The world is urbanizing at a rapid pace. Over half of the global population is living in cities. And this will only increase over the next few decades. Worldwide, we are dealing with the same challenges: how can we keep cities livable, sustainable and economically viable for all? Meiny Prins, director of Priva and founder of Sustainable Urban Delta, pleads for a drastic change in the way we produce and distribute food. “If cities start to feel responsible again for producing food for its inhabitants, we can solve the environmental global crisis.”
Sixty years ago, Dutch technology company Priva took an important step when they launched their first climate computer for climate control in the field of horticulture. Now, Priva is leading the development and production of innovative solutions for sustainable climate control and process management in horticulture, the built environment and indoor cultivation, both in the Netherlands and internationally. Amongst others, Meiny Prins was heavily involved in the development of the top sector policy with regards to water, energy and horticulture. In addition, she focuses on connecting businesses, governments and industries when it comes to sustainability, innovation and internationalization.
Over half of the global population is living in cities. And this number will only increase.
In 1800, only two percent of the global population lived in cities. In 1950, this had increased to thirty percent and in 2007 we broke a record when for the first time in human history, half of the worldwide population lived in cities. At the moment, every week, 1,5 million urban dwellers are added to the grand total. Because of this, by 2030, Source PWC: will live in urban regions.
It is your mission to bring food production back to the city. Why does nutrition have such a big impact on the challenges we are currently facing worldwide?
“Nutrition is about much more than just healthy food. It is about CO2-reduction, energy, mobility, health, water, social cohesion, etcetera. And it is relatable to people, it is not too complicated or too big. Back in the days, cities would have a green belt surrounding them: an area that produced food for the city. These green belts at a relatively close distance from the consumer still make sense, but megacities are pushing these areas away with their growth.”
Doing nothing costs more than investing in a sustainable and new economy. We need to have the courage to make sustainable decisions.
“For real estate investors, it is more profitable to apply for a building permit for farm land than to give it a different destination with much more long-term value”, Meiny continues. “Because of this, I think we should include local food production – and thereby the green belts – in urban developments. This will spur new connections on a social, ecological and economic level. It will also create greener cities, save an enormous amount of water and energy and reduce CO2-emissions. Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the social aspect. Food production, because of its ties to food markets, entrepreneurship, jobs and green areas, plays an important role in creating livable cities.”
Meiny illustrates how social, ecological and economic interests are intertwined: “By applying greenhouse constructions in different ways, we can create massive opportunities. For example, by linking a greenhouse to a home for the elderly, we can create a pleasant indoor climate for the inhabitants, they can have their vegetable gardens in the greenhouse and their grandchildren can play amongst the veggies.”
You stand up against doomsday thinking. Why?
“A sustainable future is around the corner. Doing nothing costs more money than investing in a sustainable and new economy. We need to have the courage to make sustainable decisions. Everyone can feel that solar energy is the future, but still it is being counteracted. Many people and institutions have vested interests in the fossil fuel industries, including governments and banks. This is one thing I always point out in my lectures: with our subsidies – for example in the fossil fuel industry, but also in agriculture – we are actively keeping a system alive that is destroying our own planet. And the way we produce food, combined with climate change, will create hunger for billions of people. Large scale production based on monoculture in a few centralized locations is mostly aimed at cost reduction. But with all transport, excessive water use and food waste, it is disastrous for the environment.”
With our subsidies – for example in the fossil fuel industry, but also in agriculture – we are actively keeping a system alive that is destroying our own planet.
And that mass production goes completely against producing locally.
“Totally. The way we produce meat and subsequently dump it in Africa is utterly ridiculous. In doing so, you take away the right of these countries to develop themselves. Agriculture is a great good that stimulates economic growth. And each country should have the chance to grow its own agricultural sector. With our behavior, we are robbing them of that opportunity.”
In 2012 you started Sustainable Urban Delta, your concept for sustainable food production in big delta cities everywhere around the world. Why?
“I wanted to show people that the solutions are already at hand. With the foundation, we aim to inspire municipalities, city planners, architects, real estate developers, businesses and civilians everywhere around the world. When the gas started running out in the Netherlands, many people realized we need to look for a new revenue model. At Priva, we always say: ‘The more integral, the more climate neutral’. Connection and balance in how we deal with energy, water and waste is the starting point of circularity.”
According to Meiny, there are many ways in which we can foster these connections. “For example, by using the CO2 from industrial areas in greenhouses, or connecting the central heating of a residential area to the excess energy from a greenhouse. We already did that ten years ago in the Netherlands. The problem is that when you try to innovate within existing structures, things become very big and complicated quickly. Therefore, sometimes it is better to focus on the small scale first, so that you enable businesses and entrepreneurs to start acting immediately.”
