Amsterdam as a Cornucopia: An Ambitious and Achievable Vision for Regenerative Urban Agriculture in Medium-Sized Western Cities
Demonstrating a holistic case for the role that urban metros can play in a circular and regenerative food system, with Amsterdam as a case.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (under 50 employees)
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Waternet (Amsterdam’s Public Water Utility).
Food-E (An EU-Funded project to further Low-Cost urban food production technology).
FRESH (A Netherlands-based accelerator building circular and regenerative ventures that target systemic challenges in the food system).
Food Council MRA (A community of practice led by regional authorities focused on improving the regional food system).
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Amsterdam Metropolitan Region (MRA)
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
We believe the region has so much raw potential to be a leader on the global stage for pioneering sustainable urban agriculture. Amsterdam (and The Netherlands more broadly) is a global thought leader in design, water management, horticulture, and urban planning. There are a significant amount of committed and collaborative stakeholder relationships already in place between the city, public and private utilities, housing corporations, property developers, SMEs, and community groups. The ingredients are there, and we see the momentum picking up.
Metabolic has called Amsterdam home since the earliest days of our organization when we set up shop here seven years ago. Amsterdam is also where 90% of our employees live. We love this city and it’s an intrinsic part of our everyday lives.
We have already done a significant amount of work for and with the city of Amsterdam and are familiar with the region from a technical, environmental, economic, and political perspective. Seven years ago, we created a plan for a ‘Cleantech Playground’ in Amsterdam North, which included two adjacent developments of different character that could pioneer circular urban developments. Those two developments--De Ceuvel (http://deceuvel.nl) and Schoonschip (http://schoonschipamsterdam.org/)--exist today and have become international examples for urban design and engineering. We have worked on many projects for Amsterdam since, from piloting circular water and sanitation systems, to creating masterplans for new proposed urban areas, and conducting experiments with future horticulture systems. By being part of building new neighborhoods and initiating technology pilots in the city, we have explored what is possible and explored the nuanced barriers for change. We understand the context and can work with key stakeholders to implement pathways forward.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Amsterdam is the official capital of the Netherlands. While most of the national government is located in The Hague (some 45 minutes away by train), Amsterdam is the cultural and economic capital of the country. The Metropolitan Region of Amsterdam (MRA) is one of the most international cities; only 55% of the population is native Dutch and residents represent over 175 nationalities. Some 2.4 million people, more than 14% of the Netherlands’ population, live within the MRA.
The region is wealthy and urban and has a thriving economy. The MRA has a unique place in the world given its relatively small size; it serves as a global hub for engineering, architecture, and fashion. It is also a hub for data centers. On the flip side, there is a constant housing shortage. Amsterdam is a regional and international gravitational force that entices a lot of people to want to move here, which in turn is having gentrification effects and pushing poorer groups out of the city.
There is a significant amount of production of food in the region--greenhouses for vegetables and fruits, fields for cereals, and a significant amount of dairy. Not only does the Netherlands have a significant agri-food sector responsible for 7.4% of the nation’s GDP and 626,000 jobs (8.7% of employment), but Amsterdam sees itself as an important world leader in the field.
The infrastructure and logistics of big agribusiness are, for better or for worse, in place in the MRA. There is also quite a lot already going on within the region with regard to innovation in urban food systems, including the MRA Food Council, which seeks to advance a community of practice for the region, and various EU 2020 projects, such as FoodE and Repair, which focus on developing elements of circular food systems in Amsterdam (both of which Metabolic has been involved with).
The Dutch enjoy simple cuisine, which traditionally includes potatoes, vegetables, and meat. Although because of the internationality of Amsterdam, there are many ethnic alternatives. And even traditional Dutch diets are changing, as two in five Dutch people say they are eating less meat and 17% say they are vegetarian or vegan.
The land is entirely flat due to the fact that the region was reclaimed from the sea reportedly as early as the 10th century AD. The climate is temperate, with cool summers and moderate winters, and it rains constantly (200 days out of the year experience rain). Because of the numerous canals stretching from the center city to all around the region, Amsterdam is often called the Venice of the North.
