Improving the quality of life with greenhouses

Vertical farming, classic greenhouses on the roof or indoor farming; Wageningen University is organising the Student Challenge to Design the Ultimate Urban Greenhouse. Students from Delft are welcome to join in.

“Imagine all the buildings in Amsterdam with greenhouses on their roofs. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Building Engineering student Yash Dugar (Faculty of Architecture) is enthusiastic about the contest organised by Wageningen University. He was one of the fifteen students present last Wednesday at the Green Office on the TU Campus when the plans for this challenge were presented to the Delft community.

The Challenge is open to bachelor, master and PhD students from universities around the world. Students have to form multidisciplinary teams and register before 30 November.

“I am planning to form a team with friends from TU that study architecture, and friends from Wageningen University,” says Dugar. “The way we produce food now is not sustainable. Take yogurt for instance. It may just be that the actual product is produced in Italy, the packaging is done in Poland and that the packages are printed in France. I envision a world in which all products are produced close to the people and consumed fresh. That is healthy, and at the same time we reduce our carbon footprint.”

‘We interpret ‘greenhouse’ broadly’ 

So what exactly does this contest entail? Rio Pals, coordinator of the challenge explains: “We interpret ‘greenhouse’ broadly. Besides greenhouses, students may also venture into vertical farming, indoor farming and integrated growing systems such as aquaponics.” Aquaponics are systems where one combines conventional aquaculture (of for instance snails, fish, crayfish or prawns) with hydroponics, the cultivation of plants in water.

The location still has to be chosen by the organisation. It will be a neighbourhood in either Amsterdam, Rotterdam or The Hague.

Students will get points for, amongst others, how well they embed their greenhouse in the neighbourhood. They should think about the interaction of citizens with the greenhouse and the aesthetics. Circularity and sustainability are important too. Participants will get information about energy, water and waste flows in the neighbourhood and they must try to make their system circular, thus reusing energy, water and nutrients as efficiently as possible.

‘We will not solve world food shortages’ 

But what is the ultimate goal? “We will not solve world food shortages with urban greenhouses,” says Pals. “What we can do however, is improve the quality of life in cities. By making cities greener, we also make them cooler in summer since plants evaporate water. And research has shown that people eat more vegetables if they cultivate them themselves. So from a health perspective, urban greenhouses seem very promising. And they improve social cohesion in cities as people will join forces to grow their food.”

There are some important challenges. “So far, many urban greenhouse initiatives in the world have been small-scale and not so successful. Often they go bankrupt. High land prices in cities are one of the culprits. One has to come up with very innovative technologies and business cases to be successful and scale up urban agriculture.”

Could we see the formation of a new dream team? Frans van der Meijden is in close contact with the organisers from Wageningen. He is director of the D:DREAM Hall, the building that houses all the dream teams. Dream teams are multidisciplinary student teams that participate in international challenges. Familiar examples are the DUT racing team and the NUNA solar race team. “Developing successful urban greenhouses is extremely challenging, there is no doubt about that,” says Van der Meijden. “Teams tackling this might merit a place in the D:DREAM Hall. However, they would have to consist of students from different faculties of the TU. We will see what teams are formed.”

By August next year, students will have to submit a dossier describing the full concept; a two minute video in which the concept is presented; proof of concept; and a prototype of the key enabling technology or innovation. And they will have to pitch their idea to a jury of experts from industry, cities and science.

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Editor Tomas van Dijk

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