#BetterCities Talks Food


Here at #BetterCities, we’re gearing up for the next talk series, slated to happen early June. This time, we’ll be having a conversation with a few people at the forefront of the urban gardening movement in Kuala Lumpur. Urban gardening has garnered much attention recently as the rapid urbanisation of cities worldwide and increasing degradation of agricultural land place food sustainability at the forefront of urban concerns. The benefits of urban gardening, or its larger scale incarnation, urban farming, is evident even to the most casual of observers. Not only are we reducing our carbon food print by reducing the distance food has to travel from the farm to table, keeping food dollars in the community could revitalise the local economy and create a meaningful source of employment for urban dwellers.

Additionally, we cannot talk about the future of food in our city without also looking at the food culture that exists in KL. As our recent trek to the markets of Pudu and Chow Kit reveal, Malaysians can proudly wear their foodie badge as the variety of the food that gets to our dining table is truly astounding. The sprawling wet markets of our city peddle traditional foods not found elsewhere and our thriving food culture is something to be proud of. On our visit, we encountered foods from deep in the jungles of Pahang that we could not identify, medicinal plants that some of us would not know existed much less how to eat, as well as vegetables and herbs for traditional dishes that Malaysians have enjoyed for generations.

Navigating the maze of stalls and shops in these markets is like a quick lesson on the history and geography of our country, and touches upon what it means to be a KLite. At the wet market, young and old converge to partake in the daily ritual of feeding a city of 1.5 million people. Rising above the jostling crowd is a cacophony of voices, a healthy mix of the familiar mix of dialects and languages spoken in this city. Here, you’ll find stalls selling foods that cater to our multicultural tastes and see migrant workers hard at work, stripping carcass after carcass of chicken or fish all for our convenience. Food is a central part to the life of a city and the stories our food tell us can help us understand ourselves and also the values that we share.

As Malaysians, we love our nasi lemak as much as we love our apples and there is undoubtedly a dependence on imported foods. While this is not something we should reject as it adds to the diversity of food available in our city, what we choose to buy does have consequences that reach far beyond the dinner plate. For example, when shopping in a supermarket, the only option for bananas might be an imported banana farmed far away and bred for its size and not its taste. In choosing what we eat and where we shop, we are therefore also choosing our future – whether it is one that supports local farmers or whether it is one increasingly dependent on foreign imports.

Perhaps the rhetoric surrounding urban gardening is a clue as to how far we have deviated from food sustainability within city or national limits. We live in a time when we speak of growing food as being a subversive activity and when gardeners become guerrillas. These are clues that it is time for us to reconnect with where our food comes from. Here at #BetterCities we hope to encourage people in KL to start thinking about their food and what they can do to make KL more food independent whether it is exercising their rights as a consumer or picking up a shovel and start digging in their backyards. To all foodies and future urban farmers and anyone else interested in this topic, keep your eyes peeled on our blog for updates on our next Talk Series where we will be addressing this very topic.

Atria Public Land Redevelopment Report

Last December, #BetterCities was approached by Teh Chi-Chang, the Local Councillor of Zon 5 PJ to conduct a research and produce a report of the redevelopment of two plots of public land in Damansara Jaya.

The two public lands each currently stand as a hawker centre and parking area which sandwich the re-development of Atria Shopping Centre, a private retail and office centre.

(Hawker centre and parking in Damansara Jaya  with Atria Shopping Centre in the background)

The developers of Atria agreed to redevelop the two public lands. In their proposal, they suggested to make one of the lands a green open piazza while the other would have a multipurpose building with parking, a hawker centre and a community centre.

(The Atria Shopping Centre proposal with the public land used as a green piazza)

The report prepared by #BetterCities is an in-depth analysis of this proposal with recommendations which will be used as a supporting document for the Local Councillor to negotiate changes in the proposal that would benefit the local community. The Atria Public Land Redevelopment outlines several case study examples of incorporable well designed community centres and hawker centres to add value to the proposed multipurpose building.

Lia Tostes and Bran Che led the research of this report with the support of Sze Ying Goh and Yasmin Lane. In preparing for the report, Lia and Bryan did some investigation of existing multipurpose buildings in Petaling Jaya to see the condition of the buildings and how different communities use these buildings.

(Lia and Bryan inspecting a multipurpose building in Petaling Jaya)

The #BetterCities team also engaged with the local community of Damansara Jaya through the Damansara Jaya Residents Association (DJROA). Upon the completion of the report, the team along with the Local Councillor sat with members of DJROA to share the findings from the Atria Redevelopment Report and received feedback from the residents themselves.

