Students Develop Concept to Convert Former Prison into Urban Greenhouse
Wageningen University & Research challenged students to step outside their comfort zone. Their task was to develop an urban farming project for a former prison, working in interdisciplinary teams.
‘You are a team with a lot of different points of view, but in the end you have to develop a single concept. Getting everyone on the same page is a challenge in itself, quite apart from all the technical challenges.’ The speaker is Jolien Verweij (25), a Master’s student of Biology and member of Team GreenWURks, which won the first Wageningen Greenhouse Challenge.
The university launched this international competition early in 2018. The aim was for students to develop the urban greenhouse of the future and the assignment: redevelop an existing building in an urban setting and turn it into an optimally sustainable total concept for vertical urban farming, with citizen participation.
The existing building in question is one of the tower blocks of the former Bijlmer prison in Amsterdam. A new residential and business zone is planned for the location of this prison, to be called the Bajes Quarter. When the site is redeveloped, one of the prison towers is to remain standing and be transformed into a ‘green tower’: a vertical urban park in which farming goes on. The ideal setting for the first Greenhouse Challenge, thought coordinator Rio Pals.
‘We took an existing project and attached an assignment to it in which students themselves could explore the potential of urban farming. They needed to look for possible innovations and end up with a design for a feasible total concept.’
24 TEAMS OF STUDENTS
At the beginning of 2018, 24 teams of students from 40 universities in 10 different countries got going on this challenge. The students set about researching sustainable food production, smart energy systems, greenhouse construction, economic feasibility, the social functions of the new urban greenhouse, architecture, and more.
In August the 14 best teams came together in Wageningen to present their designs in a grand finale. GreenWURks ended up carrying off the main prize, worth 10,000 euros, for their design called Open Bajes (Open Prison: see inset). The team leaders want to invest the money sustainably.
The Challenge meant a different approach to learning, says Verweij. No practicals, no lectures, but rolling up your sleeves. Taking a good look at the location, asking experts questions, talking to local residents to find out what their expectations of a greenhouse in the former Bijlmer Prison would be. ‘I see it as a bit similar to a year on a board at a student society. You have to attend a lot of meetings and take on different roles. I helped design the plant production system, and at the same time I was secretary to the team.’
In order to arrive at a good total concept, students from various different disciplines needed to work together, says Pals. ‘You can’t simply solve big, complex global problems by relying on just one discipline or just one culture. Wageningen University & Research aims to educate the leaders and changemakers of tomorrow. To do that we have to challenge students to get out of the comfort zone of their own discipline and tackle complex problems with people from other subject areas. That is one of the strengths of this Challenge.’
INSPIRATION FOR THE GREEN TOWER
Bajes Kwartier Ontwikkeling (Prison Quarter Development) is tasked by the Dutch government with redeveloping the former Bijlmer prison into a residential and business zone with about 1350 new housing units and one green tower block. The consortium got the keys of the prison on 1 March 2018, and the building has to be completed by 2024.
The green tower should serve as a model of green living in the big city. Bajes Kwartier Ontwikkeling C.V. sponsored the competition and was inspired by the pool of ideas the student teams came up with. The Rabobank was the main sponsor of the competition, aiming to stimulate the ‘disruptive innovation’ that is needed to feed the growing world population sustainably. For that reason, the bank agreed to be the main sponsor two more times in the next 10 years. Other sponsors included Klasmann-Deilmann, a firm that develops substrates for horticulture, and AMS Institute, which seeks to identify solutions to urban challenges.
THE WINNING DESIGN: OPEN BAJES
The GreenWURks team won the Greenhouse Challenge with their Open Bajes design. In the design, large parts of the prison walls are replaced with glass and solar panels, creating an open feel while the history of the prison remains visible. One of the design’s strong points, in the jury’s view, is the ‘Simpli-city’ business model, based on community participation.
Local residents can be shareholders in Open Bajes, which even has its own money: the BajesCoin. The building is designed to be an accessible place with space for activities such as workshops, exhibitions and sport. Residents and visitors can harvest fruit and vegetables themselves and get some experience of urban agriculture.
The plant production system Biophilia is intended to be a closed cycle as far as possible. Moss from the greenhouse itself will be used as a nutrient base, and rainwater will be sprayed on the plant roots as mist, so that less water is needed than in conventional irrigation systems.