Students seek new solutions to urban farming challenges

Designing the “ultimate urban greenhouse”

Urban farming initiatives are everywhere, but real questions remain about their economic viability. To take things to the next level, Wageningen University has posed a challenge to students around the world: “Design the ultimate urban greenhouse.”

Sourcing food close to where we live is nothing new – humans have done it for millennia. But over the last century, the emergence of low-cost transport, cheap labor and advancing technology has increased the distance between field and plate. In addition, economies of scale and farming subsidies often make it more attractive for consumers, especially in the West, to import from afar produce that could be grown at home.

Urban farms are here to stay

But there’s a backlash. The explosion in urban populations, as well as increasing consumer demands for fresh, locally grown produce, fewer pesticides and stricter food safety controls, are driving movements to green our cities. Urban farms are not just ‘hip,’ but, according to Cindy van Rijswick, Senior Industry Analyst at Rabobank, they are “here to stay.”

“They will take on many different forms in the future,” she predicts. “In the cities themselves we will see rather small-scale production of high-quality produce, often combined with a restaurant, shop, or social project. But to make urban farming economically viable we will need larger projects, with more focus on efficiency; these are more likely to be found on a city’s outskirts.”

“Urban farms will take on many different forms in the future”

- Cindy van Rijswick, RaboResearch

The Bijlmerbajes: Could these former Amsterdam prison towers become a flourishing urban farm?
Photo: Sven Menschel

A ten-year challenge

The Urban Greenhouse Challenge, initiated by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, aims to address the predicament of urban farming. Project officer Marta Eggers: “We invited students from universities around the world to form multi-disciplinary teams and submit ideas for one of the towers of Amsterdam’s former prison, the Bijlmerbajes.” The challenge will take place every other year for the next ten years, focusing on repurposing diverse locations like old schools, factories, or, as in this case, a prison.

The challenge is to bring professional food production into an urban neighborhood, linking it to local resource flows and energy systems. “The designs had to encourage citizens to actively engage with the sustainable production and consumption of healthy food,” adds Eggers. “We interpreted the word ‘greenhouse’ broadly to include vertical farming, integrated growing systems and aquaponics.”

“The designs had to encourage citizens to actively engage”

- Marta Eggers, Wageningen University

Economic viability?

Forty teams from all over the world submitted ideas and fourteen finalists have been invited to pitch their concepts to a panel of experts on August 28 at Wageningen University. The winners will receive €10,000 toward setting up a start-up or presenting their ideas to relevant international audiences.

Economic viability is perhaps the biggest stumbling block for the success of many urban farms. Local governments can be difficult to convince of the opportunities farms create and inner-city rents can be prohibitive. Just last month Urban Farmers in The Hague, the largest city farm in Europe, declared bankruptcy. To that end, the student teams also focused on including value drivers such as education and research spaces, community meeting points, waste hubs and collaborative food banks to make their farms economically feasible – a precondition of the submission.

The student teams research urban farming in Amsterdam.
Photo: Sven Menschel

Rooftop restaurants and waste hubs

Eggers: “The finalists’ proposals include research centers, public kitchens and rooftop restaurants for the consumption of grown produce. Other ideas unearth the value of urban waste, turning it into biochar.”

The students, all studying subjects relevant to the challenge, played to the strengths of urban farming, such as controlled growing conditions – a big plus when compared to the rural model, where the whims of nature can affect farmers’ livelihoods. Some projects consider using robots to replace costly labor; others tap into the availability of cities’ sustainable energy sources.

“Urban farming practices secure the food chain as well as making certain fresh produce locally available,” concludes Van Rijswick. Who knows? With the next generation taking up the mantle, city dwellers may be able to pick up fresh, locally produced ingredients for dinner on their way home from work.

Watch the Urban Greenhouse Challenge finalists’ video pitches here. Vote for your favorite and contribute to the dialogue on sustainable, global food production of the future. Voting closes midday on August 27.