Urban agriculture in office buildings: opportunity or utopia?

Published on
March 12, 2015

There are still very few concrete examples in the Netherlands of urban agriculture in office buildings and it would be difficult to create profitable business cases. The reason for this is because agrarian production in vacant buildings is much more expensive than conventional production outdoors or in greenhouses. This makes urban agriculture a poor structural solution for the large number of buildings currently vacant in the Netherlands. All the same, due to the urban environment, opportunities do exist, such as for products with high added value, specific product-market combinations or a stacking of functions.

Transformation of vacant office buildings

Vacant office buildings are a growing problem. The province of Utrecht and various municipalities want to reduce the number of vacant buildings and seize on as many opportunities for transformation as possible. At present, this primarily entails transformation into a residential function, such as flats for first-time buyers. Wageningen UR has been asked by the province of Utrecht to examine whether urban agriculture in vacant offices might provide a solution to this problem.

Large-scale food production is a utopian dream

From a technical perspective, various forms of urban agriculture in office buildings are possible, but they require a number of structural adaptations. It is not a logical step to start growing food in a building because the cost price in a building is much higher than when growing outdoors or in greenhouses:

  • The rental price for a built-up area in the city is many times higher than for a greenhouse surface area or open cultivation (roughly €50-€100 per m2 compared to €1 per m2 or €0.10 per m2 respectively).
  • Rendering a building with an office function suitable for food production requires numerous structural adaptations, some of which are costly.
  • Due to a lack of sunlight, extra investments into artificial lighting and climate control will have to be made for most crops. This leads to higher energy consumption, even when growing crops that require less sunlight. Even if an office building can be used free of charge, the cost price for, for example, a head of lettuce is higher than lettuce grown in a greenhouse or outdoors.

It would be difficult to create profitable business cases for urban agriculture in the Netherlands that is based solely on the production of crops. Urban agriculture in office buildings is therefore not a structural solution for the large number of vacant office buildings in the country.

Unique opportunities all the same

But some locations do offer unique opportunities. Carrying out a good marketing concept such as local production, closing cycles or creating qualitative or creating high-quality culinary products may make a higher sales price possible. The location and construction of the building strongly determine the degree to which a business and marketing concept is possible and feasible. Additional income may yield economically feasible initiatives, such as in the form of direct sales or in the areas of food service, education, experience or care. Initiatives can be successful if developed by highly innovative entrepreneurs with a great degree of perseverance and idealism. They could receive support where possible in carrying out their plans.