The people who live in and around Amsterdam are eclectic, but generally the population is proud to be at the intersection of geographies and systems--part of a city that shows the world how society can succeed by embracing both a capitalist system and taking care of its people and the environment.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Amsterdam currently (2020) faces a number of challenges, most of which will be much more acute in 2050. They are as follows:
Linear Nutrient Cycle
Cities are giant nutrient sinks, and Amsterdam is no different. Large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen flow through the regional municipal waste stream as food waste and human waste and are not recovered. A recent study by Waternet, Amsterdam’s public water utility, shows that only 16% of phosphorus in the municipal wastewater is recovered. A main barrier to recovering nutrients is stringent health policies that forbids most handling and use of human waste as a source of nutrients. Struvite from municipal wastewater was only marketable once the Health Agency granted it a new status. However, many legal and economic barriers persist.
Although Europeans are healthier than their American counterparts, and vegetarianism and veganism is on the rise, diets and nutrition are worsening in the Netherlands. From 2000 to 2016, adult obesity rose from 9.7% to 14.5%. With busier lifestyles and the ubiquity of fast food, Dutch diets have increasingly been integrating already-made food and processed food in daily routines. Processed foods usually contain high levels of fat, sugar, and salt, and low contents of dietary fiber and micronutrients.
Most people who know the Netherlands wouldn’t guess that it has issues with a lack of water. Water is everywhere and it feels like it’s raining all the time. But increasing drought in the summers is a real issue, as the entire infrastructure in the Netherlands is devoted to flushing water to the sea, not storing it for use. Drought will increasingly be an issue the Netherlands must contend with, and it has strong connections with other issues, like salinization.
Given that much of the country is under sea level, salinization (or ‘saline seepage’) is a real issue for the region’s farmers. This issue is exacerbated by rising sea levels and increased drought, creating pressures on using different crops and agricultural practices that can adapt to the growing salinity of the region.
Oxidation of peat soils
Peat soils are one of the world’s major stocks of carbon, but due to mineralization caused by the drainage of these lands for agriculture, these soils are decomposing. As they decompose, they become a major source of CO2 and N2O. The EU is actually the world’s second-largest peatland emission hotspot (just after Indonesia).
The economics of food insecurity will likely make it so that prices are driven up by reduced supply and increased demand, meaning that most populations in cities like Amsterdam will be able to withstand much of the challenge until it becomes severe. But the MRA, like most urban regions, will find it difficult to withstand serious shocks to global food supply chains--whether due to a pandemic or economic collapse--and thus requires more embedded resilience.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
The first step to realizing the vision would be to implement a community co-design process, whereby citizens, communities, and key stakeholders provide both their uninfluenced input and reflection on initially proposed concepts.
The next step will be to use GIS and other analytical tools to map out a draft vision for how it will affect the geographical area, which we would take back to the stakeholders before embarking on the most pivotal infrastructure and programmatic elements of the vision that people are aligned behind.
Visions can be powerful; they can present a feasible and attractive reality while alleviating the discomfort of the unknown by providing a clear end-state to move towards. But they can also be forgotten if not attached to clear initiatives. Our goal with this vision will be to use it as a starting point for discussion with key stakeholder groups, with an eye on a few initially assumed intended outcomes:
1. Key initial collaborations
Strong collaborations form over years. Our goal will be to create links that weren’t there in the first place, and strengthen links that were, especially with key stakeholders.
2. Key initial ventures
For the most obvious and attractive ventures, such as an urban farming company with the water utility as a shareholder and supplier, or a Regeneration Bank, it’s important to get started early.
3. Key initial financial instruments
Programs that support regional farmers to make the investments in more sustainable and productive farming systems and others that enable interagency experimentation alongside civil society groups and SMEs.
4. Key initial policies
Eliminating food waste, loosening laws restricting the recycling of human waste, tightening rules around nitrogen capture and reuse. Initial policy action can set the stage for future progress.
The current vision is designed to address each challenge stated above through a number of interlinked interventions.
Linear Nutrient Cycle is addressed through loosening regulations around reuse of human waste while strengthening regulations around the collection and reuse of food and green waste, the implementation of decentralized bioprocessing facilities, closer integration between harvested nutrients and urban farming systems, and the advanced design of waste separation systems at household and building level.
Rising Obesity is addressed through widely available and affordable healthy and fresh food, custom nutritional kiosks, and prescribed nutrition fully embedded into the regional healthcare system.
Drought, Salinization, and Oxidation of Peat Soils are addressed through the widespread use of agroforestry in the surrounding area--regenerating soils and necessitating much less water use.
