PLACEMAKER WEEK ASEAN SERIES: Chris Parry on environment, cultivation and consumption

Chris Parry is the founder of Johor Green, a platform focusing on cultivating green urban lifestyles. He also designed and operates Medini Green Parks, a pair of urban parks in Johor that include an Edible Park (5 acres), and a Heritage Forest (7 acres of urban forest).

We talk with Chris about his work in the Medini Green Parks. Chris is one of the speakers in the ongoing Placemaker Week ASEAN. Tickets are still available, for those keen to attend.

Why does Medini Green Parks include 5 acres of edible landscape, and how does it affect the community around it?

I knew edible landscapes to be a successful idea having lived in New York City, and seeing markets, cafes and food-growing spaces embedded in parks and botanical gardens with regular programming. I also knew that the edible landscapes of my youth — neighbourhood fruit trees and small plantations in Malaysia — were fast disappearing.

Edible Park now allows visitors a blend of those two things; direct encounters with our past like heirloom fruit trees and pepper vines, as well as new ideas like edible flowers and organic vegetables farmed in the city. It allows community engagement at our markets, socials and workshops; is a resource for sustainable ingredients; and a platform for chefs and artisanal food makers.

How did you plan for the landscaping of the Heritage Forest?

I’m influenced by Piet Oudolf‘s work which combines native plant choices and a ‘wild’ planting style to evoke natural landscapes and a site’s ecological history. It’s different from the design of our parks and gardens which are usually manicured beds and lawns.

The site itself suggested some ideas, with a hillslope for wildflowers and streamside planting. I laid out areas like a perfume forest and a healing forest that showcase local flora and the ethnobotanic connections our various communities have with these plants.

The design strategy was also to create content for tours and workshops, which we could use to engage the community.

How does the environment have an impact on mental health?

There is a lot of emerging science about the effects of exposure to nature, from simply de-stressing to reduction of early onset dementia. There is an ‘attention restoration theory’ that asserts that spending time in nature provides measurable benefits to cognitive function.

Providing a nature-based escape can help an urbanite deal with negative impacts of city life, which are both social and environmental, and include increased anxiety, risk of psychosis, sleep impairment, and depression. Exercising and learning in outdoor environments also yield better outcomes.

In your essay, Eat Your Landscape, you discuss the issue of food sovereignty over food security in our local context. Are we really losing touch with our food sovereignty? Is this a question of class divide in food consumption?

The cultural influence and corporate reach of globalisation has fundamentally changed supply and demand in our food systems. Our urban environments now reflect this with fast food and convenience stores filled with unhealthy snacks replacing our traditional food supply of sundry stores, wet markets and warungs.

Our health outcomes are proof of the huge problem this has become. Malaysians are increasingly overweight. Malaysian children are both obese and malnourished at the same time. The top ten reasons we die include factors related to lifestyle and food. The global phenomenon is that lower income classes are primary targets for fast food consumption. Food corporations utilise advertising; addictive combinations of fat, sugar, and salt; and property ownership in dense city centres to secure their custom.

Here in Malaysia, the working middle class are similarly trapped in urban environments that don’t provide the healthier options that our heritage foods once did.

Are there issues raised in conversations regarding the climate crisis that placemakers in Southeast Asia should keep in mind?

Large corporations and malls drive the embedded values  and outcomes of high consumption, and the waste and energy costs it generates in our cities. Placemakers must consider providing opportunities for alternative narratives and behaviours to impact the climate crisis. Hugely important is refrigerant management, and in South East Asia this means air-conditioning.

Outdoor activities, walkable cities, and green spaces become important solutions, as do alternatives based on experiences to replace lifestyles based on product consumerism.

Chris Parry is one of the speakers at the inaugural Placemaker Week ASEAN, 4–8 Nov 2019.