At the top of an empty 1950s office block that once belonged to the Dutch telecommunications powerhouse Philips, above an abandoned reception desk and six floors of vacant office space, is a shock of green. Here, on a concrete building in The Hague, is a modern experiment: Europe’s largest urban farm.
Tomatoes, vegetables and trendy “microgreens” are sprouting in a sprawling 1,200 sq m rooftop greenhouse. Below, on the fishy-smelling sixth floor, is a huge fish farm.
The rather post-apocalyptically named UF002 De Schilde launches next month (the UF refers to UrbanFarmers, the company behind the farm). The eventual hope is to serve 900 local families, plus restaurants and a cooking school, with 500 tilapia a week and 50 tonnes of rooftop veg a year. They’ve just harvested their first cucumber.
Mark Durno, the 31-year-old Scot in charge of the operation, believes commercial urban farms serve a need: people want high-quality food from a transparent, local source. “In the next five or even 15 years, this will be a niche of the niche,” admits Durno. “But it links into the circular economy: we have empty rooftops and empty industrial buildings. In The Hague, 15% of buildings are empty. Let’s fill them with produce.”
There is some serious interest in rooftop farms as the future of commercial urban agriculture. In the US, advocates such as the Columbia University professor Dickson Despommier call it a way of “feeding the world in the 21st century”. There are urban farms in Berlin and London, where former air raid shelters grow food to supply markets and a home delivery service. The New York City project Five Borough Farm promotes urban agriculture, and the city is home to an estimated 700 urban farms and gardens on 50 acres – although the trust is keener to discuss how it is “about much more than just growing food” than any rip-roaring profitable success.
De Schilde, a brick-and-glass flanked seven-storey building, was built as a television and telephone factory for Philips in the 1950s by the modernist architect Dirk Roosenburg. It has about 12,400 sq m of total floor space, largely abandoned but too solid and expensive to knock down. In the Netherlands, 18% of offices are empty, due to the two last economic crises and cuts in the size of government. Dr Hilde Remøy of Delft University of Technology has predicted office vacancy in the Netherlands will soon reach 25%, the highest in Europe. According to Cushman & Wakefield’s global office forecast 2015-16, the European average will be about 10%.
Modern technology has helped make urban farming a viable prospect. At UrbanFarmers, the shimmery tilapia swim in 28 tanks. Baby fish, farmed in nearby Eindhoven, come in on one side, fed by an automated system; across the room are tanks for the bigger fish, which will be killed by electrical stunning. In another vat of water, bacteria convert waste ammonia from fish excrement into nitrates to fertilise the plants on the roof above. Meanwhile, the plants – which are grown without soil – purify the fish water. This closed system, known as aquaponics, has been used for centuries.
“With industrialisation, that connection between agriculture and the city was taken away,” says Jan Willem van der Schans, a researcher in urban food systems at the Landbouw Economisch Instituut (LEI). “Food can be grown anywhere and sent anywhere else. UrbanFarmers is an example of cities reconnecting with food. Consumers feel alienated from global food chains, want food from a transparent source, and they see that quality can be better if it grows close to home.”
Van der Schans wonders, however, if urban farms can find commercial success. “UrbanFarmers has to come up with products that you can’t buy in supermarkets, something special that has a higher nutritional value, otherwise I think they will have a hard time,” he says. “They really have to pick those vegetables that have a special quality if you harvest them immediately, like soft tomatoes like coeur de boeuf that should fall apart if you carry them 10 metres. In New York, the growers on the rooftops came up with these varieties.”
One of the first customers is Patrick Buyze, chef and co-owner of Mochi restaurant in The Hague. “It was a bit of a fantasy to grow food in the city, on a skyscraper,” he says. “So many of our deliveries have been shipped thousands of miles. This farm isn’t biodynamic or full-moon harvested, but the taste is fantastic and they are willing to try growing what you like.”
Joris Wijsmuller, head of sustainability at The Hague city council, is another fan. In 2013, the council launched a competition for sustainable food companies to find new uses for the former Philips building. UrbanFarmers BV was the winner, getting free council support and a chance to rent the space, once it had raised private funding and a European loan via The Hague’s Fund for Location and Economy (FRED).
“It’s sometimes said that children who live in the city believe tomatoes grow in the supermarket or fish are born in the freezer,” he says. “The municipality hopes the whole building will be a sort of gathering place for education, research and innovation.”
But Annechien ten Have-Mellema, a pig farmer and former board member of the Dutch farmers’ union LTO, recalls that there wasn’t so much enthusiasm in 2009 when she and the architect Winy Maas proposed a farm for 400 pigs in The Hague’s city centre. They argued the pigs could sit nicely alongside the Prada shop and luxury car dealerships. “I thought it was an important idea, to link the city and rural food production,” she says. “But there was too much opposition.”
It remains an open question whether urban farming is something more than a temporary fad. Durno, not surprisingly, thinks more cities should adopt the idea. “I think there is also a future for urban farming in the Middle East and Singapore. Qatar imports 90% of its food – although our challenges are heat, light and wind, and there it is cooling.”
Durno points to UrbanFarmers’ first farm, in Basel, which the company says breaks even. The Hague outlet will open for business next month, and its new American operation, UrbanFarmers USA, hopes the first of 10 farms could open in 2017.
Jan-Eelco Jansma, a researcher in urban-rural relations at Wageningen University, belives the urban farming movement has legs: “There are examples of viable commercial urban farms, but also growth in allotment gardens in the Netherlands and across Europe – which are not interested in being commercial but have a huge, indirect effect on mental health and liveability in cities,” he says. “Almere is a real frontrunner: half of its new, 4,000-hectare city quarter Oosterwold will be urban farming.
“I always refer to the debates about parks in the city in the past. I think in 100 years, urban agriculture will be as normal as the city parks we have today.”
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