The future of urban agriculture and our cities: closing material loops and enabling collaborative practices.

The last day of the conference is dedicated to innovation and the future of urban farming. On this day, we narrow our work on interviewing the speakers, which are truly visionary and simultaneously practical professionals, 2 of which received the Plantagon awards. The first is Jan de Wilt, who won the Plantagon Award for the best innovative organization. The second one is the urban agriculture star Dickson D.Despommier, who also won a prize, and by being himself the most active character in the urban agriculture field.

Jan De Wilt, InnovatieNetwerk, NL

Jan De Wilt: We work with high rise buildings, for pigs also for multicultural, fish and farming. So we do it in high rise buildings, mostly planning, cause we have not succeeded to built it yet. It is a about different sectors, cause then you can close materials loops, and you can use the heat from the pigs, to heat up the glass houses. Therefore, we try to create symbiotic relationships, which is very technological but it is built on natural principles.

CITIES: A comprehensive approach, do you think about how it will have a better impact for the urban environment?

Jan De Wilt: Yes, you can gain profit when you have the food produced close to the city, where the people are living, so you don’t have so much transport, and you can get fresh food every day. And if you do it sustainably, that means high tech in our vision, combination of sectors, because nature is also not a monoculture. I will talk about that in my presentation because to make sustainable food production close to the city, in industrial or in harbor areas, it’s rather revolutionary. Most farms are in the countryside and find it very strange to produce food within the city.

CITIES: yes, you mentioned the closing the loop of materials, you were focusing on the production side, are you also focusing on the packing, processing or recycling?

Jan De Wilt: we also look at marketing of the products, how to bring it to the market. Also what’s the need of the consumers, like low value products such as potatoes, and what is not usually produced in the city, to produce that more in the surroundings.

Incredibly enough, we also had the honor to interview Dickson Despommier, the founding father of the Vertical Farm Concept.

Dickson D.Despommier, Columbia University


Dickson Despommier: I am from New york City, teaching at Columbia University and now unfortunately retired. The question that was asked in one of the courses I was teaching was  – Can New York city grow enough on its roof tops to feed 2.3 million people. The answer is no. I wanted to see the matrix. So the students calculated that in the end those rooftops could feed 2% of the population on New York. They got very angry for picking a project that had a very trivial answer. But I said, no its not a trivial answer its not just the answer you were hoping for. So then we thought, what happens if you not only grow on rooftops but also inside the buildings and use more floors? From 2000 till 2010, I had hundreds of students working on this project and in the end we produced a book.

CITIES: Yesterday you mentioned an important issue, which is water, what’s your take on how to integrate water into the food cycle?

Dickson Despommier: 90% of our problems relate to contaminated water and contaminated food. The bigger cities are, the more parasites they are. Cities have have always been parasites, first smaller parasites but now huge parasites. And what they are parasites of? Mother Earth.

Cities occupy 23% of the land, but 75% of the problem issues, they also consume 80% of the currently available fresh water resources. Cities have to find ways to reuse their water. New York City does not recycle any water today. There is only one city I know of that is recycling water and that is Orange County, they recycle everything. The technology has been there for years. It’s an issue of habits and politics.


Ms. Cecilia Hertz

Industrial designer, founder and Managing Director of Umbilical Design,

Cecila Helz: It’s not only technology that we want to transfer, the space suit is actually like the house of the astronaut, then we wanted to bring the same idea into the construction industry.

CITIES: Related to food

Cecila Helz: Its more a contextual level, looking at astronauts. We have done workshops with students, which can be done here on earth, inspired by astronauts in space. It is very interesting to borrow ideas and then contextualize them on earth. How can we bring this to the industrial market? Future ways of eating and consuming.

CITIES: Are you currently working with any industries or communities?

Cecila Helz: Not in the food industry, but with the steel industry.

CITIES: Mostly working here in Sweden?

Now we are working with Swedish industries, also around the globe, Dubai and China for example.

CITIES: In one of the roundtable, the discussions is on Circular Economy. It seems from your talk that you have experience in how a circular economy works in space. Are you familiar with that term and do you see a potential in using this thinking being inspired by the way material flows work in space?

Cecila Helz: We have to dig deeper into that yet, but it is interesting that when you give a speech, someone picks up an idea that relates to another, and something comes out of it and new projects can arrive.We are really trying to see, we just need to have more brave people that dare to look outside the traditional box.


To conclude this incredibly inspiring session about the future of urban agriculture and our cities, we can summarize that innovation and the future will be mostly focused on closing material loops, enabling circular economic process and developing collaborative practices. The future of our urban realms will be smarter, but not only from a technological perspective. The lack of resources will bring to the reuse of the existing ones; alienating working processes will be replaced by collaborative productions, where the personal scape will merge with the professional one. By foreseeing a different future, we hope that many innovative approaches will be tested and implemented in several contexts and diversification. Localization and “humanification” of the production will become the new shared values of industrial, agricultural and commercial processes.

Created on 04 February 2013

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