The third Urban Greenhouse Challenge is about creating social change

November 4, 2021

The Urban Greenhouse Challenge kicked-off on 3 November. This is the third time Wageningen University & Research organizes their international student competition in search of ideas for local, urban food production that can feed cities in a sustainable way. This ‘Social Impact Edition’ challenges competitors to think beyond food to look at urban farming as a catalyst for social change.

This year’s Urban Greenhouse Challenge will look at all the ways in which an urban farming site can influence problems like poverty, unemployment and the lack of access to affordable and nutritious food. In short, this edition is all about social impact.

The competitors final entry will focus on the East Capitol Urban Farm in Washington, D.C., a food hub in one of the most diverse lower-income neighbourhoods of the capital of the United States. This year’s challengers are asked to create a comprehensive plan that develops the site to not just produce food year-round, robustly and resiliently, but also that fosters social equity through a new food economy.

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Talking about ‘social externalities’

To kick-off this Social Impact Edition of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge, Dr Sabine O’Hara (University of the District of Columbia) spoke to all potential challengers. Her inspiring key note focussed on food in a broad sense. What are food's ‘negative externalities’, costs that are displaced over space and time, like emissions or erosion?

She also introduced a new concept, social externalities. What are the hidden social costs of our current food systems? Sabine pointed to food insecurity and hardship; 37% of households with children in the United States were not able to get enough food. She emphasized the need for circular food systems ‘embedded in their environment, which is, in the end, our one globe.’

Rethinking scaling

This year’s challenge is actually, in a way, a continuation of O’Hara’s collaboration with Wageningen University & Research's own Dr Marian Stuiver, head of the Green Cities programme. They worked together on developing an outlook for circular and nature based food hubs.

O’Hara’s keynote was followed by a conversation with Tiffany Tsui of the Vertical Farm Institute and Dr Sigrid Wertheim-Heck, researcher in Wageningen. Wertheim-Heck emphasized the need for an integrated system that looks at the specific context of urban food production. To a question out of the audience about how urban food production can become profitable, Tsui pointed to the Dutch situation, where food is produced in very urbanized areas. O’Hara joined her in asking if we can rethink scaling-up, thinking in multiplication instead of size.

Students from all over the world

The kick-off was attended in person and online by many students interested in competing in the challenge. They have formed interdisciplinary teams that together will create a complete development plan, which will not just take knowledge of agri- and horticulture, but also architecture and business. Together they have started out on a journey that will take the best of them to a digital site viewing, expert consultations and eventually a Grand Finale in which the best ten development plans will potentially serve as prototypes for real, affordable and sustainable urban farm.

Rector Magnificus Arthur Mol kicked-off the challenge with enthusiasm: ‘the exciting thing here is social impact. This challenge will be with and for people who don’t always have access to food.’

At time of publication the registration for the Urben Greenhouse Challenge #3 is still open. Register now.