Students' Winning Design To Transform A Prison Into Living Lab

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Agritecture Interviewed the winners of last year’s Urban Greenhouse Challenge. 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.

AGR: Why did you decide to participate in the Urban Greenhouse Challenge? 

When I was a first-year master student at Wageningen University and Research, I was excited to undertake extracurricular activities to understand the impact my profession will create. The Urban Greenhouse Challenge was a project that had direct implications on people’s quality of life by re-designing the Bijlmer Bajes into a circular, socially inclusive and financially profitable urban food production facility. 

I first heard about the Challenge during the introduction days for freshmen and decided to visit the info sessions. It was hard to decide whether -- as an Economics BSc -- I have the right skills to participate, or whether I have enough experience to help designing an urban greenhouse. 

Once our team was established, participating was not a question. The passion of the team members and the momentum of the non-profit organization we created, GreenWURks, made the project very exciting. I felt very involved. We wanted to create a greenhouse that has a positive and direct implications on people’s quality of life by supplying people with sustainable and healthy local food.

Tell us about your design. 

Our team took its inspiration from the challenges we faced. The cultural and academic diversity of GreenWURks encouraged us to inspire and learn from each other, and include everyone in decision-making. This is how we started to discover what co-creation means for us.

Our design is called the Open Bajes -- ‘Bajes’ comes from the name of the pre-existing building we re-designed and it is a Dutch translation for prison. ‘Open’ represents our design methodology: co-creation. We invited everyone to design, transform, and engage with the food production facility and the communal kitchen of the greenhouse. Open Bajes is a living lab, a collective learning community where the voice of the public continuously contributes to define and shape the building. 

Besides social integration, we focused on facilitating a healthy lifestyle for the people who interact with the greenhouse. Through activities in the greenhouse -- such as experimenting with and experiencing urban farming, a circular kitchen, and a yoga center -- we envisioned people connecting with their food, learning about sustainable and circular food production, and engaging in a non-stressful, mindful lifestyle.

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What problems did you encounter and how did you overcome them?

One of the challenges our team faced, especially in the first half of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge, was the lack of flexibility and limited flow of information within the team. The root cause of these difficulties was the hierarchical organizational structure we set up in the hurry and excitement of starting the Challenge.

Initially, GreenWURks had three departments (neighborhood integration, financial feasibility, food production) and a project manager. Each department had great ideas but we did not have a strong, coherent value set, nor easy communication within the departments. Having a holistic and inclusive design with such an organizational set-up was impossible.

It was difficult for us to understand the timeline of our design process. Should we figure out the type and amount of plants first, or shall we prioritise other activities, like the yoga studio? How much space will these need in the architecture? We were inexperienced in identifying the order as well as the full list of these important decisions. Having the team divided into departments according to their academic backgrounds did not help solving this problem.

Half-way through the Challenge we decided to expand our team and employed a flat organizational structure without departments or project managers. To do so, we mapped out questions we needed to answer to finalize our design and set up task forces with interdisciplinary teams to answer them. In the end, this flat organizational structure was influential for our co-creative design.

What did you get out of the Challenge?

I learned a lot during the Urban Greenhouse Challenge and it created many specific opportunities after we presented our results.  Even though our team won the Challenge, I feel that collaborating over the 8-month-long project was invaluable -- I gained most of these learning experiences during the Challenge, not by winning it. 

For 8 months, we connected with a very diverse and interdisciplinary team, who are still my friends today. Throughout the Challenge my professional network expanded tremendously. After the Challenge I did my internship at one of our partner organizations, and currently I am researching under the supervision of Gert Spaargaren, organizer of the Challenge in 2017 and in 2019.

Besides these experiences, I gained professional confidence, and found motivation and inspiration to work on urban sustainability and food related challenges. The Urban Greenhouse Challenge has really helped focus my career interests.

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Where is the design now? 

After the Grand Finale, we met with the developers to negotiate, sharing our knowledge, our designs. We ultimately stopped working on the ‘Open Bajes’ because there was already an architecture company contracted by the developers for re-designing the Bijlmer Bajes. However, our organization has continued operating, with fewer members and different activities.

We took part in a workshop series at Start Hub to learn how to manage our organization, and we have been educating ourselves on how to define a new direction for our non-profit. We would like to work further on the issue of sustainable urban food systems. It is still a question for us how and with whom will we work together on that. Currently, our plans are gravitating towards an educational or knowledge-sharing event about our topic at Wageningen but there is still a long way to get there.

Author bio

I am Fruzsina Nagy, MSc Sustainable Urban Transitions student at Wageningen University and Research and co-owner of GreenWURks foundation. I have been studying for and working on urban food system sustainability. I am mostly concerned with the finances and economics of sustainability transitions, especially when it is about food chains:)

Contact: ; 0647790231

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