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Planting the City: Reclaiming Precious Space for Urban A...

Planting the City: Reclaiming Precious Space for Urban Agriculture in Amsterdam

When you imagine living in a densely populated city, what is the first image that pops in your head? Maybe it’s that of a concrete jungle; busy streets where individuals dance around each other trying to get to work, colorful farmers markets and lots of apartment buildings. Or maybe it’s an image of an overwhelming

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When you imagine living in a densely populated city, what is the first image that pops in your head? Maybe it’s that of a concrete jungle; busy streets where individuals dance around each other trying to get to work, colorful farmers markets and lots of apartment buildings. Or maybe it’s an image of an overwhelming buzz and inability to find a quiet and peaceful spot to yourself. It’s likely that the image in your mind doesn’t include flourishing gardens, food being grown on underutilized plots, and quiet open space to retreat from the hustle and bustle just a short walk away. This image, however, is one that is becoming increasingly part of the urban landscape, even in busy, dense, and crowded cities like Amsterdam.  

Amsterdam is a fairly dense city, with around 12,710 people per square mile along with more than 14 million tourists a year. Counting residents alone makes Amsterdam more dense than all but five US cities, taken in combination, the number of people in the city is staggering. The historic core of Amsterdam is tight; the buildings are very close together, tiny streets are often packed with people walking and biking, and many streets look a lot like alleyways. Still, with little ‘extra’ space to spare, it’s a very green city. The city center and outer neighborhoods are littered with planter boxes and parks of all sizes for residents and visitors to enjoy along with a significant amount of urban agricultural development which finds creative solutions to persist despite a lack of space.

The rooftop garden at Zoku Hotel provides beautiful views and herbs for their kitchen

Urban agriculture can be defined as the growing of plants and the raising of animals in and around cities. The potential effects of urban agriculture in cities is wide-ranging from increasing sustainability, building social capital, to improving access residents have to fresh food, also known as increasing the “food security,” of a community. Urban agriculture may lead to an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among community members, facilitate physical activity and cost savings on groceries, as well as encouraging new social connections among the neighborhood residents. The presence of community gardens and fresh vegetation connects consumers to their food, an important step in increasing sustainability. It can also provide a sense of pride in a neighborhood and increased community cohesion. Of course, the effects of urban agriculture can also be negative in a community, sometimes garnering criticism for contributing to, and exacerbating the process of gentrification. Regardless, the trend of incorporating urban agriculture into cities is skyrocketing and Amsterdam is no exception.

A study conducted by CITIES Foundation of nineteen urban agricultural projects in Amsterdam found that most of the projects happening in the city are initiated by independent and private groups, rather than the municipality. Further, the study found that most of the projects are underfunded, in a start-up phase, and functioning informally with fewer than ten volunteers or workers involved. This means that there is an abundance of people willing and interested to get involved in farming and gardening, as well as flexibility from the municipality to allow citizen-led initiatives to get off the ground. It also suggests there is room for improvement on behalf of the municipality to fund and support these initiatives, especially as they move beyond the first year or two.

Zuidpark Rooftop Garden is the largest in Europe, nearly an acre of urban agriculture atop a business complex.

However, there are many notable projects that have surpassed the start-up phase and implement creative solutions from neighborhood projects to large-scale private endeavors. One example of the latter rests atop a building just outside Amsterdam’s A10 ring road, Zuidpark. When the Zuidpark building was renovated in 2012, developer Jan Huijbregts, wanted to completely rebrand the building from a standard business complex into a sustainable and inspiring workplace. The new personality of the building is largely due to the 0.74 acre green rooftop, the largest rooftop urban agriculture project in Europe! The garden provides recreational and social activities for employees of the building as well as cooling effects in the summer and insolation in the winter. The Zuidpark rooftop provides vegetables for the café in the building and employees who work in the garden. Along with the sustainable and social effects, the mission of the project also involves providing an example to other developers of how to include urban farming into their plans as a way of addressing the lack of resources that are a result of increasing urbanization. The project has turned a blank and unused rooftop into a gathering place for employees in the building to connect, get their hands dirty, and of course, taste the fruits of their labor.

Another Amsterdam project that decided to grow up rather than out is the vertical garden on the twenty-first floor of a new sustainable hotel, QO Amsterdam. QO Amsterdam aims to be a living illustration of what circular development can look like, bringing a fresh and sustainable perspective into a large-scale hotel. The hotel acts as a platform for innovation, education, research, and development, as well as a landmark in urban farming within Amsterdam with a half-acre aqua and hydroponic garden that produces vegetables and herbs for the restaurant inside. While the hotel is just south of the city center, the area surrounding it is dense, commercial, and car-centric by Amsterdam standards. The incorporation of a circular greenhouse as well as providing access to the public sets it apart from the traditional out-of-town feel of the surrounding area. Further, the chef and head grower both have a commitment to serving local and seasonally sensitive food, working in tandem to create a menu that is based on what’s ready for harvest that very day and ultimately bringing consumers closer to their food.

QO Amsterdam has a 2,000m2 aqua and hydroponics garden on their twenty-first floor which allows the hotel kitchen to use fresh, seasonal vegetables

Amsterdam is also a breeding ground for individual or citizen-led urban agriculture projects. Walking through the city center, it’s obvious that Amsterdammers love plants; from indoor plants seen through windows to window boxes and doorstep gardens, a little bit of green can make a big difference when living in an urban center. Let it Grow is an initiative that strives to integrate plants into city life and works entirely on this philosophy: that life is happier and healthier when plants are involved. This Amsterdam social movement is dedicated to integrating flowers and plants into the city through the world’s first floriculture incubator program. The incubator program has provided selected startups with investments of $12,000 as well as expertise and a network to facilitate expansion and growth. A recent announcement declared that after two years, Let It Grow is done with their work for now, but the initiative is releasing a final publication ‘How to Let it Grow’ which tells their story and aims to inspire future projects related to urban floriculture worldwide.

Like many busy cities, Amsterdam is integrating agriculture into unlikely places. Whether it is an in-home urban jungle, a doorstep flower pot, or a sustainable hotel that serves fresh and home-grown vegetables, urban agriculture brings a unique and positive character to the city and has positive social, physical, emotional and economic benefits. Though there might seemingly be a lack of space for nature in a concrete jungle, with a little bit of creativity and innovation it’s possible to find a tiny green oasis of your own in the city, no backyard required.

Doorstep planter boxes are a common sight in Amsterdam, adding beauty and nature to the busy city.

What does the municipality in your city do to support urban agriculture projects? How do you participate in urban agriculture in your community? Share your thoughts and your stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Holly Hixson. Data linked to sources.

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Originally from Portland, Oregon, Holly is currently attending the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at University of Amsterdam. She is passionate about inclusive public space, transportation, urban observation, and human-centered design.

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