Urban Farming

Recently, the website nu.nl and the eight o’clock news came with a news item “Urban Farming is growing because of crisis”. A quote from this article: “From lettuce next to an old Amsterdam gas filling station to radish growing out of the fish manure in a Rotterdam shed. A new phenomenon is introduced in the Netherlands:  Urban Farming. On the first ‘Day of Urban Farming’ this new phenomenon seems to get foothold,  because of the crisis. In the Netherlands, countless urban vegetable gardens or private gardens have been popping out of the ground, but also several commercial initiatives are undertaken by urban farmers.” (1) The correspondent mentioned that vegetables growing near railway stations are not necessary less healthy than vegetables growing on the field outside the cities.

Although these initiatives appear to be very new, during another period of crisis, urban areas were used for vegetable gardening. After the year 1672, in which the young Dutch Republic had to fight four different wars, the third and fourth part of the Urban Expansion of Amsterdam was restructured from an harbour and industrial area into a green area in 1682. This green area was called the Plantage of Amsterdam and consisted of pleasure gardens as well as vegetable garden. But the Plantage of Amsterdam was more than just an area of gardens and villas for the less fortunate, who couldn’t afford a villa (buitenplaats) outside the city in the area which can be called the territory of Amsterdam (2). The Plantage was enriched with the Hortus Medicus, the garden with its medical plants for teaching.  And on this new spot the Hortus Medicus developed into a Hortus Botanicus, with both medical and ornamental plants. (3)

figure 1 and 2  A part of the third and fourth part of the Urban Expansion of Amsterdam was transformed into a green area, the Plantage (map P. Mol 1772). Nowadays referred to as the public garden area avant la lettre. (source: Amsterdam City Archives in Gramsbergen, E.)

Nowadays, the Plantage of Amsterdam is referred to as the public garden area avant la lettre. In the 17th century cities were not well known for its hygiene – wealthy people went outside to their villas for clean air and grounds. Nevertheless, city ground were used for the growing of vegetables and fruits.

Although these gardens were originally intended to be pleasure gardens, in practice they developed as areas where illegal activities thrived. When the economy was booming again the city needed its building plots, and so the Plantage had to disappear. In 1859 the gardens of the Plantage were sold and the construction ban was stopped.

So what will happen today with those new urban farms? Does history repeat itself or do we this time really grow green beans and strawberries? And will this new urban farming outlast the 21st century crisis? The future will show…

figure 3 The links form this functional gardens with the pleasure gardens of the villas can be seen in elements such as the small play house, an element which we see a lot in the layout of gardens of 17th century villas.(1665) (source: Amsterdam City Archives from Gramsbergen, E.)


(1)    http://nos.nl/artikel/349275-stadslandbouw-groeit-door-crisis.html

(2)    Villas of rich merchants of Amsterdam were built in various landscapes, such as the dried lakes beemster, Purmer and Watergraafsmeer, f.e., next to rivers like Amstel, Vecht, Gaast en Gein and in de coastal landscapes near the former Wijkermeer or Haarlem.  Glaudemans, M, (2000)Amsterdams Arcadia, de ontdekking van het achterland, SUN, Amsterdam

(3)   Gramsbergen, E., (2011) “tot gerief van dezes stads ingezetenen’, de Amsterdamse Plantage, een publiek project, in: Over Holland 10/11, SUN, p 199-217

  1. There are indeed many historical references to urban farming. Yesterday evening the Stichting Verborgen Tuinen Rotterdam organized a lecture of Gerrie Andela (last major publication: “J.T.P. Bijhouwer” Rotterdam 010 2011). Anedla gave a summary of her research in the archives of the Tuinen Keurings Comissie TKC (garden approval comission) of Tuindorp Vreewijk. Vreewijk is a early 20th century Garden City extension South of Rotterdam designed first by Berlage and later by Granpré Molière, Verhagen en Kok.
    Last night’s audience of Rotterdam garden amateurs where amused about the strictness and idealism of the 20th century TCK. Notable as a comment to Gerdy Verschuure’s post is a crisis reaction of the TCK: After the Bombing or Rotterdam by the Germans in 1941 and during the following occupation many homeless Rotterdammers form the central district Stadsdriehoek became refugees in Vreewijk. Like everywhere in Rotterdam (and elsewhere in Europe) people suddenly started to grow food in their urban gardens during World War II. The T.C.K. in reaction opened it’s severe judgment of the formerly mostly decorative gardens to new fields as “How to make a Beautiful Vegetable Garden”.
    Around the same time Swiss agricultural planner and later minister F.T. Wahlen developed a homeland defense through vegetables that lead to grow potatoes on the Bellevue in Zürich, while the country was surrounded by fascist occupation on all it’s 4 borders. The Bellevue today is terrain of a roughly estimated value of 20’000 EUR a square meter.
    Why do I bring all this up? Luckily our current economical crisis that changes a bit of capital and property value is not by any means comparable to the crisis that comes with a European war. We should really not exaggerate our current misery.
    The Europe Union is the longest lasting peace around here since the Pax Romana. If anyone wants to grow vegetables in their urban garden they should primarily do it for fun, not because of a crisis.
    And also luckily beauty is always a human desire – at times of whatever crisis.

  2. In times of crisis, if it’s something big like a war or sometimes a bit smaller, like our financial crisis now, people start to think and make changes in their way of life. Sometimes this is big and sometimes much smaller. But the prejudice that this was very new, which Daniel Jauslin subscribed in his comment- was something I wanted to say something about.

    What’s interesting is that more and more people are using city grounds for agriculture, which we ‘normally’ think has is something we ally with the countryside. This is not new and will always happen- but because of our crisis, newsworthy.The article on urban farming, which I was referring to was not the only one. Last Thursday, an article in Trouw (on the pages of sustainability and nature) told about the founder of a new website in which you can find out in several cities where edible fruits were growing in public parks or promenades or so. The founder told that she was once picking cherries from a cherry-tree in a park, a woman came along and told her not to eat it, because it was poisonous. And if you subscribed to the site, you could go out in the fields (not all, just some joining farmers) , after crops are collected by the farmer, and take home what is left (which is normally 10 % of the production of the farmer). This collecting crops, which we in the Netherlands say, aren lezen, is as old as the bible, in which this was already described. And this article is probably not the only one.
    City people are connecting to the the food making process, so that our children don’t say that milk comes from the supermarket and not from a cow, a joke between ‘young’ parents.

    For us, it’s a good thing to keep moving, finding new ideas…with or without a crisis.

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