Science - August 26, 2009

Farming in the city

Can we produce food in our cities? Yes, say the pioneers in Rotterdam and Almere.

Jan-Willem van der Schans at his railroad tracks
No blueprint
Wageningen UR is going to work on urban agriculture. Exactly what Wageningen research will focus on will be discussed in a meeting with all stakeholders next month. The aim of the meeting is to develop Wageningen’s vision on urban agriculture. ‘It doesn’t have to be a blueprint, but it should make clear which subjects we should tackle as Wageningen UR’, says organizer Jan-Eelco Jansma (PPO). ‘For example, how can you integrate large-scale horticulture into the city on a small scale? And how can you close various cycles in urban agriculture?’
 
Can we produce food in our cities? Yes, say the pioneers. Urban agriculture helps make food production more sustainable and enables city dwellers to see where their food comes from. Wageningen is on board. Jan-Willem van der Schans is doing it between the rails in Rotterdam.  And Jan-Eelco Jansma out in the wide open polder near Almere.
 
Edible Rotterdam
At the moment the Marconi strip in Rotterdam is still just an abandoned station at the harbour. Weeds grow up through the rusty rails and graffiti cover the walls. There’s something appealing about a derelict site like this. But it will look a lot smarter once LEI researcher Jan-Willem van der Schans gets his hands on it. There’ll be vegetables growing between the rails, and the Marconi strip will be a garden. And not just for a few green-fingered hobby gardeners, but small-scale commercial farming on six and a half hectares of highly productive agricultural land in the middle of the city.
 
The Marconi strip city farm is the first big project that Van der Schans and his club, ‘Edible Rotterdam’, are getting off the ground with the town councils blessing. ‘There are plans to build houses here in twenty years time, but until then the land is disused.’ Van de Schans is working with BAM Vastgoed on plans to grow vegetables, keep animals and perhaps even to open a small restaurant. ‘It’s a sort of neighbourhood development. BAM is joining in because they want to be able to build houses here in twenty years. The farming will upgrade the neighbourhood, so the houses will be easier to sell. I’ll be presenting my plan in September. And we can get started next year.’
 
 Composting
 Van der Schans is a change management expert at the LEI, where he works on the transition from conventional to more sustainable farming. ‘First of all, urban agriculture brings the food chain back into the city.  That’s the main thing. And we also want to draw attention to what goes on behind the scenes in food production. Composting waste, keeping the nutrients in the city, closing the cycle. The divide between the consumer city and the producer countryside needs to be bridged.’
 
Van der Schans is not the only one who thinks like this in Wageningen UR. At PPO in Lelystad, Jan-Eelco Jansma and Andries Visser have been trying to get urban agriculture off the ground for several years. Not in Lelystad, but next door in Almere. And not on a small scale like in Rotterdam, but on a large scale. ‘Farming on temporary plots does well in Almere; we’re taking it a bit further.’ Almere city farm has been running successfully for ten years. The next step is to be taken at Oosterwold, an area of three thousand hectares north-east of Almere. If all goes well, farming here will provide Almere residents with some of their food.
 
Jansma put his ideas to the council four years ago. But things began to move when Adri Duivesteijn took charge of spatial planning at the council. ‘We were lucky. This project is his baby.’ Because Oosterwold isn’t alone. It’s part of Almere’s great leap forward. In June plans were presented for an Amsterdam-Almere conurbation. Large-scale plans for new housing in the Ijmeer attracted a lot of attention nationally, but Jansma was much more enthusiastic about the development to the east of Almere. In the new Oosterwold, urban agriculture will have a place of its own. ‘City and agriculture will be able to renew their bond’, the planning document puts it rather pompously. ‘Urban agriculture will break down the apparent tension between city and agriculture. It will make the city greener and its food production more sustainable.’ By reducing the transportation of food, for example.
 
Trend
Almere wants ten percent of its food to come from its own urban farming by 2030. That is expected to save at least five million food kilometres, plus the amount of energy used by 4250 households and the CO2 emissions absorbed by 500 hectares of forest. ‘It is unique in the Netherlands that a city is going to really go for urban agriculture’, says Jansma, almost with a cheer. ‘I expect and hope that it will set a trend.’ But for the time being it’s wait and see. Only in October will it become clear whether Almere gets the green light from the government.
 
 Oosterwold is based on Agromere, a virtual neighbourhood of 5,000 residents on 250 hectares of land. Jansma and his team calculated what urban agriculture could mean for a neighbourhood like this. Designs were even sketched out on paper. The results will be made public shortly. ‘But Oosterwold is not an Agromere’, warns Jansma. ‘Agromere is a model, not a blueprint. The calculations are a source of inspiration for a design.’ Of course, Van der Schans knows of his Leystad colleagues’ work. It’s not his approach. ‘Agromere is top-down. It came from the drawing board; our ideas came from round the kitchen table.’ But he would be the first to say that many roads lead to Rome. Each city can develop its own approach.
 
Window cleaner
 The Wageningen researchers do agree on the starting points, though. Urban agriculture is perfect for addressing urban problems. Integration in Rotterdam, for example. ‘I live in Delfshaven, a disadvantaged neighbourhood with a lot of immigrants’, says Van de Schans. ‘I planted grapevines in front of the house. After being mown down three times by the council gardeners, they are now doing well. To my amazement, our Turkish window cleaner started looking after them. And now they’re in front of four houses. This is the prototype for urban agriculture. If I go outside with my shears, in no time four Turks and Moroccans will be standing around me giving advice. You start growing grapes and you find yourself making totally new contacts.’
 
‘Solving urban problems is my strategy. Urban agriculture is not there to keep the farmers going. They're still doing rural sociology in Wageningen. For the couple of farmers we’ve got left in this country. It doesn’t make sense. Urban sociology, that’s what we need. This is where you can produce food, and you bridge cultural differences.’ Another problem is the lack of green in the city. ‘Research shows that the green areas around Rotterdam are very little visited by people from the city. Immigrants never leave the city. Many of them don’t have a car. There are lots of broken homes. Transport is difficult. To make life liveable, it’s far more important to have activities and green in the city than in the country.’
 
 ‘Urban agriculture won’t solve all the world’s problems’, says Jansma, keeping his expectations moderate. ‘Nor will it solve the sustainability issue. But it is an important development. What does the city need and what role could the farmer play? Food production is the basis, but the farmer also has to generate an income on the side from the peace, space and nature found on the farm. All this fits the demand from the city. Farmers always used to have to make way for the expanding city. With urban agriculture they don’t have to. Existing farms can stay where they are. The city is not an enemy but a partner. What we are doing actually, is giving agriculture a place again in society.’
 

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