DIY Utopias: Growing Against All Odds 11.01.10

Posted: October 22nd, 2010 | Author:

If you missed (or loved) the opening weekend events, “Brooklyn Utopias: Farm City”, the exhibit is still on view through December 12 and the curators (Katherine Gressel and yours truly) are presenting another special public program for your further greenification:

“DIY Utopias: Growing Against All Odds.”
Monday, November 1, 2010, 7-9pm

Old Stone House, 2nd Floor Gallery
336 3rd Street (between 4th and 5th Avenue)
JJ Byrne (Washington) Park
Park Slope, Brooklyn 11215

Suggested donation: $10
Beer, Soda and Light Snacks Available

The evening will feature hands-on skillshare with activist-artists in an intimate gallery setting. Moderated by experienced DIY-artist Mary Mattingly (of the Waterpod (2009)), four artists/environmental leaders will demonstrate that anyone can contribute to the urban farming movement, turning “Utopian” vision into concrete action.

You will learn some techniques that the busiest of urban dwellers can practice in their own homes. Brooklyn Brewery and Bruce Cost ginger sodas will provide libations to accompany light snacks designed to enhance the learning process.


(1) Rooftop Micro-Farming : : Frieda Lim, Slippery Slope Farms

Frieda is an artist, activist and agrarian.  She will demonstrate how to build and install simple windowsill or rooftop planters capable of yielding food with simple materials, little effort and low maintenance, using Sub-Irrigated Planters (SIPs).  Slippery Slope Farm is a modern urban sub-irrigated rooftop micro-farm located in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Lim designed the project to be simple to install, easy to maintain and capable of replication by anyone with a little space and a desire to grow their own food.

(2) Rainwater Harvesting : : Andrew Casner, GrowNYC

Andrew will demonstrate how to install a rainwater harvest system at your home or apartment, saving potable tap water for people.  Andrew, also known for his Compost Painting contribution to the “Brooklyn Utopias: Farm City” exhibit, works on a crew that installs rainwater catchment for community gardens.

(3) Permaculture & Compost : : Claudia Joseph

CORRECTION! Claudia holds a diploma of permaculture from Permaculture Institute, U.S.A. and has taught and practiced permaculture for 15 years, on both coasts. She manages the farm that surrounds Old Stone House Historic Center.  She practices food foresting and small scale intensive gardening.

If you have ever wondered what “permaculture” is about and how you can get involved, Claudia is the right person to see.  She also specializes in soil building and bio-remediation techniques, explaining some simple steps that you can take at home to turn food waste into “black gold.”  She has taught at Merritt College (CA), the Berkeley Ecology Center, Oakland Botanical Demonstration Gardens, BBG and NYBG among other places.

(4) School Farm Planning & Planters : : Aki and Ron Baker : Adopt-A-Farmbox

Adopt-A-Farmbox will lay out their civic engagement strategies for organizing support for school farms by using the process of building simple planter boxes to catalyze community and to connect around growing food.  Adopt-A-Farmbox builds and donates “farmboxes” to schools in New York City, including several schools throughout Brooklyn. Adopt-A-Farmbox is a volunteer-based, grass-roots campaign started in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and has become an exemplar project integrating community development with education, food, creativity and agriculture.

During this evening, the curators will be on hand to introduce key themes and artworks in the exhibit, reflecting on the specific role of artists in envisioning a greener Brooklyn and contributing to its growing DIY culture. Ultimately, the event will aim to reflect on how some these “DIY” methods together can foster a more integrated, combined effort toward more sustainable living

The evening will also feature an unveiling of Brooklyn Farms: Past, Present, Future, an outdoor digitally-printed banner mural by Katherine Gressel, to eventually be hung on a construction fence in the park.

Visit for complete information on “Brooklyn Utopias: Farm City” including a recently uploaded “living catalog” that will be continuously revised to include more images and information throughout the remaining run of the show.

Filed under: FarmCity.US, Urban Agriculture | No Comments »

Exploring Amsterdam’s Unique Urban Agriculture

Posted: October 5th, 2010 | Author:

Hollyhocks grow from the sidewalk cracks on Hogeweg

Amsterdam is a very green city.  750,000 inhabitants and 600,000 bikes. Almost no cars.  Huge, beautiful parks.  Every swale is covered in an emerald blanket. Potted plants spill out from townhouse entryways.  Everywhere, lush butterfly bushes crowd into street corners and towering hollyhocks with immense pink blossoms grow from tiny cracks between building and sidewalk.

Multi-level Bike Parking Lot at Centraal Station, Amsterdam

I found myself wondering at some innovations that have brought green to the city throughout the 20th Century.

