Voedseltribunaal I

This is the first part of a series of posts about a debate I visited some while ago about urban food production. The debate’s guiding question was: how do we go about feeding our ever growing cities in, preferably, sustainable manner? The purpose of these posts is to synthesize the presented ideas and the discussion that insued, and try to find what role hacking, apps, open data and especially geographical information play in the urban food industry.

The 5th of April saw the conduction of Stroom‘s Voedseltribunaal (translates to Food Tribunal), a debate revolving around the question how to sustainabily feed cities in the near future. Voedesltribunaal is part of the larger Foodprint programme that investigates the influence of food on urban culture, urban design and the functioning of our cities. The evening’s aim was a proclamation of practical guidelines for urban farmers and practitioners on how to sustainably produce food. Based on three presentations about ongoing projects and the public discussion that followed, the jury produced a manifesto that is meant to function as a guide for future urban food production activities.

The evening was opened by The Hague’s mayor Jozias van Aarsten who quoted figures from the book Hungry City and concluded that food production must return to the city as was the case a hundred or so years ago.

Three projects were presented that demonstrated very distinct approaches towards bringing food production back to the city. In this post I discuss the first of the three: City Pig by MVRDV/The Why Factory.

The City Pig project researches the possibility of bringing pig farms into the city. The idea of urban pig herding reaches back to times when pigs roamed the city, lived amongst its citizens and acted as recyclers by consuming household waste. Modern pig farms have left the city to become massive meat production facilities that do not necessarily take the pigs’ wellbeing into consideration. Being out of sight, they are also out of consumer’s minds who are losing sense of where their food comes from and how it is produced.
The hope is that by bringing pig farms, and thus meat production, back to the cities people will reconnect with their food and thereby change their eating habits for the better. Also, moving pig farms to the city has as benefit the elimination of transportation costs.

MVRDV/T?F set out to answer a concrete question: is it possible to move a pig farm situated in Groningen to the Brinckhorst in The Hague, and if so, how would it look like. The farm they envisioned consists of stables, a restaurant, a biogas burning station and a small (possibly mobile) slaughterhouse. The farm has a double role of providing meat to the city as well as recycling part of its waste. The pigs are fed with fodder supplemented with ‘waste’ from other food producers and distributers such as super markets and restaurants that dispose of food that is not fresh anymore but is OK otherwise. The biogas burner processes household organic waste that cannot be fed to the pigs. One farm needs 6400 square meters and houses 2000 pigs. Feeding The Hague on its current diet of 41 kg of meat per person per annum requires 65 farms. Switching to a healthier diet reduces this figure to 7.6 kg per person per annum and brings the farm count down to 12. As space is a limited commodity in a city it may prove difficult to find the required land to construct a conventional, primarily horizontally distributed, farm. Three types of alternative locations and construction solutions were presented: empty office buildings, keeping pigs on the grassy midsections of roads and constructing pig bridges over roads.

The first of these options is the most interesting one as there are more than enough empty office buildings in The Netherlands. Occupying these spaces with activities seems like a good idea. MVRDV architects researched the option of large scale pig herding in urban environments in their 2001 project Pig City where they investigate the possibility of moving the whole Dutch pig industry from the Dutch hinterland into high rise buildings located at harbors and near major cities. Their design consists of 76 buildings each towering 622 m into the sky. Of course, building that many towers is not challenging, but the number do give a feeling for the scale we are dealing with. The real challenge I see here is not one of building new structures, but reusing existing ones. I’ll come to that in later posts.

Sadly, both projects seem educated guesses at best. There is no hint of implementation of any of it on any scale. The nice renderings did not instill a feeling of feasibility. Meat production in the city is, by the looks of it, far away.

Contrasting the artificial renderings of urban pig herding was a plant sitting on the jury’s table that came fresh out of a PlantLab‘s Plant Production Unit (PPU). PlantLab is currently trying to figure out the tricky business of growing plants using LED lights. Their PPU is a high-tech, sensor-laden, algorithm-guided pod that grows plants in a highly efficient manner. Their method results, among other benefits, in a decrease of required energy, water and pesticides. Since LED’s emit almost no heat at all, they can be placed close to the plants, making the whole structure layered. One can stack many of these layers on top of each other and achieve tremendous space efficiency. The biggest advantage is that plants can be grown anywhere: empty office buildings, deserted cellars, factory halls, windowless structures, etc. PlantLab’s technology seems to be the boon that vertical farming needs to take off. I did not get the opportunity to taste the plant, but others did and lived.

I’m assuming all is fine and so are others. A company called De Groenten uit Amsterdam is working on bringing the first plant pods to Amsterdam. Their site, however, has not been update since November of last year. Plant pods may, like urban pig herding, be a mirage. Comparing the two, however, I do believe that urban farming is the more feasible option. As I’ll show in the next post, urban farming is already happening in some cities. A great example is Rotterdam’s Uit je eigen stad.

So where does geographical (open) information fit in these projects?

3D urban models can be used to calculate building areas and volumes which lead to an approximation of a building’s plant growing capabilities when using PlantLab-like technology.
– A building vacancy dataset linked with the a built works registry such as the Dutch BAG, enhanced with a query mechanism can help entrepreneurs find a vacant building that meet their needs. People searching, for instance, for a place to start a plant growing business may need a specific building. A query layer on top of a vacancy dataset that helps them find it is an express way to dealing with the building vacancy problem as a whole.
– Standard GIS datasets such as landuse, census, infrastructure information help analyse the suitability of a building’s location for food production, be it plant or pig.

The good news is that the majority of data is readily available. The challenge lies in identifying the needs of urban food producers in terms of web technologies, bringing the numerous players together (producers, consumers, policy makers) and raising awareness for these issues in the civic hacking community.

My next post will discuss a bottom-up approach to urban farming that was presented during the debate.

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