A dis-used office in The Hague has been revamped as a sprawling rooftop greenhouse, with a fish farm operating on the floor below. Are we entering a new age of urban agriculture?
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.”
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.
In another vat of water, bacteria convert waste ammonia from fish excrement into nitrates to fertilize 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 industrialization, 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). (link goes to English version)
“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 meters (approx 30′).”
In New York, the growers on the rooftops came up with many varieties of clean food. The number of food-producing farms and gardens in New York City has grown from approximately 700 to 900 over the last two years.
Read: New York City Five Borough Urban Farm Agriculture Development. Website has photos, videos, graphs and numerous other ongoing urban projects.
“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.” Ralph Waldo Emerson