Students give ‘green’ prison back to community

What’s growing on these students’ urban farm? A community

Can urban farming be economically viable? With their community-driven proposal, the winners of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge believe that it can. The international competition asked students to transform a former prison into an urban farm.

As more people move to cities, urban farming is not just a trendy buzzword – it could be vital to securing the food supply for millions of people. With the Urban Greenhouse Challenge, Wageningen University in the Netherlands asked students to create a sustainable city greenhouse in a former Amsterdam prison, the Bijlmerbajes. Twenty-three teams, including students from thirty countries, signed up. On Tuesday, August 28, 2018, fourteen teams competed in the finals.

And the winner is...

The jury chose the concept presented by GreenWURks, a diverse team from Wageningen featuring students from the Netherlands, the USA, China, Italy and Germany.

In GreenWURks’ community-driven vision, a space that once excluded people from society will transform into a social hub. They identify new social and agricultural functions for what they call the “Open Bajes.” Local residents will learn to grow their own vegetables sustainably, using a moss substrate to cultivate the plants. In addition, the former prison will become an open meeting place, facilitated with an app developed to connect local residents. GreenWURks envisages a space for all sorts of social activities, including yoga classes, a public kitchen, restaurant and office-space rental.

The winning team at the challenge finale in Wageningen. Photo: Guy Ackermans

“Local residents are the starting point”

“We think that you should integrate an urban greenhouse as far as possible into the neighborhood,” says team member Loes Mellink, who studies Urban Environmental Management at Wageningen. “This is why it’s important to involve local residents. We interviewed 100 local residents to hear about their wishes and ideas. They were our starting point.”

According to the jury, GreenWURks had the best financial planning of all the teams. The team performed coherent, in-depth analyses of the various activities their greenhouse would host. What’s more, their plan calls for community members to become shareholders in the project.

Says Mellink: “In this way, we ensure that residents feel really involved. Research shows that you don’t need professionals to run an urban greenhouse. With some professional support, local residents can do it themselves.”

“An urban greenhouse should be integrated into the neighborhood”

- Loes Mellink, GreenWURks team member

The profitability puzzle

Jury member Michiel Klompenhouwer, head of F&A Sector Management & Innovation at Rabobank, says many other teams lacked the financial planning GreenWURks provided. “We know it’s difficult to make urban agriculture profitable,” he says, “so you need to make a clear business case, in which you show how the joint activities can lead to profitable exploitation.”

GreenWURKs winning idea. Unfortunately, this is not the future of the Bijlmerbajes. The building already has a different designation. Photo: Guy Ackermans

Unfortunately, GreenWURks’ winning idea won’t be put into practice – the Bijlmerbajes has already been slated for a different purpose. Nevertheless, Klompenhouwer believes that the Urban Greenhouse Challenge is useful. “We can learn a lot from this,” he explains. “An important lesson is that urban agriculture in the Netherlands will mainly need to have a social function. It’s a great way to bring people together and thereby stimulate ‘green’ business.”

He believes that urban agriculture has a great future and thinks that it’s important for the Netherlands to develop further as an international knowledge center in the field.

“Urban agriculture will need to have a social function”

- Michiel Klompenhouwer, Rabobank

Global lessons for fast-growing cities

Another takeaway is that urban greenhouses are best developed in new construction or redevelopment areas. Klompenhouwer also notes that urban farming with the goal of providing real food production is particularly promising in fast-growing cities in the Middle East and China. Cities there can learn a lot from a challenge like Wageningen’s.

In a conglomeration such as Mexico City, with 20 million inhabitants, urban agriculture is inevitable, Klompenhouwer believes. “In the West, with its expensive land and good infrastructure, growing crops in the surrounding countryside, and even importing food, quickly becomes cheaper.” He continues: “But in less developed areas it is very different. Transport is often a problem in these cases, so it’s hard for food to reach the city.”

What’s next for GreenWURks?

Loes Mellink and her team hope that they will be able to further develop their plan using the €10,000 prize. They could try to sell their ideas to project developers, or form a real company themselves.

In addition to the first prize, €1,000 each went to GreenSpark’s plan to make the Bijlmerbajes a hotspot of sustainable food production and innovation, and to ThanxWorks, which focused on the architecture and social function of the former prison. The Audience Prize of €500 euros went to Technotitlan, which won the internet vote.

You can see all of the finalists’ entries here.