STEPS: Organic Farming in Transitional Housing

STEPS: Organic Farming in Transitional Housing

Résumé en français

Les grandes villes africaines se développent en s'étendant au-delà de la périphérie urbaine existante. Les terres arables se transforment en nouveaux quartiers d'habitation et en infrastructures. Malgré la rapidité de l'étalement urbain, le manque de logements abordables pour les personnes défavorisées ou à faible revenu à la recherche d'un logement reste un phénomène courant. Ces problèmes sont des casse-tête communs à de nombreuses métropoles dans le monde, y compris les grandes villes africaines et Hong Kong.

Ce projet de logement de transition à Hong Kong, à savoir STEPS, est similaire au logement social en Afrique, aidant les occupants à faible revenu qui cherchent un logement permanent. La mise à disposition de terres agricoles dans les logements de transition permet d'améliorer l'autosuffisance des occupants, d'encourager la participation communautaire et de soutenir l'économie locale.

STEPS peut également s'appliquer au logement des réfugiés, dans lequel ce projet s'efforce de fournir une interaction humaine en tant que droit de l'homme pour aider les réfugiés à s'intégrer dans la société. En bref, STEPS explore la qualité de vie dans un logement temporaire social : Nous concevons une communauté, un tremplin, et pas seulement un logement.

Major African cities are expanding beyond the existing urban periphery. Arable lands are being turned into new housing and infrastructure. Despite rapid urban sprawl, a lack of affordable housing for the low-income population remains a common phenomenon. These problems are shared by many metropolises worldwide, including major African and Asian cities. Transitional housing projects in Hong Kong are similar to affordable housing in Sub Saharan Africa, aiming to improve the living standard of low-income earners while they are search for affordable permanent housing. STEPS, a transitional form of housing located in suburban Hong Kong, is one type featuring a sizable organic farm. The edible landscape in this project is planned as a tool to nourish a self-sustaining community in social, economic and environmental aspects. The STEPS model can also be applicable to refugee accommodation in combating hunger, and striving to provide humane interaction as a human right, helping residents climb the social ladder and integrate with the community. In short, through STEPS we explore quality of life in temporary affordable housing: we design a community, a stepping stone, and not merely housing.

Project Background

Transitional housing is needed in Hong Kong due to a backlog of affordable public housing, with waiting times of up to 6 years as at end of December 2021 (1). About 24% of land in Hong Kong is built-up (2), in which the real urban density is up to 26,500 people per square kilometre – one of the densest worldwide. Over 127,100 households are inadequately housed, of which more than 90,000 are currently living in substandard subdivided flats or “cage homes” (3).

In contrast to its concrete jungle title, about 75% of land in Hong Kong is countryside. However, only 2.86% of the land is arable as of 2018 (4). Farms in Hong Kong are conserved as a cultural lifestyle as urban sprawl continues. STEPS, is an eco-village concept, providing hobby farms and activities based on sustainability,  which promotes an environment-conscious lifestyle and appreciation of nature.

Master Layout Plan (source: Common Ground Design)

STEPS Transitional Housing in Tsat Sing Kong will be the first temporary affordable rental housing project in Hong Kong integrating hobby farms for food production. The hobby farms, or leisure farms, collectively occupying one-third of the 24,000sqm site, established to serve both the housing estate population of around 2,000 and the public. A non-governmental organisation (NGO), as the operator of the estate, will provide social services including organic farming guidance and community engagement activities such as farmers’ markets and festive events to encourage interactions between occupants and the public. Occupants can enrol in allotment farms and produce their own food to achieve self-sufficiency. Affordable housing, together with edible landscapes, contribute to positive social and community development by encouraging community participation, supporting the local economy and building resilience for food security. The 900-flat transitional housing is expected to be completed in 2023.

