: CPG Consultants

So armed with populating the island with mini biotopes in mind, I approached architect SK Lee about his views on Singapore’s natural biodiversity. ‘ Nature cannot be tamed because we know and control so little.’ Was his sagely reply. ‘ I remembered how we’d carefully float a pontoon over Chek Jawa’s delicate sea-grass at high tide to carefully push pylons into the soft seabed to construct the boardwalk. The piles ended up quite slanted but the engineers had the flexibility to know how to slump with the mud, so to speak. Every step of the construction was fine but for one fell sweep of Mother Nature where fresh water from the Johore River floods mid construction inundated the weeds and killed 90% of the marine life. Mother Nature’s self distruction button was painful to watch but it is what it is’. So investing on natural capital ie. Starfish and nudibranchs in this case was a bummer. ‘ But amazingly, the sea-grass, though not as lush as before, has made a comeback’. I saw the pictures. The grass was indeed dense in some areas and bare sandy patches were often decorated with a friendly starfish or coloured with soft coral. ‘Beats those fake beaches I suppose. Provided these cutesies don’t sting.’

David Quammen in his book ‘Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind’ describes how since ancient times, majestic large predators like tigers have kept the asian wilderness frightening and how their image dominated our imagination. But in a 150 years big predators may just exist within barriers and their gradual disappearance is changing the way we perceive our place in the food chain, to the point where we are in the danger of forgetting that we belong to an eco-system. So tigers in zoos are bad news, almost as tragic as the imaginary feline in my garden. This probably applies to environments without mini stingers like mosquitoes and the odd stinging coral too. Parents used to say,’ See, no touch. They bite or sting’ but nowadays, it is, ‘ If it stings I’ll sue.’ Frankly, it’ll be a sad day when all creatures considered minutely harmful be caged or destroyed and the only creatures worthy to live with us as new members of Singapore’s new the City Biodiversity Index (proudly named Singapore Index), are some marine worms. Have we of the City in The Garden gone so soft and worse, become so ignorant that we need to nuke a mozzie?

Returning from Yellowstone and Colorado, I was pleased to see that Natural Capital is very much alive even in recession-stricken USA. Wild turkeys roam and command the hedges, bear cubs climbed trees with no more fear of being shot at by anything but long lens SLRs, variegated skinned brook trout with neon spots sip mayflies and midges from clear streams and can be caught to a limit of 5 fish for a delicious fish-fry. Can we learn from such enlightened folk, see value in wild fauna and educate our children?

The answer came from my kids this morning with a shout that jerked me out of my reverie. They had found a creature from my past and from part of Singapore’s 60’s stories. My son was glowing with pride as he stretched out his cupped hands revealing a species of Thiania bhamoensis or fighting spider caught from my unruly garden. It’s dark obsidian body was striped luminous blue, reflecting its Chinese name ’pau-fu’ or panther-tiger.  I had indeed harbored a tiger!♦

Green in the Face was first published in Singapore Architect Issue #269, August 2012.

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