Food Insecurity is addressed by producing an estimated 75% of the necessary food supply within the Metropolitan Region of Amsterdam, providing stronger regional financial flows alongside a robust resilience to rising instability in global food supply chains.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Amsterdam has experienced a renaissance of social enterprises and bottom-up initiatives addressing everything from community food banks, composting, and gardening initiatives to cross-institution experiments in furthering city-wide systems. Projects receive financing from the Regeneration Bank, which makes grants and zero-interest loans widely available to organizations that can identify key gaps and play a role in filling them. New metrics beyond finance have been put in place to measure the contribution to natural and social capital and efficiently provide access to finance meant to generate those kinds of returns.
Jobs are plentiful. High-tech urban farms are always hiring more technicians, where technical job training is provided in partnership with the city and national government. The polycultural systems of the more traditional farms outside the city are producing a lot more food but require more labor. The plethora of food initiatives within the city are hiring more facilitators, teachers, trainers, ecologists, and engineers to fulfill their mandates.
Automation has been selectively and carefully adopted, protecting workers in the agricultural sector but enriching their jobs and what they’re able to do--empowering them to be both more productive and creative. Farmers do less back-breaking work but oversee a lot more activities, from soil enrichment to crop processing to market interaction to teaching.
Health outcomes and quality of life metrics have skyrocketed. Constant contact with nature, as well as the best air quality of any city, has reinforced the intrinsic health benefits from bringing nature fully into the urban environment. Custom nutritional guidance and the ubiquity of stores that enable “nutrition on-demand” has spawned a global industry and reduced medical expenses by half. Health benefits have become so great in Amsterdam that people increasingly come from other countries for health retreats.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
What could it mean for a country like the Netherlands, already a world leader in horticulture, meat and dairy, water management technology, and civil engineering, to provide leadership on metropolitan agriculture systems in a way that regenerates the surrounding landscape?
What could it mean for a city like the Metropolitan Region of Amsterdam (MRA), already a progressive leader in urban planning, citizen engagement, and regional governance, to showcase a working model of integrated regional farming systems and a series of urban interventions co-designed with local citizens?
Given the many interlocking pieces of our vision, we will take a geographical tour starting from the center of the city and moving out to the periphery.
We start inside the city center, where there’s minimal space for high-yield urban farming but a significant amount of people and nutrient flows.
High-tech urban agriculture would be relatively limited, providing no more than 10% of the local food needs. But it would become an important part of the urban character and provide strong marketing opportunities for new supermarkets and commercial buildings that are built to handle the weight--primarily in the neighborhoods of Amsterdam North and Amsterdam Bijlmer.
The urban environment is filled with greenery--from the fruit trees that line the streets to the green roofs on over half of the buildings to the food forests and community gardens that seem to pop up everywhere. One of the important things about bringing food production and agriculture in general into the city center is the synergies you find with environmental services: urban greening, water retention, heat dissipation. Urban landscaping in the city is also designed for enhancing biodiversity and creating pollinator habitats. Fruit-bearing trees are emphasized throughout the city--placed along sidewalks to assist in water retention and air quality improvement.
Local farming inside the city center is also about bringing people closer to food and nature. Food forests within public parks provide both passive and active education and programming, reaching children, families, and the elderly. Community gardens are expanded and completely integrated into the justice, health, economic, and social systems. Activities within them are prescribed as forms of therapy, drug rehabilitation, PTSD, and job training. They form a new medium where young children and the elderly can structurally interact.
Amsterdam has infrastructure in place for both avoidable and unavoidable food waste, coming close to essentially eliminating the concept of waste. A dense network of social initiatives that connects restaurants, households, and grocery stores uses an online platform to show in real-time where avoidable food waste is in the city and has a logistics system that matches supply with demand, enabling food to be consumed before it’s spoiled. Unavoidable food waste (peelings, shells, etc.) is well separated in households, restaurants, and offices using smart design and behavioral incentives that keep food waste out of the trash and compartmentalized for future processing.
As we move out of the city center, we approach the commercial and industrial areas where we see innovations in technology and business models really come into view. Regional utilities and knowledge institutions, including the region’s public water utility, Waternet, have become key stakeholders and part-owners in a new advanced urban farming business, which remains under majority public ownership.
The regional urban farming company transforms rooftops of data centers and warehouses, unused areas within ports, and aged energy infrastructure into highly productive urban farms. High-value crops, fish, and algae are produced adjacent to decentralized biorefineries that transform municipal wastewater into materials, proteins, and feed. These ‘living machines’ are a new kind of hybrid social business, structured like an efficient enterprise but in service of the public good--circulating not just nutrients but financial flows. They make maximum use of the advanced and increasingly decentralized water and sanitation systems in Amsterdam, as well as the enormous amount of IT and energy infrastructure.