The Approach

‘What do occupants of transitional housing need’ was the central question when we obtained the brief for the project. We believe the essence of temporary affordable housing is not merely providing a residence but also a stepping stone for the occupants to become empowered and more engaged. Each household may only have limited resources, but through building a sustainable community, the eco-villagers can share, exchange and enjoy collaborative products through teamwork. Besides looking at housing units, we studied the types and dispositions of ancillary spaces within a co-living and sharing concept. This includes various community kitchens, common living rooms, up-cycling workshop, greenhouse, indoor sports hall cum childcare, amphitheater and event plaza. The NGO would teach occupants farming skills, and provide them with premises, tools and resources for organic farming and to make farm products. The occupants can enjoy the harvests and become partially self-sufficient. Community pavilions are conveniently located in-between the domestic blocks, so that occupants can easily share harvests with neighbours, make friends through participating in farming, and even sell products at farmers’ markets helping to establish a connection with the public.

Eco lifestyle
Building Community Resilience (source: Common Ground Design)

Resolving Site Accessibility: A 15-minute Living Circle

The practicality of this edible landscape is crucial in bringing temporary housing design to the next level, as deemed necessary from a broader urbanism aspect.

Our given site was fundamentally agricultural back in the 1990s. Land was then reclaimed for the construction of underground infrastructure, and heavy loads were therefore not possible. Moreover, the site is in a suburb where daily needs are not within walkable distance, while public transport is also not immediately available. As a city prioritising its subway system, housing projects far away from metro stations like this one are not favourable in Hong Kong.

Given these restrictions and demands, a 15-minute suburban lifestyle by bike is proposed and designed for living, supplying, caring, learning, and enjoying. This 15-minute living circle can provide an essential link between the housing estate and its neighbourhood. The low carbon bike transport offers convenience in obtaining necessities without relying on the subway, further localising demand and supply, and creating a new bike-oriented cultural lifestyle. This model has proven to lower transport time and increase identity in various metropolises, and better serves minorities who are usually left out of urban planning. To echo this cycling initiative, ample cycle parking and bike tracks are provided within the housing.

15-minute Living Circle (source: Common Ground Design)

Hobby Farms and Community Blocks

The site is inherently irregular and long, spanning approximately 500m. After considering visual and noise impacts on the immediate neighbourhood, the public hobby farm was designated to be near a public road in the centre of the site. The effect is two-fold: it is conveniently accessible to the public, while the residential blocks enjoy more privacy at the two ends of the site. Various villagers’ farms are to be located between the residential blocks, instead of a single large farm with hundreds of allotments. In this way the villagers’ farms provide both an edible landscape and social spaces where people can observe their farms from their own flat. As these farms are allotted to occupants, they are not open to the public hence minimising potential disturbance to the villagers. As such we designed the blocks to be 10m apart to allow adequate space for farming and circulation.

Community integration is important but how does one achieve this on a 500m long site? In our site planning process, we created a north-south boulevard across the whole site. This actively and passively encourages community interaction through visual and physical intersections, where knowledge and farm produce can be shared. As previously mentioned, community blocks provide various settings and equipment, including kitchens, classrooms and workshop machinery that match the operational needs associated with organic farming and sustainable living. For instance, lecturing, demonstrating, cooking, sharing, and producing farm furniture and products could happen in these shared spaces.

Building a Community through 200 Socialising Spaces

To strengthen a participatory lifestyle, additional social spaces within each residential block were generated. 4m-wide corridors on each residential floor serve as extensions to flats encouraging interactions, while stepped terraces at the end of the corridors further add informal event spaces. Moreover, each flat has a balcony from where villagers can observe their farms, also allowing inter-block visual communication.

As a result a total of 200 social spaces are created for community-building across the site with edible landscapes contributing to a large portion of these spaces. Aquatic farms and lily ponds are strategically planned at prominent locations as local landmarks, while complementary landscape elements are dispersed across the site to meet different needs, interests and preferences. These include pocket parks, nature play, water play, running tracks, cycling tracks, sports courts etc. Through these facilities, close-knit communities can be formed via associations.

