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Tineke van den Berg and Tom Saat are the owners of ‘Stadsboerderij Almere’, a city farm in the only forty year old Amsterdam suburb Almere. While the new land is waiting for further suburbanisation, it’s extremely fertile soil delivers more than decent crops. And the surrounding area’s for nature and recreation are being maintained by the farm’s cattle. Tom and Tineke’s business is about dealing with the dynamics. Each new neighbourhood will take away some of their land, but will at the same time bring a few thousand new customers. This ongoing shift from farming to urban services is what makes the Stadsboerderij an interesting enterprise and an important place in Almere’s cultural profile. Stadsboerderij Almere has a weekly biological market, offers education programs, organizes workshops, excursions and business events, gives cooking sessions and many more activities. This is true urban agriculture, long before it became a major trend.

Urban agriculture is conquering the world rapidly. Actually, REconquering would be a better statement, since not so long ago most cities were mainly provided by regional farms, or by private livestock and fruit trees. In many developing countries this is still the case for a substantial part of the urban food needs. Metropolitan areas in North America, Western Europe, Eastern Asia and Autralia however have completely shifted to the global food market. Children in these cities know perfectly well where their food comes from: the supermarket! Or? When they have a chance to watch vegetables grow from seed to crop, to feed the chickens, milk the cows or to pick fresh strawberries from the land, they start realizing the tremendous value of good food. And so do their parents.

Urban agriculture can bring change to the way we treat our food production and consumption. Started as an experiment by local activist communities on urban wastelands and empty rooftops, it is gradually becoming a mainstream movement. Even Amsterdam’s new business district ‘Zuidas’ embraces urban agriculture, hosting a small ecological chicken farm (‘Mini Rondeel’), right next to the shiny office towers.

In my search for a clear definition of urban agriculture, I found many different sources, that try to describe rather than define the great variety of agricultural activities in and around the city. For example RUAF’s:

Urban agriculture can be defined shortly as the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities. The most striking feature of urban agriculture, which distinguishes it from rural agriculture, is that it is integrated into the urban economic and ecological system: urban agriculture is embedded in -and interacting with- the urban ecosystem. Such linkages include the use of urban residents as labourers, use of typical urban resources (like organic waste as compost and urban wastewater for irrigation), direct links with urban consumers, direct impacts on urban ecology

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In my MAHA2014 lecture in Malaysia I will refer to the RUAF definition of urban agriculture to frame and categorize seventeen inspiring examples:

  1. Small scale, non-profit public gardening initiatives
  2. Multifunctional farms, combining agriculture with other urban economic activities
  3. Metropolitan or regional agriculture, based on circular principles of labour, transport, energy and organic material.

About the first two categories we could say: there is simply no failure here. Every new initiative will contribute to a better understanding of food, a better use of urban surface and a better social climate. Since meet consumption and food waste define the top two of our ‘global foodprint’ it does make a difference when we learn a child how handle food with respect.

The great challenge beyond food awareness is the metropolitan circular-based agriculture. How far away are we from a healthy new, high tech & high touch type of regional agriculture that seriously competes with the global monoculture systems? The answer lies in cooperation. If you can’t beat them, joint them. We will have to find new ways to use our worldwide knowledge and innovation in logistics, and bio-based economy to support local entrepreneurs. Like Comcrop in Singapore or Rotterzwam in Rotterdam. A promising concept from this perspective seems to be Except’s Polydome:

“Polydome is a polycul­ture system with many crops and livestock growing at once. Plants, crops, animals, and insects are strategically interwoven to connect waste, water, and energy flows and capture the benefits of varied space and light conditions”

The Polydome promises to be profitable and deliver spectacular production numbers. “A city like Rotterdam could deliver 80% of its needs on 3% of its surface area”. An unbelievable high number, if I compare it to the ‘urban foodprint’ online calculator that shows Rotterdam would need more than 150% of its own surface to be self supporting. But if truth lies somewhere in the middle, let’s start building these Polydomes.

Meanwhile, Tineke and Tom enjoy running their city farm in Almere every day. For them it doesn’t really matter what percentage of town they can feed. Their contribution goes beyond feeding.

My lecture on urban agriculture is Monday November 24th, 10:00 at the MAEPS site in Serdang, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

LINKS

MAHA 2014

RUAF

Urban Greenblue Grids

Urban Foodprint Calculator

Polydome

Stadsboerderij Almere (website in Dutch only)

Farming The City Amsterdam

Video economical benefits of urban farming

Video metropolitan agriculture

Video mushroom & coffee