Much is being said about large-scale, high-tech greenhouses that produce massive yields of fresh produce. However, despite their strong business model, these facilities might not solve all food apartheid in lower-income, segregated neighborhoods of big cities where access to fresh food is limited. For this, smaller, local urban farms can play a role.
Bringing food production back into the cities is the goal of Wageningen University’s Urban Greenhouse Challenge. In November 2021, the third edition of this challenge will kick off. This year, WUR will partner with the University of the District of Columbia.
“What is special about UDC, is that it has always been a public university, with a large Afro-American student population, and an urban focus. UDC’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) trains people to have an impact on the local economy and quality of life of the residents of the District of Columbia, as well as other places in the world. This strong local perspective is a great addition to the more global focus of Wageningen University,” says Marta Eggers, one of the organizers of the event.
The existing urban food hub in Washington DC: East Capitol Urban Farm.
Connecting with existing food hubs
Because of its local focus, UDC already has some urban farming projects going in the city. One of these so-called ‘food hubs', East Capitol Urban Farm, will be the scene for this year’s challenge. “People struggle with health problems, as there is hardly any fresh produce available. People have access only to processed food, which causes problems such as obesity. This challenge aims to combat these struggles not only by producing healthy food but also by creating social impact,” Marta explains
The social impact part is new to the challenge as previous editions focused on food production mostly. “It is simple enough to get fantastic yields with a large investment and technically savvy staff, but we want teams to create a business plan that is realistic rather than idealistic, compromising between high-tech and low-tech. We’re not aiming for purely high-tech, cost-intensive solutions. The idea is to have an accessible, easy-to-manage urban farm that works for Washington DC, so we are looking for solutions that really meet the needs of the neighborhood.”
Social impact is this year's focus.
The biggest challenge in this respect is creating a business model that is economically feasible. “Energy is always a point of discussion because you need it for heating or for cooling the indoor facility. The team that manages to create a viable business model that takes into account both energy use and the local context will be the absolute winner.”
Although the word greenhouse is part of the title, including a greenhouse is not a must, Marta clarifies. “We prefer to call it a food production structure. Teams can choose to use a greenhouse, a vertical farm, a hydroponic system – whatever works to create year-round food production in a sustainable way. Winters in DC can be cold, so some sort of indoor system will be necessary.”
The multi-faceted scope of the challenge forces students to collaborate across disciplines, sectors, and cultures. UGC#3 is a learning adventure in which students from all kinds of study programs can participate. “The challenge forces students to take into account not only architecture and yields but also social impact, meeting the needs of this specific neighborhood,” Marta states. “Previous editions featured teams from all over the world: Brazil, China, US, and Europe. We’re hoping for even more diverse participation this year, as we haven’t had teams from Africa yet.”
UGC#2's winning team
Students from many different programs are invited to participate in the challenge. “In previous editions, we got many students from horticulture, agriculture, landscape architecture, but also social sciences, engineering, and economics. In fact, all of those perspectives have something to add to the urban farms we need.”
Application is open until October 17, 2021.