Are we looking down the barrel of a global food crisis? Could localising and democratising food production be the answer?
To explore these questions, Net Impact Amsterdam President, Andrea Palmer, spoke to Suzanne Oommen of Cityplot, a specialised urban gardening and education group that believes it is possible to grow healthy organic food on all scales in and around the city: from private growing spaces to community gardens, from schools and restaurants to large-scale urban food growing projects.
Suzanne, can you introduce what Cityplot does and why this work excites you?
Certainly. Cityplot is a collective of urban farmers that support city dwellers in growing food as close to home as possible, in environmentally responsible ways, using permaculture principles. We host workshops, as well as work on different urban gardening projects across the city. We believe that integrating food production spaces into the city makes the environment greener and stimulates healthy connections to nature.
We manage an educational community gardens in different parts of Amsterdam, my colleagues run Pluk CSA, a huge community-supported agriculture (CSA) project with Fruituinvanwest, and we create restraurant gardens, school gardens and give gardening lessons. We also are available for consultations and garden work, as we also try to make a living from this.
We consider ourselves activists for the environment. We focus our efforts on food production because it’s one of the key drivers of environmental degradation, and it’s one that we can directly do something about. Our activism consists mainly of bringing into existence the kind of things we think our world should have: regenerative food systems that respect biodiverse earth, build communities, and that take care of people.
This work excites me because I love being outdoors with my hands in the soil. I learn new things everyday. The first courgette and the first ripe tomato of the year make the stinging nettle, slug wars and hard work all worthwhile. Food tastes better when you grow it yourself, that’s a fact. Everyone I meet in this field is happy, and I think it’s because we realise we don’t have to spend eight hours a day in an office building to make a living!
From my experience as your student in the GDGD course, it’s clear that you really know your stuff. How long have you been doing this and are you still learning?
I’ve been growing food for about 15 years now, and I am constantly learning—by reading a lot and also by doing (making mistakes) and following other peoples’ work. I participated in a residential permaculture course and I encourage everyone to do that, but most of what I know is through experience and self-education.
Why do you think urban gardening and agricultural education is important?
Food is a basic necessity of life and it seems natural to me that we should learn to feed ourselves. We can’t purely rely on some out of site system to provide our sustenance—we need to take responsibility. Learning about how food is grown promotes stronger respect for the people who grow it. And it also gives power back to the people to discern, for themselves, what are false narratives around “feeding the world”.
What are some of the focus areas of your clients and do you see these evolving? If so, what are some of the topics related to urban agriculture you see emerging?
We are seeing chefs and restaurants becoming more interested in the sources of their produce, asking for local, organic and diverse varieties. They are even starting to use wild plants and weeds.
We also see schools becoming more interested in having green playgrounds and introducing edible gardening into their curriculum. Ordinary people are also becoming more interested in how their food is produced and are getting involved in CSAs, food co-ops and other alternatives to supermarkets. This tends to start from personal health reasons and often evolves into plant-based diets and then to holistic recognition that the food, land, and human health are all connected. This year we had a waiting list for our Get Down Get Dirty (GDGD) year long course!
Regenerative agriculture, silvopasture, foraging, supporting biodiversity and permaculture – all these are hot topics connected to urban and rural agriculture. There is also a lot of money and hype in tech-based urban agriculture ventures like hydroponics, aquaponics, and indoor vertical farming, but we are not interested in those areas because these don’t build connections to natural systems and actually can consume more energy than they generate.
Do you have any projects that you’re especially proud of?
We are very proud of Pluk CSA which is Cityplot’s first larger scale food production project. My colleague Ann Doherty is mainly responsible for that. She’s a very inspiring and driven person. Along with Annelies and Annie, the three women at Pluk are feeding 80 households in Amsterdam! All of the ventures at Tuinenvanwest are remarkable and have a story.
We also have an urban food forest project on a smaller scale private property in the Bos and Lommer area of Amsterdam, where we’re creating a wildlife friendly urban garden from a neglected back yard.
For those living in the center of Amsterdam, do you have any recommendations as to how to we can access sustainably farmed food that is reasonably priced?
Join or create a neighbourhood food co-op and buy sustainably sourced produce together (eg. FoodCoopNoord, Vokomokum). And you know Odin which is more of a supermarket model, but still a co-op. We don’t have one in Nieuwe-West but are creating one based out of Stadsboerderij Osdorp.
You can also join or create a community garden and grow your own food. For example, Voedseltuin IJplein, growing food together for social projects, or Stadboerderij Osdorp, volunteer at the moestuin and attend community events. Oost Indische Groen near Flevo Park.
Do you think the Gemeente is open to citizens proposing new community gardens within the center?
Yes, you can propose a project and get it funded through a buurtbewoners initiative; forms are available online. Have specific goals and a place in mind, and make sure you have the support of a few others living in the area. It can be unused park land, private backyards linked together, a courtyard in the centre of apartment buildings, rooftops…anywhere.
Do you have any tips on how to compost food scraps for those living in the city center?
Buurtcompost is an initiative started by Peter Jan Brouwer. If you don’t have a worm hotel near you, get together with some neighbours and ask him to install one! There are about a 100 of them across Amsterdam. Soon there could be one within walking distance for everyone. You can also attend a worm workshop organized by Cityplot and make a worm assisted composter for your own apartment. I started giving these workshops in 2012, but now my colleague, Jaffie (firstname.lastname@example.org), is the one to contact. She also works with Buurtcompost.
Born in India, Suzanne grew up surrounded by the intensive cultivation practiced in Kerala kitchen gardens and soaked up the interdependencies inherent in holistic, organic agriculture. She studied art and design in Bombay, and worked in publishing in Dubai and marketing in Toronto. In Toronto she rediscovered her calling by growing vegetables in the backyard, learning about composting, and working in the farmer’s markets. In Amsterdam, with her plentiful hands-on urban food growing experience, becoming part of Cityplot came about very naturally. She has trained with Patrick Whitefield in permaculture and now experiments with self sufficiency in her allotment garden. Suzanne is actively involved in local community gardens, breeds red wriggler worms, and provides garden consultations and a variety of workshops.