Although less flashy and emphasizing the use of low-tech solutions, the peri-urban area has the greatest potential to produce food, provide new jobs, and increase resilience and ecological health of the metropolitan region.
Permaculture and agroforestry play an enormous role. Once hesitant to apply its principles, regional farmers now embrace the practices, partly due to a generous government loan program that has given farmers the trust and the resources to make the significant but necessary changes. Livestock (though greatly reduced) retains an important role in a circular and regenerative food system--and critical to effective agroforestry--eating weeds and food scraps and producing natural fertilizers.
On some farms, additional investment has enabled large horticulture domes that utilize modern technology to host advanced polyculture systems, akin to a completely engineered rainforest geared for high-yield production of food, materials, and other biological products. These large domes would contain nested climate zones that integrate with advanced water, nutrient, and energy systems.
There is a broader focus on circular and regenerative agriculture at specific sensible locations. There is coordinated planting of seaweed near sources of runoff to capture nutrients. The seaweed is harvested, decontaminated, and turned into fertilizer. The ocean (and more specifically the IJmeer lake) is actively farmed instead of just fished. Dutch expertise around water management and engineering plays a strong role here as offshore wind platforms and former rigs for mining and energy extraction are combined with aqua permacultures, whereby algae and crustaceans are farmed while removing toxins.
Harvested streams of chemicals, nutrients, fibers, and carbon are used for regional chemical, dye, textile, and material production. These ‘biomakeries’ utilize various steps of fermentation and green engineering to produce many of the base ingredients of a regional sustainable bio-based economy. and Agriculture products used in textiles.
Finally, ecotourism has boomed in the region. Farms now resemble robust ecological systems as opposed to a factory. Most farms have various attractions, including great organic restaurants, workshops to make your own products, and tours of the farm, its methods and how it integrates low-tech, high-tech, and ecological design principles. Families, relevant professionals, and government delegations are drawn to the area to learn and experience a different approach to agriculture.
Like the energy crisis before it, Amsterdam along with thousands of other municipalities around the world woke up to the nutrient crisis and every agency and institution leaned into the challenge. The nutrient cycle is now completely closed; food waste has been largely eliminated, green waste is entirely recycled, and all human waste is utilized in a way that is food safe.
Human waste has been fully utilized, as the regional water becomes a key actor in the regional supply chain for agriculture by providing nutrients and organic soil enhancements alongside a reliable water supply. Urine separation systems have been retrofitted into every home and office building, and are required in all new buildings. The urine is brought through struvite reactors and other systems that recycle phosphorus from wastewater into new agricultural inputs. Vacuum toilets have been installed in all new buildings, reducing the water necessary for flushing toilets while also making it easier to remove the moisture content in feces for composting and safely reuse it as soil enhancements.
Diets and Nutrition
Technology has been utilized to understand people’s custom nutritional needs and to service those needs. New forms of affordable health food stores enable people to understand their unique nutritional needs with a simple on-site blood test. 3D printed meals and supplements can be produced and picked up in many stores and supermarkets, and can also be easily prescribed by health professionals.
Algae has become a major component of diets, animal feed, and energy, as it can be grown in places like the Netherlands where there is an overabundance of nutrients and fairly low light supply. Algae has been integrated into flour and embedded into 3D printed ingredients to provide a sustainable and healthy protein source. The Netherlands has become a major exporter of both algae and systems and methods used to produce it at scale.
Canals and waterways
All over the Amsterdam metropolitan region, floating rafts line the canals, filtering the water with plants and oysters using natural aquaponics. The rafts incorporate plant varieties tolerant to brackish water and are farmed by locals.
Sensing and monitoring
Flows of energy, water, nutrients, and food are visible to all citizens. The ubiquity of data collection and visualization has made significant progress in how people understand their own role in the larger system and offers guidance at key moments during the day to enable sustainable behaviors. Amsterdam has found an appropriate balance between gathering data and ensuring people’s privacy by making it so people own the data that they produce, that the data is anonymized, and people have clear oversight about where and how their data is being used.
The Food Council of Amsterdam helps connect regional actors to stimulate deeper collaboration locally, and also helps connect regional pioneers with international markets to help disseminate and adapt working solutions to other contexts around the world.
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