(Lia and Bryan at a DJROA meeting with residents of Damansara Jaya)

The report is split into two. Part one of the report is an in depth analysis and critique of the proposal supported by case study reviews of community centers.

Part I : http://issuu.com/bettercities/docs/aplr_-_report_part_i

Part two of the report is a set of recommendations with regards to the use of space, design and operation of the building as well as recommended practices for MBPJ to explore in future public land developments.

Part II : http://issuu.com/bettercities/docs/aplr_-_report_part_ii

KL’s Urban Gardeners

(photo credit : Ling Low)

If you did not grow up with a vegetable patch in your house or never handled a shovel, the idea of gardening can be overwhelming. Plus, so many people in the city live in apartments. Shouldn’t we accept our concrete jungle as the compromise for urban life?

According to a movement of urban gardeners, the answer is no. Community projects that focus on increasing awareness for gardening and edible gardens are sprouting in the Klang Valley. Transforming tiny spaces into patches of green may be a challenge, but you’re in good company.

Whether you’re a parent looking to introduce your kids to a fun, outdoor activity or an experienced gardener looking for more ideas, here are four groups to check out.

The Free Tree Society

The Free Tree Society is run by volunteers and based in a corner of residential Bangsar. Their mission is simple: give away plants to the public for free. The group take seeds, sprout them and look after the seedlings. They then give away a few hundred seedlings to the public on selected days. There are weekly gardening sessions.

There are two ways you can be involved. First, you can sign up as a volunteer to collect seeds for conservation. There are basic guidelines on what to do and you’ll pick up a few interesting tips along the way, like how to ensure that seeds are well ventilated. Or how to identify good quality seed from those that are unsound or empty. Secondly, you can offer your garden as host nurseries to grow the seedlings.

Finally, if you just want to pick up some free plants and tips, that’s fine too. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for giveaway days.


Eats, Shoots & Roots

(photo credit : Eat, Shoots & Roots)

The founders of this social enterprise are three individuals with varied backgrounds, from fine arts to community development and permaculture. Together, they encourage urbanites to grow their own food. Their seed boxes (pictured) make it really easy to get started. Although these have sold out, they will be making more soon.

It may be one thing to grow a frangipani bush in front of the house, but growing organic long beans and eggplants require far more technical know-how. If you’ve got a more ambitious project in mind, Eats, Shoots & Roots can design and plan the garden and also facilitate the process of building the garden beds. They also run a range of classes: past workshops have included building a cob oven, and a future one in March will be held on composting.


TTDI Edible Project

(photo credit : Javs Tiz)

The TTDI Edible Project is guerilla gardening at its best. A few like-minded individuals, led by resident Miriam Loh and friends, took ownership of a vacant plot next to the community hall in TTDI, defied skeptics who said it was barren land and turned it into an edible garden.

They started out planting whatever they could get their hands on and now there are now rows of cucumber, passion fruit and chives, among other produce.

The group is very particular about not buying things for gardening purposes and uses creative and natural methods to sustain the garden. This includes hunting for bamboo to be used as A-frames to plant beans and sourcing horse manure as fertilizer.

This garden is for everyone, particularly TTDI residents and friends. If you want to try your hand at growing your own food and can afford the time and commitment, you can adopt a small plot and cultivate it. Or, if you just want to spend a few hours in a vegetable patch, the group sometimes organizes weekend volunteer activities where you can participate in simple tasks like labelling the plants.

TTDI Edible Project Facebook Group.

Cultivate Central

(photo credit: Cultivate Central)

Urban gardeners, just like any small interest group, rely heavily on inspiration from others. Cultivate Central is an online platform to help share tips and support on gardening.

Cultive Central was founded by Nova Nelson to inspire other people to take interest in the story of their food and grow food in the city. The website documents ideas, stories, challenges and progress of other urban gardeners who started cultivating their own edible gardens in various parts of Malaysia such as Kuala Selangor (KebunKakiBukit), Serdang (Kebun GangChaos) and Penang (Think Green).

The site also hosts lively discussions on common gardening problems and readers swaps tips on a range of issue from composting to how to produce natural pest repellents.

One of the best tips comes from an interview with Ili Farhana of Kebun GangChaos. “You can read all the tips and theory and have the best books about gardening, but if you don’t get your hands dirty and be on the ground with your plants, you won’t have a garden.”


This article originally appeared on on Poskod.My here.

will be hosting a talk on urban gardening, “From Farm to Fork”, on 31 May 2014 (2.30pm). Stay updated on their our Facebook page. 


From Strangers to Neighbours

What makes a neighbourhood more than just a group of people who share a postcode? Over the years, a lot of our neighbourhoods seem to have lost a sense of community, with interpersonal interactions becoming rare. With more people driving from point A to point B, there are fewer chances of daily serendipitous meetings with those around you.

