Decoding sustainability

Imagine living in a fully functioning treehouse with solar-powered lights and running water. Hungry? Cook lunch from fresh veggies grown in your backyard. In the urban jungle that is Singapore, this might be a greenies' pipe dream, but things are set to change as more people take steps towards a more sustainable way of living.

Sustainability, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency," creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony and permits fulfilling the social and economic requirements of present and future generations”. A word confined to the green community a decade ago, sustainability has gained traction in mainstream agendas following global concern over global warming and the depletion of finite resources. Though disputed, scientists quoted in the Millennium Ecosystem assessment say that human consumption has exceeded the earth’s current “carrying capacity”, that is, the earth’s ability to support human consumption at today’s growing rate.

"We need a deep lifestyle change,” said architect Tay Kheng Soon, a champion of eco-friendly dwellings. “Our current urban lifestyles are based on high production and high consumption, when what we need is to steer it towards the direction of low consumption and high satisfaction.”


Over at Tay’s Kampung Temasek: The School of Doing, a modern kampong allows youths to get a glimpse of a greener lifestyle that their ancestors lived. In this X-hectare space situated amongst palm oil plantations in Johor Bahru, children play with chickens and ducks while learning to apply Science and Maths in nature’s classroom. The kampung, which has a main hall made entirely out of bamboo, allows children to experience structures other than concrete skyscrapers. Here, volunteers also conduct activities such as bottle gardening courses that teaches them how to grow plants with recycled bottles.

Started by Tay and co-founder Jack Sim in 2008, this “open-source kampong” is a space for those with sustainability project ideas to build prototypes, tinker, or even brainstorm in the arms of Mother Nature.

One such idea is Project Perch, a modern treehouse constructed by architectural students from the National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment. A world away from computer-modelling in staid classrooms, students collaborate with village carpenters, who coach them in efficient carpentry techniques. They are put up in huts made of recycled wood and powered by solar energy.

“It is satisfying working with your hands, and not for a grade, but to see your design come to life,” architecture student Rachel Tan said. “We rarely get to do that in class.”


While projects like Kampung Temasek focus on design, other social enterprises like The Living! Project is championing the sustainability cause in a different way.

Founded by Allan Lim, Kenny Eng and Sun Yu Li, the trio started the Living! Project to inspire greener lifestyles and create “positive behavioural change” amongst volunteers.

One of its major initiatives was a recyclable light art exhibition that started in Singapore and travelled to France. Over the course of X weeks, autistic kids from Lyon were taught how to carve artwork out of old milk bottles and recycled plastic. These pieces culminated into a huge wishing tree that was displayed at an ex-torture campsite in Lyon.

“Their parents were really empowered by the experience as some of them never thought their children would be capable of creating,” Lim said. “They see their children in a new light.”

Besides art, the Living! Project is also involved in aquaponics, a relatively energy-efficient way of growing plants. Named Comcrop, TLP’s aquaponics project is helmed by a group of young Singapore Polytechnic students who diligently tend to their crops daily at Somerset’s Youth Park. Unlike pesticide-heavy and energy consumptive industrial farming methods, Comcrop's energy-efficient system makes use of nitrate-rich water from fish tanks to nurture vegetables for consumption. Eggshells and banana peel supply additional nutrients that fish water alone cannot provide.

“We want to challenge people to see waste in a different manner, to be creative and regenerate new life from it,” said Jeremy Chua, who oversees the project. In an age of food scares from horse meat in burger patties, to battery-farmed chickens pumped with growth hormones, TLP aims to help restore the relationship between commercialised food and nature. It hopes to do so by working with restaurants –specifically getting staff to tend their own crops and serve the fresh produce they cultivate.

“There is something in the process of nurturing a plant that makes you a better person, and staff may take pride in their food knowing they had a hand in growing it,” Chua added.


Another initiative that encourages small-scale sustainable farming is the Edible Garden City project. Started by advertiser-turned-farmer Bjorn Low, this six-month old enteprise creates gardens of edible crops for restaurants and households. Low's goal is minimal-pesticide gardens that brighten up the aesthetic environment, alongside producing fresh food for consumption. Like most urban farmers, the avid gardener is concerned about food security in Singapore, a nation which imports up to 97 percent of its food.

“There is a lot of unused space like rooftops,” Low said. “We can’t grow everything that we need, but at least in times of crisis, people can grow a little something for themselves.”

Outside the Artichokes café at Sculpture Square, Low has designed an edible garden growing an array of produce--- mint, thyme, tomatoes, peppers, chillis--wonderfully sowed in recycled boxes filled with soil.

He hopes that more in Singapore would pick up simple farming, starting with easy-to-grow crops such as mint or baby bak-choi, which thrive well even along the corridors of their HDB flats. “People need to grow their own food so that they learn to appreciate the process. Hopefully they will think twice before they waste any food on their plates,” Low said.

“It may not be possible to be 100 percent green in every corner of our lives,” he added, “But small projects can sow a seed and help people better envision how else they can live besides their current lifestyles.”