A Cohesive Urban Agriculture System

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Daylight filters through the filthy glass roof. Dead plants hang forlornly from a steel frame. The drained swimming areas are now just sunken tiled pits, covered in dirt and surrounded by fake rock formations. At this abandoned swimming pool in the center of Rotterdam, two guys are spending a lot of time hanging out in the dank basement and former changing rooms. Tropicana—the former “tropical swim paradise”—closed its doors to the public in 2010. For three years it sat dormant, until August this year. That’s when Mark Slegers and Siemen Cox started using the complex’s windowless spaces to grow pink oyster mushrooms. Co-owners of RotterZwam, the two entrepreneurs go around the city collecting used coffee grounds to make the substrate that feeds the mushrooms, and then sell the fungi locally.

The term “urban agriculture” has received a lot of buzz in the last few years. Balcony tomatoes have become hip; Wellingtons are now a staple of European street fashion. For critics, however, small-scale private initiatives like window boxes and backyard chickens are a good way to encourage popular interest in gardening, not a viable way to feed hungry cities. The fragmented nature of these personal projects often prevents food produced in this way from reaching those truly in need. Such individual efforts need a system.

In Rotterdam, the beginnings of such a system are beginning to take shape. City officials and residents have come together to create one of the most coherent, citywide urban agriculture programs in Europe. The municipal government has made food production a priority, facilitating private initiatives through its generous regulations and open-minded approach to creative strategies. The city believes that urban agriculture offers multiple benefits: local food production encourages social interaction, increases public green space, mitigates the urban heat-island effect and strengthens biodiversity.

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