You say that things can become very big and complex very quickly, but we’re talking about cities with 10 million inhabitants. Is your plan feasible?
“Yes, it definitely is. In fact, the Netherlands is already proving it can be done. If you look at the Netherlands as a city, then we are the greenest city in the world. A better example of how you can include green areas in urban areas does not exist. The Westland is the example of urban agriculture in a metropole called ‘The Netherlands’. These types of infrastructures are so beneficial for entrepreneurship, social coherence and sustainable food production. Ideally, the food would not get transported further away than 700 or 800 kilometers, so from here to Belgium, Germany or England. That is still reasonably local, the food does not travel halfway across the world, and in megacities like Shanghai or Mexico City it also takes several hours to get from A to B.”
So the Netherlands has an exemplary role?
“It is all about creating connections within systems. Something the Netherlands is very good at. There are so many Dutch projects in the area of food production that also contribute to creating sustainable – and thereby livable – cities. CO2 from the harbor in Rotterdam is being used to grow plants. There are many links between datacenters and the city, between wastewater and the city. Plant based material is being transformed into building material. And we’re able to grow eighty kilos of tomatoes per square meters in a sustainable way with only four liters of water. Whilst in many countries, they barely make four kilos per square meter and use eighty to two hundred liters of water per kilo. Beautiful examples of how you can build a business case and provide value at the same time.”
Everywhere around the world, cities are dealing with the same problems with regards to water, food, energy and mobility. And we can help them with that. The Sustainable Urban Delta as the new revenue model for the Netherlands Ltd.
Is the idea of local food production catching on?
“I hope so. I have made a documentary that showcases existing initiatives to inspire city planners, architects and big cities. So that they can see with their own eyes it can be done. For example, in the documentary we visit a project that is working on transforming an impoverished Detroit. We also feature the outskirts of Beijing. Because in China – as the value of the land increases if you create smart food projects on it – real estate developers are obliged to invest in the green belt if they want to build in the city. I try to tie these examples together, so that urban planners and policy makers can draw inspiration from it. Because the innovative entrepreneurs are important, but cities will have to be the ones who facilitate the process.”
That is not happening enough?
“No, it is not and very often the right knowledge is missing. People focus on direct profit, what can we make right now, instead of looking at the long term in terms of employment and wellbeing. Because people do not want to live in concrete jungles. Cities need to realize that there is much more value to their land than merely the price per square meter.”
You believe in the potential of high tech to make the world a better place for our children. Why?
“I am convinced that tech is going to change the world. The technology is available and it is becoming cheaper, which enables more people to use it. In addition, not many young people have the ambition to work in agriculture. Therefore, tech is becoming increasingly more important. But our own behavior is holding us back. We keep the systems that prevent major breakthroughs in the fields of energy, water, food production and health care upright. The subsidies for intensive agriculture and fossil fuels exemplify this.”
This will be the century of the city. Within fifteen years, sixty percent of all people will live in a metropole.
Despite the current situation, Meiny is hopeful about the future. “I am sure we will live through some massive breakthroughs in the next few decades. And they will take place in cities, enforced by the inhabitants. City dwellers no longer want to live in extremely small and expensive apartments, surrounded by polluted air, stinking sewage systems and barely any green. Quality of life will become more important, even more important than economic growth.”
So you’re saying that cities will determine what will happen?
“Yes, this will be the century of the city. Within fifteen years, sixty percent of all people will live in a metropole. The gap between national policy and what cities really need is increasing, you can see that everywhere in the world. Ministers are thinking about concrete, whilst Amsterdam is talking about smart mobility. In the United States, Trump retreated from the Paris Agreement, whilst a massive environmental and climate movement was on the rise in American cities. I believe many interesting things will happen in cities, amongst others to make them more sustainable at a rapid pace, which is something national governments can no longer do because of their vested interests. They play less of a role in cities, party politics is less strong there.”
Anything else you would like the reader to take away?
“Only that, in addition to the environmental and societal urgency of this transition, knowing where your food originates from is a great thing. Because when you know where it is from, you know that it is safe. Not because of some label, but because you know its origin. Policy makers do not get this yet, but the environmental problems give a healthy incentive for change. We need to teach people how they can produce food in a different way. So that we can build an ecosystem in which we can connect entrepreneurial idealism to business models. That is the future.”
Want to know more? Watch Meiny’s documentary ‘The City and the Green Belt’ here:
The original Dutch version of this article was published on Duurzaamheid.nl
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