Tomatoes and lettuce growing in the Rostlaube “container farm”.
Credit: Courtesy of Malzfabrik
Urban Farming Takes Root in Europe
By Julio Godoy*
Urban agriculture initiatives are blossoming in cities across Europe, fueled by environment awareness and the fear of food shortages that remains etched in the collective unconscious of many Europeans.
BERLIN, Jul 18 (Tierramérica).- Since the end of the Second World War (1939-1945), and especially since the 1960s, the Kreuzberg district in Berlin has been a melting pot of cultures, with residents hailing from the Balkans, Central Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In keeping with this cultural diversity, the Moritzplatz urban garden in the heart of Kreuzberg – one of the first urban agriculture projects undertaken in Berlin – grows tomatoes from India, Turkey, Morocco and Russia, parsley from Italy, Greece and Japan, potatoes from Africa and the Andes mountains of South America, and mint and other herbs from around the globe.
"Often the seeds for our vegetables are given to us by neighbors who bring them back with them from trips to their home countries," Robert Shaw, one of the garden’s founders and coordinators, told Tierramérica. "Other times we order the seeds by catalogue."
Shaw, a documentary filmmaker, and professional photographer Marco Clausen started up the garden in 2009 by clearing a 6,000-square-meter vacant lot of community land located next to Moritzplatz, which had been a wasteland for decades.
"With the help of the local residents and friends we collected and removed two tons of garbage that had accumulated on the lot over the course of many years," said Shaw.
After a trip to Cuba, where Shaw learned about the development of urban agriculture in Havana, he and Clausen came up with the idea for the Prinzessinnengarten (“Princess Garden”), named after the street on which it is located, Prinzessinnenstrasse, which they envisioned as a community project in which the whole neighborhood could participate.
Urban farming in Cuba is in a whole other class. In the first quarter of 2010 alone, urban farms and gardens on the Caribbean island produced 362,608 tons of vegetables and provided employment for around 300,000 people. Based on the success of these initiatives, the Cuban government has ambitious plans for suburban farming projects to help further reduce the need for food imports and work towards the goal of food sovereignty.
In Mortizplatz, meanwhile, "the garden doesn’t belong to anyone," explained Shaw. "We manage it, but anyone who wants to can participate, because the goal is to provide locally produced organic vegetables to the people who live in the district and promote community work and the revival of organic agriculture traditions that have been forgotten in cities like Berlin."
This means that anyone who works in the garden receives, as compensation, the chance to buy organic vegetables and herbs at lower prices than in the local marketplace. No chemical substances are used in the garden, and because the food grown is consumed right in the neighborhood, the costs of transportation and the associated emissions of carbon dioxide are drastically reduced or eliminated.
During the winter, the transportable vegetable plots are moved into an old covered market that has been recently remodeled and now serves as a community centre.
A wide range of crops are produced, including 15 varieties of potatoes, 15 varieties of tomatoes, 10 varieties of carrots and squash, numerous varieties of cabbage and beets, and herbs like parsley, mint, savory, basil and cilantro.
In addition to the garden, the Prinzessinnengarten encompasses a café and restaurant where a Japanese cook prepares soups and other dishes made exclusively from the vegetables grown there.
Shaw and Clausen’s team also works in cooperation with similar projects in other cities in Germany and abroad, organizes seminars with universities, and advises Berlin-based organizations in the remodeling of gardens and green spaces.
"Our premise is that everyone can learn from everyone," said Shaw. He added that he inherited his love of gardening from his grandmother, who was "obsessed with food self-sufficiency after the experience of the war."
The Prinzessinnengarten is one of many organic agriculture projects flourishing in numerous cities across Europe. In Berlin itself, another initiative organized by UrbanFarmers, a group based in Zurich, Switzerland, uses aquaponics, which combines traditional aquaculture or fish farming with hydroponics, the cultivation of vegetables in water. The result is a sustainable food production system that reduces both water consumption and waste.
The two activities are combined in the Rostlaube or “container farm”, in which vegetables are grown in a greenhouse mounted on top of an old industrial container converted into a fish farming tank.
"Our goal is to help people remember that we can produce food using the smallest possible amount of chemical substances, without fertilizers or pesticides or antibiotics,” UrbanFarmers director Roman Gaus told Tierramérica.
In the aquaculture tank, the ammonia in the fish feces is converted into nitrates by bacteria, resulting in an excellent natural fertilizer for the vegetables and herbs grown above them.
The aim of UrbanFarmers - whose motto is "good food from the roof" - is to take advantage of all free urban spaces, from rooftops and vacant lots to abandoned industrial parks, to grow food.
The Rostlaube produces around 200 kilos of vegetables and 60 kilos of fish a year, but "it is only a model," said Gaus.
"In a city like Basel, in Switzerland, there are two million square meters of rooftops that could easily be transformed into gardens and fish farming tanks," he noted. Using just five percent of this area, or 100,000 square meters, "it would be possible to provide vegetables, fruits and fish to 25 percent of the local population, using almost no chemical inputs and with minimal emissions of greenhouse gases, since there is no transportation involved."
Nicolas Leschke, assistant director of Malzfabrik, the sustainable economy business center that houses the Rostlaube in Berlin, explained that a local fish species was chosen for the project to avoid additional costs.
"That’s why we chose the common carp (Cyprinus carpio), which is commonly found in the lakes and rivers around Berlin and is very easy to raise," he told Tierramérica while snacking on a tomato grown in the greenhouse that sits over the fish tank.
Almost all of the inputs in the process are recycled, except for the fish food, vegetable seeds and water filter, where the ammonia is converted into nitrates. "Even the electricity to power the filter can be generated with solar panels," he added.
Similar projects are sprouting up in other European cities like Amsterdam and Paris.
* * IPS correspondent