Spatial design to facilitate interactions

Promoting Sustainable Living : Edible Landscape

While sustainable systems are integrated into the architecture, landscape, building services and structure of the project, the ultimate goal is to encourage the eco-villagers to adopt a sustainable lifestyle via the provision of edible landscapes. This includes the teaching of organic farming skills, with fully-equipped premises, tools and resources. Ecological understanding of the closed circle varies from clean soil, rotational farming, collection and purification of rainwater for irrigation, homemade natural fertilisers and kitchen waste-composting to vegetable by-products.

Another highlight is the practice of resources and waste management. A survey showed that people in Hong Kong are least concerned about responsible consumption and production among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (5). Promoting up-cycling, recycling and exchanges becomes another focal point when designing the eco-village providing a second life for materials and allowing occupants to explore creative options to improve their living or generate income. Locally sourced/recycled wood can be used to make planters, benches and storage units at up-cycling and craft workshops. Composting areas are set up to collect kitchen and garden wastes in order to close the loop. Second-hand exchange and craft markets can be organised to promote active re-use, recycling and sharing.

Public functions, such as demo farms, productive farms, greenhouse and farm-to-table community kitchens are located near the entrance for public convenience. The greenhouse educational facility showcases plants and resources for knowledge sharing purposes. Community kitchens are where villagers share their harvests, exchange recipes and produce farm products together. The market place and public hobby farms with high traffic are conveniently located near the main road, allowing villagers to interact with the public. Other more quiet activities, such as fruit groves, beehives and sensory gardens are located at the periphery of the site.

In terms of water management design, roofs of the residential blocks are pitched so as to catch rainwater for purification and later use as irrigation, rainfall being abundant at around 2,400mm per year, of which about 80% falls between May and September (6). The suggested manual irrigation rate ranges between 2.5 to 7 litres per square metre per day, so that for an 8,000sqm hobby farm the overall water consumption is huge.

Native flora and fauna include the edible fruit Rubus reflexus, Ker Gawl, common in Hong Kong, the selection of plant species and vegetation structures helping to enhance biodiversity. These, along with fruit groves, beehives and aquatic farming, help to create favourable natural habitats to maintain an ecological balance.


The outcome of enhancing community resilience by providing edible landscapes in transitional housing is yet unknown. However, the efforts of creating a sustainable and balanced living environment will be a worthy achievement in benefiting the community.

In Hong Kong, edible landscapes are rare, often being hobby rooftop farms, seen as a a tool for corporate social responsibility. The integration of edible landscapes into transitional housing on the other hand could bring a wider spectrum of social benefits involving ecological education and food self-sufficiency. Places with food insecurity, whether induced by poverty, political conflict, climate or unstable markets, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa, could apply this model, with adaptations, in social housing by introducing allotment farms next to dwellings. This idea is applicable to both new developments and existing dwellings. The idea needs to be raised early in the town planning stage for adequate open space to be assigned, where edible landscapes are used instead of lawn or ornamental planting. In existing social housing, it may be worthwhile to begin transformation at a family scale. With site-specific analysis on daylight, wind and corresponding suitable species, farming on this scale can be easily managed by nearby residents. Using feedback, further alterations could be made to add shared spaces or pavilions, where programs are developed to complement the edible landscape, helping to shape the community.


Note 1: Hong Kong Housing Authority and Housing Department. Number of Applications and Average Waiting Time for Public Rental Housing. (2022, February 20). Retrieved April 17, 2022, from

Note 2: LCQ1: Land Supply. (2013, October 16). Retrieved April 17, 2022, from,land%20area%20of%20Hong%20Kong.

Note 3: The Standard. (n.d.). More people stuck in subdivided flats. The Standard. Retrieved April 17, 2022, from

Note 4: Arable land (% of land area) - Hong Kong SAR, China. Data. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2022, from

Note 5: Admin. (n.d.). SDSN Hong Kong commissions youth survey on sdgs. SDSN. Retrieved April 17, 2022, from,Partner%20of%20'Youth%204.0'.&text=The%20survey%2C%20conducted%20by%20the,19%20and%20August%207%2C%202018.

Note 6: Climate of Hong Kong. Hong Kong Observatory (HKO). Climate. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2022, from