Greenhouse in the sky: inside Europe’s biggest urban farm

A disused 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?

At the top of an empty 1950 s office block that once belonged to the Dutch telecommunications powerhouse Philips, above an deserted 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: Europes largest urban farm.

Tomatoes, veggies and trendy microgreens are budding in a sprawling 1,200 sq m rooftop greenhouse. Below, on the fishy-smelling sixth floor, is a huge fish farm.

The instead post-apocalyptically named UF002 De Schilde launchings next month( the UF refers to UrbanFarmers, the company behind the farm ). The eventual hope is to serve 900 local households, plus restaurants and a cooking school, with 500 tilapia a week and 50 tonnes of rooftop veg a year. Theyve only harvested their first cucumber.

UrbanFarmers greenhouse is an example of cities reconnecting with food, tells Jan Willem van der Schans. Photo: space& matter

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 connects into the circular economy: we have empty rooftops and empty industrial houses. In The Hague, 15% of houses are empty. Lets 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 route of feeding the world in the 21 st century. There are urban farms in Berlin and London, where former air raid shelters grow food to supply marketplaces 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 only growing food than any rip-roaring profitable success.

De Schilde, a brick-and-glass flanked seven-storey house, was built as a television and telephone mill for Philips in the 1950 s by the modernist architect Dirk Roosenburg. It has about 12,400 sq m of total floor space, largely abandoned but too solid and costly 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 Remy of Delft University of Technology has predicted office vacancy in the Netherlands will shortly reaching 25%, the highest in Europe. According to Cushman& Wakefields global office forecast 2015 -1 6, the European average will be about 10%.

A farmer surveys her render in New York, where there are an estimated 700 urban farming areas. Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Modern technology has helped induce 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 worlds biggest” fish, which will be killed by electrical stunning. In another vat of water, bacteria convert trash 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, tells 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 cant buy in supermarkets, something special that has a higher nutritional value, otherwise I think they will have a hard time, he tells. They truly have to pick those veggies that have a special quality if you harvest them instantly, 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.

People visit the Edible Garden at AT& T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. Photo: Eric Risberg/ AP

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 tells. So many of our deliveries have been shipped thousands of miles. This farm isnt biodynamic or full-moon harvested, but the savour 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, get free council supporting and a chance to rent the space, once it had raised private funding and a European loan via The Hagues Fund for Location and Economy( FRED ).

Its sometimes said that children who live in the city believe tomatoes grow in the supermarket or fish are born in the freezer, he tells. The municipality hopes the whole constructing 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 wasnt so much exuberance in 2009 when she and the architect Winy Maas proposed a farm for 400 pigs in The Hagues city centre. They argued the pigs could sit nicely alongside the Prada shop and luxury automobile dealerships. I thought it was an important idea, to link the city and rural food production, she tells. But there was too much opposition.

It remains an open question whether urban farming is something more than a temporary fad. Durno , not amazingly, supposes more cities should adopt the idea. I think there is also a future for urban agriculture in the Countries of the middle east and Singapore. Qatar imports 90% of its food although our challenges are hot, light and gale, and there it is cooling.

Durno points to UrbanFarmers first farm, in Basel, which the company tells breaches 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 agriculture 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 tells. 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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