The corona pandemic, the Ukraine war and, most recently, the drastically reduced fruit and vegetable production in Spain due to extreme droughts, have had repercussions for food locally in The Hague and Rotterdam.
Dutch urban consumers for long have been accustomed to the ‘certainty’ of a stable supply of cheap and abundant food supplied from across the world. This is now rapidly changing. Food price hikes and sometimes empty shelves for certain food products seem to become a new normal.
These disruptions has put the spotlight on urban farming as a potential sustainable solution to cities’ over-dependence on overlong, international food chains vulnerable to shocks, and as a potential solution to sustain the economic resilience (access to food) and social resilience of vulnerable neighbourhoods and groups during external shocks.
The project Building urban resilience through urban agriculture? Different responses to the pandemic and sustainability crises by high- and low-tech urban farms in the Rotterdam-The Hague Metropolis across a high- and 'low'-tech spectrum studies how concrete Urban Agriculture (UA) initiatives contribute to resilience.
The study gathers insights from initiatives such as longstanding garden associations and new forms of UA such as rooftop farms, as well as high tech initiatives using advanced technologies to establish intensive, closed-loop agricultural production in urban areas, in the form of so-called indoor or vertical farms.
While ground-based, open air initiatives are often characterized as 'low-tech', it is worth noting that these initiatives might entail various technological or other innovations in cultivation practices, organization, etc. By examining the experience of a wide variety of UA initiatives during the pandemic, we hope to gain further insights into the possibilities and limits of UA amidst crises.
Key questions include whether UA has allowed urbanites to ensure continued access to affordable food, and supporting social networks, or whether UA itself has been detrimentally affected by the corona pandemic? And, what are the longer-term effects of the corona pandemic on urban agriculture, and UA's role in increasing urban resilience of particularly the more vulnerable urban citizens?
The study entailed qualitative interviews (35 interviewees), conducted from 24 urban agriculture projects. Case studies included 3 high-tech, 10 low-tech and 11 mixed-tech urban agriculture projects.
The study finds that urban agriculture (UA) initiatives in Rotterdam – The Hague metropolis were largely resilient, and contributed significantly to the overall resilience of cities and citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experiences during COVID-19 illustrate versatility and multifunctionality in UA initiatives provides high absorptive capacity, enabling them to maintain basic functioning and meet a wide range of needs.
During the early phase of lockdown, UA's (self)classification as an ‘essential profession’ of food production -regardless of varying productivity and produce use- facilitated a continuation of more than just production and gardening. Although limits on social gathering posed challenges for educational and other group-activities commonly part of UA, adjustment occurred relatively easily.
Where some activities had to be halted to meet covid lock-down regulations, UA maintained overall functionality through ‘buffering’; expanding those activities that could continue while pausing others.
Overall, UA saw a strong increase in interest and use, including by citizens who are usually less likely or able to engage. Some initiatives with on-site sale of produce were able to maintain their expanded customer base once life returned to normal by diversifying points of sale.
The ability to maintain functionality while much of public life collapsed increased the importance and use of UA as a means to connect to others, recreate and maintain health. In initiatives with stronger communal networks or a solid sense of belonging, users repurposed UA sites according to need, such as a home office, a place to host guests, self-organize childcare and even a few funeral procedures. Overall, UA demonstrated considerable capacity to absorb various social and health needs, thus contributing to social resilience.
As both production from UA in Rotterdam- the Hague and food scarcity in the Netherlands were limited in scope, UA predictably did not become an important source of food provision during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, some initiatives took on new roles to fill temporary gaps in food provisioning, such as distributing surplus to vulnerable citizens during the closure of meal programs and starting an egg delivery service from small farms to chain stores. As such, experiences during COVID-19 illustrated that the diverse and flexible social networks of UA can act as sources of resilience when central social and agro-logistical systems lag in absorptive and adaptive response.
Lessons for next crises
Overall, UA in the Rotterdam-The Hague metropolis appeared to be rather resilient and flexible during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting UA’s significant, but largely overlooked, potential for fostering urban resilience in crises more general. The contributions of UA during COVID-19 were, however, limited by insufficient space and resources (financial and timewise) to meet increased interest and need, much less take on additional roles where organizers saw potential impact- in particular with more vulnerable citizens.
This suggests that some external (e.g. government) fixed support for basic operations and crew could greatly enhance UA’s resilience and inclusiveness, and contribution to the overall resilience of cities.With new crises already present (e.g. the rise of energy and food prices due to the Ukraine war) or on the horizon (e.g. climate change induced food disruptions, or the risk of a financial crisis?), it is crucial to learn from the experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On 19 October 2022, ISS hosted an international workshop based on the project.
Entitled 'Crisis, climate and the challenges & opportunities of Urban Agriculture: Local and global insights', it included live presentations by scholars from Czech republic, Austria, Germany and online from Singapore.
Local attendees included students and staff from ISS and The Hague University of Applied Sciences, with online participants from the EU, UK, US and Malaysia.
Research team members presented findings from spin-off research at this workshop and at the AESOP-sustainable food planning conference in Almere on 21 October 2023.
Team members (especially Ilja van Lammeren and Oane Visser) engaged in various urban agriculture activities and events in The Hague and Rotterdam. These include:
- contributing to work on garden plots
- participating in a garden allotment anniversary event
- an excursion along a range of urban agriculture projects in The Hague
- contact with the Urban Agriculture desk of the Municipality of The Hague. This led to fruitful feedback on initial ideas.
Willem Hulsink and Oane Visse are active in a group of Erasmus University researchers and horticultural entrepreneurs in Westland aimed at building bridges between research and practice.
- Oane Visser gave an interview to the German magazine ‘Perspective Daily’ about high-tech urban agriculture, focused on a floating farm in Rotterdam. The interview article (in German).
- Jan Willem van der Schans gave an interview about urban agriculture in Rotterdam and beyond to Wageningen University and Research entitled ‘The benefits of urban agriculture’. Read the interview on the university's website.
Blog and further outreach
A blog for a wider audience summarizing research findings and a small outreach event are planned for autumn 2023.