Green Acres by Singapore’s Skyscrapers

Adam H. Graham New York Times 10 Jul 13;

In Singapore’s steamy, skyscraper-lined central business district, two American businessmen tackled a messy chili crab lunch at Lau Pa Sat hawker center, one of Singapore’s many street food vendor hubs, one afternoon last fall. Between brow wipes, they described the country as “the Switzerland of Asia.”

It’s true, Switzapore has attracted foreign investors with its solid currency and rigid cleanliness and lured tourists to its high-tech attractions like the 55-story Marina Bay Sands’ Sky Park and splashy Sentosa Island. But where Switzerland is agricultural, this tiny urbanized island imports 93 percent of its food. Though Singapore began as a kampong (farm settlement), the notion of farming in this densely populated place today seems downright implausible.

But Singapore’s kampong spirit is rising, most notably over the last two years in its Kranji neighborhood. It is infrequently visited by many tourists but is home to a farm resort and ever-evolving agritourism circuit where locavore thinking has taken hold and begun to redefine Singaporean cuisine and culture. And as the entire 274-square-mile country finds itself enveloped by increasingly thick smog created by wildfires from its Indonesian neighbor, Sumatra, it has begun to seriously ponder issues like food chain supply and to whet ideas about sustainable agriculture. An assortment of new urban farms, farmers’ markets and skyscraping vertical gardens have sprung up across the land, pleasing both residents and tourists in search of authenticity, a quality often seen as lacking in a city lamented by some as too sterile.

“Singapore is a tropical island and home to thousands of native edible plants,” said Ivy Singh, a farmer and restaurateur. “It’s time for us to take back our land and use it for something more Singaporean.”

The most recent addition is Sky Greens, a collection of 120 30-foot towers that opened in late 2012 using a method called “A-Go-Gro Vertical Farming,” which resembles a sort of vegetable-stuffed Ferris wheel, and is designed for leafy greens like spinach and bok choy. Sky Greens is Singapore’s first vertical farm, located in Kranji, 14 miles from Singapore’s central business district, with bus service available every 75 minutes.

The Kranji Heritage Trail, instituted in 2011, includes 34 independent farms and agriculture-related businesses. Seventeen of the trail stops are open to the public, including a poultry farm, a goat farm, frog-breeding aquaculture, a community vegetable garden, a cooking school, and the no-frills D’Kranji Farm Resort, with 19 eco-friendly villas and a spa. A day spent exploring Kranji’s farms is a great antidote to Singapore’s crush of street-food hawkers and urban attractions.

A highlight of the trail is Bollywood Veggies, a cooking school, restaurant and farm owned by Ms. Singh, an outspoken “farmpreneur” and self-proclaimed “gentle warrior.” Ms. Singh, standing in a grove of Cavendish bananas, one of over 20 different banana species on site, reminded visitors that mud-crabs (used in Singapore’s signature chili crab dish) are often imported from Sri Lanka and that Singapore’s famed street food isn’t exactly local. Her restaurant Poison Ivy is helmed by a Cordon Bleu graduate whose indigenous takes on Singaporean comfort food include banana curry, rojak flower chicken, and otah (mashed fish with coconut milk and spices) omelets.

Food hawkers have jumped on the farm bandwagon too. Derrick Ng of the Wang Yuan Fish Soup stalls in the upscale neighborhood of Tampines runs a series of urban gardening projects he calls Generation Green, selling local produce to health shops, restaurants and vendors. As Mr. Ng forges roads back to Singapore’s locavore cuisine, chefs and diners are discovering heirloom vegetables, fruits and long forsaken herbs. The “bespoke urban farm consultancy” at Singapore’s Edible Gardens helps individuals and institutions build gardens, like the vegetable plots they built at Pathlight, a school for autistic children. This might be commonplace in Copenhagen or Brooklyn, but enticing a generation of skyscraper-raised urbanites to get their hands dirty in soil is no easy feat.

But Singapore’s national park farm programs are the most remarkable. Hort Park introduced rooftop gardens and vertical vegetable gardens and offers free gardening workshops for visitors and tourists. Sengkang Riverside Park has a fruit tree trail with more than 300 varieties including litchi, mangosteen and durian. Gardens by The Bay, managed by Singapore’s National Parks Board, opened in 2011 on reclaimed land. Its 250 acres are home to a variety of themed vertical gardens and conservatories, including a series of 100-foot concrete “supertrees” that resemble oversize stone palms, each dripping with ferns, orchids and bromeliads and the backdrop to a nightly laser show. In typical Singapore style, the $782 million garden complex is utterly over the top, but within it is an understated Kampong House that emphasizes local vegetation grown in Singapore’s former kampong settlements. All but one of these historic settlements — Kampong Buangkok — was bulldozed during the country’s rapid development.

That remaining kampong is reached via the Park Connector Trails, a 60-mile network of paths linking the parks. A walk on it is an ideal opportunity to glimpse Singapore’s 2,000 native plants, 295 butterflies, 57 mammals and 370 bird species, a reminder of what came before the skyscrapers, light shows and chili crabs. Sadly, Buangkok, the original urban farm, is under constant threat of demolition. While it remains a symbol of Singapore’s past, it also harbors many lessons for its future.