Of course there are many reasons why neighbours don’t really know each other. That’s why Teh Chi-Chang, the Councillor for Zone 5 PJ (which covers SS21 and SS22) decided to organise a neighbourhood party for the residents of Damansara Jaya. His intention was simple, to “give residents an opportunity and reason to come out and mingle with each other and build a community spirit.”

Instead of having the party in the street, the party was held in a park that was conveniently located in the centre of the residential area facing Jalan SS22/16 and 22/14. Working alongside #BetterCities (who organised the party’s logistics and activities), the party was held just after Chinese New Year on Saturday 15 February. We hoped it would encourage a wider spectrum of residents to participate and connect with one another.

Inspired by the work of public space artist ‘Eltono’, Lia Tostes from #BetterCities constructed a large interactive mural installation called the “Automatic Mural”. One of the ways we got residents to break the ice was by asking them to add to the mural by randomly selecting the shape, colour and position of a predetermined template. The end result was a display of each of the participants own interpretation of the template.

There were a few gardening activities on the day as well by Alex Lee (#BetterIpoh Lead) and Shao Lynn (Eats, Shoots and Roots).  Alex carried out a seed bomb making workshop and Shao Lynn, a Damansara Jaya resident herself, came ready with coriander and spinach seeds to share the basics of urban gardening to everyone, including children (who enjoyed getting their hands dirty).

Hui Ping Foo, who championed the Back Lane Project last year and was winner of a Genovasi grant to develop this idea, has had a fair share in organising community parties. She brought in a team of delightful volunteers from the Architecture department of the University of Tunku Abdul Rahman and friends who are also passionate about neighbourhood projects.

We also wanted to find out how residents felt about the place they lived in and what they felt was lacking, so based on an idea from Neighborland.com, we used some chalk and stencils to conduct a neighbourhood survey by getting residents to fill in what they felt they wanted to see in Damansara Jaya.

“I want a (blank) in D.J.” was chalk-sprayed on the pavements of the park and we received a mix of responses at the end of the day. Some of the responses included: I want a “Disneyland” in DJ, I want “unity”, I want “better security”. As there were quite a number of older citizens, a few of the responses were for a pondok or small hut for people to sit and rest in between their walks, and there was also a request for a football field.

Festivities took place just after 5pm when the scorching weather started to cool down and we realised that food really is the best social conductor. The potluck table was filled by the time the party started. There was fresh cold watermelon juice, cakes, fruits, spaghetti and even some roasted chicken. To our surprise an uncle brought along a big bag of fresh coconuts and a parang to serve us all fresh coconut juice!

At one point it started to drizzle, but instead of fleeing a group of aunties immediately huddled over the food with their umbrellas. It was definitely quite a scene to see people mingling and eating in the rain. The majority of people at the party lived either facing the park directly or a few lanes away. The neighbourhood community policemen joined in too, one off-duty officer even brought his wife and four year old son.

A few people had found out about the party online and came from neighbouring residences in Petaling Jaya. Sharon Chong who lives in Taman Mayang Jaya, close to the Kelana Jaya LRT, came with a bowl of spaghetti and said that it was quite rare to hear about such an event, “I was really interested to see what it was about and what kind of people were involved in such an initiative.” Besides being a way for neighbours to get to know one another, it was a good way to meet new people as well.

“Occasions like these are a good excuse to get people out of their houses on a weekend to sit and talk to the people that live closest to them.”

Residents said that most of them recognised each other’s faces but until that point had no idea what most of their names were. It was nice to see people introducing themselves to one another making small talk and having chats about community safety issues in a relaxed environment.

An elderly lady known as ‘C’ shared that she often sees her neighbour coming home from work too tired to make conversation, the most she gets is a brief hello. “It’s understandable amongst the youngsters, you can imagine how tired they are after a long day, that’s why occasions like these are a good excuse to get people out of their houses on a weekend to sit and talk to the people that live closest to them.”

We definitely had a great time organising the party and meeting so many different kinds of people. We would highly recommend anyone to do this in their own neighbourhood. The first step would definitely be to get in touch with your local Councillor. If they can come on board it will be a big help.

But what you also need is a group of people, the more the merrier, to help organise the party and decide on a date. Be sure to send out invitations (we invited people with flyers) and notify the security officials if need be. For more ideas and party tips check out www.streetparty.org.uk and www.thebiglunch.com. Don’t forget to send us an invite!

This article originally appeared on Poskod.My here.

Yasmin Lane is currently the researcher at #BetterCities and is enjoying the process of deconstructing how she views the city to incorporate a human touch.