Architect Ng Sek San had been thinking about opportunities to repurpose urban wasteland for a while before he set eyes on the overgrown space in affluent Bangsar five years ago.
The land near Lorong Bukit Pantai housed electrical pylons and high voltage wires that are part of the system that supplies power to Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s main power company, Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) or National Power Berhad, owned the land, but it was overgrown and TNB had to pay gardeners to regularly maintain it.
Ng immediately recognised it could be used to grow organic food and provide residents with an enjoyable, bio-diverse environment to break up the area’s urban development.
It would eventually become a community garden known as Kebun-Kebun Bangsar. In Malay, a kebun is a small vegetable garden, generally a small plot kept by a homeowner to grow food.
But for Ng, who earned a reputation for sleek and sophisticated designs, such as the Sekeping series of designer accommodation, realising his vision was not going to come easy.
It took several meetings with TNB and City Hall before they were eventually convinced the idea had merit. Once Ng and his team got the green light, work began to transform the space.
But not all residents near the garden were receptive to Ng’s altruism. Long-time volunteer and part-time manager at Kebun-Kebun Bangsar, Lim Khim Joe, 31, says some residents complained to the media and City Hall about the initiative, citing concerns over security, land erosion and traffic.
“People are often resistant to change. To alleviate their worries, we took note of their complaints and put in place measures we saw fit,” she says.
To address security concerns, the 3.2-hectare community garden is entirely fenced and a closed-circuit television (CCTV) and camera system have been installed at the front gate. The garden shuts every day at 7 pm. Parking spaces were created to discourage visitors and volunteers from using on-street parking.
Planting the seeds for growth
The first work on the site took place in September 2017, when Lim says parts of the land were cleared by hand with the help of about 100 volunteers.
The community garden began to take shape with the help of the volunteers, who not only put in the hard work to transform the site but even contributed seeds of plants that they thought would be suitable.
Some of the weeds were kept, particularly along the slopes, because they act as a natural erosion mitigation agent.
To help cover setup costs, Kebun-Kebun Bangsar received a substantial grant from Think City, an organisation focused on urban regeneration through grassroots and community programmes. Lim didn’t disclose the sum but says it covered the funding needs for most of the first year.
The garden operates mostly through the efforts of volunteers, including 20 to 30 regulars, but maintenance costs, including the salaries of two full-time gardeners, are still about RM100,000 (SGD33,000) a year. This is covered mostly through grants and corporate donations.
Lim says Kebun-Kebun Bangsar attracts not only gardening enthusiasts but also people who want to reconnect with nature, socialise with like-minded people and “work” for their food.
Lim began taking an interest in permaculture after training as a landscape architect at Putra University Malaysia.
“I already had an interest in nature since [I was] young. But when I was studying for my degree, I was introduced to different topics such as permaculture and deep biology,” she says.
“After graduating, I slowly transitioned to designing edible gardens for homeowners while continue to work on a reforestation programme in Ampang.”
In 2018, she visited Kebun-Kebun Bangsar on a near-daily basis, and this year she was tasked with more administrative work.
Growing for the community
The garden produces varieties of edible gourds, herbs, common local vegetables, bananas, papayas and flowers. The volunteers are also planning to plant paddy in future.
Whenever they have excess produce, the volunteers set up a stall and the proceeds go back to managing the garden.
Part of the garden is reserved for animals, such as chickens, ducks, geese, a few turkeys – even a lone brown cow.
“Many of our volunteers tried giving the cow a name but it doesn’t seem to respond to any particular name. So, the effort to name it continues,” Lim laughs.
There is also a plot designated as a kids’ garden, which is used as a teaching tool by the Julia Gabriel Center, a child enrichment chain that began in Singapore in the 1980s and has a branch in Bangsar.
Kebun-Kebun Bangsar provides several bins for collecting kitchen waste that is then turned into compost.
More recently, Kebun-Kebun Bangsar has recently set up a vegetable plot for the Pit Stop Community Cafe on Jalan Tun H.S Lee in central Kuala Lumpur.
The cafe helps marginalised communities, such as the homeless or urban poor, through a pay-what-you-can dinner service. It also works with soup kitchens and food banks to rescue and redistribute food to the needy.
“This initiative with Pit Stop is new. As you can see, we just started putting in the planters,” says Lim. “The cafe’ team has given us a list of vegetables that they commonly use … We hope in a few months’ time, we will have a bountiful harvest for them.”
Like Ng, Lim says she hopes Kebun-Kebun Bangsar can help spread the spirit of growing food right across Kuala Lumpur.
“As people are more health-conscious, they are more aware of where their food comes from.
“My hope that our volunteers can start their own community gardens or if possible, have a small one at home. They can take the knowledge they gained from Kebun-Kebun Bangsar and share it with others.
“Once the initial set up is done, one will need about an hour a day to tend to their own garden at home. Our city is definitely in need of more greenery.”
Photos courtesy Kebun-Kebun Bangsar