Tuin Parks

Typical tuin house with cold frame and hoops

Tuin Parks are a special area within public parks that are divided into small plots, maybe 20 feet by 20 feet, adorned with a little house.  Like Holland in miniature, Tuin Parks often have their own mini-canals.  Tuin parks are enchanting public-private spaces in which public visitors can enjoy the horticultural talents of private gardeners.

The houses are only a little larger than a shed and have no sleeping accommodations – some have kitchens and desks.  The plot surrounding each house is the imaginative creation of each owner.  Plantings are exquisitely maintained, somehow blending well with neighbors despite growing distinctive varietals.  All manner of vegetables are sprouting alongside herbaceous and ornamental borders. Many gardens are marked by fences or hedges — low enough to permit each garden to be viewed as part of a whole, grander park landscape.

Tuin parks are a peculiarly Dutch urban invention.  “Tuin” means “garden” in Netherlands, but has a deeper cultural resonance.  According to Simon Schama (historian), “The tuin . . . signifie[s] the divinely blessed prosperity of the Netherlands.”  The “tuin” appears repeatedly as an image associated with the Dutch nation, starting with engravings on coins minted in 1573, showing a lion (the king and military might) contained by the domestic image of a “tuin’s” fence.

Tuinpark Klein Dantzig is like Holland in miniature with micro-canal

City Farms & Children’s Farms

Amsterdam’s many parks also contain city farms and children’s farms (kinderboerderijen).  Children’s farms are often petting zoos with domesticated animals in a rustic setting where there milk or eggs are used only for educational purposes.  City farms are usually several acres within a park managed by institutions or carved up as “allotment gardens” where small plots are maintained by individuals or students from nearby schools.

Large greenhouse and allotments associated with a local school

According to researchers Marjolein Elings and Jan Hassink, there about 350 city farms in The Netherlands, “ranging from small fields to large complexes, which have up to 15 million visitors a year.” The farms provide an opportunity for urbanites  to interact with animals, plants, their environment and each other, experiencing first-hand lessons about sustainable agriculture, the food system and their own health.  “In The Netherlands, 25% of the city farms belong to a health institute. Most city farms are paid by the local government. Many farms struggle with a lack of money and bureaucracy due to agricultural legislation.”

City farms are particularly popular and numerous in the Netherlands even though such agriculture can be found throughout Europe as evidenced by the European Federation of City Farms (EFCF).

In Amsterdam, a consortium of government and businesses have launched a project called Proeftuin (“Taste Garden”) promoting individual healthy eating as a means to understand the well-being of nearby farms and the welfare of domestic animals. Proeftuin creates opportunities to buy and sell local foods by helping farmers near the town market their products and services to city dwellers. A similar impulse motivates Boerderijeducatie-Amsterdam — literally “farm education”, a project that coordinates 17 farm businesses in and around the City as sites for students to visit and work in agriculture.  Boerderijeducatie seeks to guide children to better understand the link between farm work and food on their plates.  Boerenstadswens (Farm City Wish) provides fun and rewarding ways for city consumers and farmers to meet each other face-to-face through farm visits, summits and organizing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) associations.

Green Care Farms

Zorgboerderij Erve Knippert providing farm work for elders with dementia

The term ‘Farming for Health’ describes a variety of different kinds of “social agriculture,” such as “Care Farms” or “Green Care Farms” that integrate differently-abled people or former drug addicts as well as farms dedicated to serving children or elders.

According to the International Community of Practice — Farming For Health, Green Care Farms are popular throughout Europe providing beneficial farm work experiences for many people as a better form of social or educational service. For instance, Wageningen University elders who worked on Care Farms were healthier, eating and drinking more normally than similar counterparts in adult daycare centers.  The National Care Farm Institute has documents that the Netherlands had 591 care farms in 2005 compared to just 75 in 1998.  For an excellent introduction to the opportunities and challenges presented by the fastest-growing area of “multifunctional” agriculture, one should refer to the online Proceedings of Frontis Workshop on Farming for Health (2005).

Peri-Urban Polders

In the Netherlands space is at a premium.  A majority of the land area of the country has been reclaimed from the sea over the last 500 years creating fertile fields.  (Not so green).  Hence, every available speck of land seems to be richly planted for agriculture, closely abutting other land uses in surprising ways.  Planted fields appear next to airport runways, adjacent to industrial shipyards, and right at the outskirts of the lanes of urban hardscape.

Fietspad (Bike path) on dyke 1 km outside Amsterdam, cow pasture and canal on left

Fietspad (Bike path) 1 km outside Amsterdam with dairy farms on the polder on left

Farms form a ring at the edge of Dutch cities.  Cities abruptly end and agricultural land starts right away.  The quick transition in land use is jarring to my American sensibilities. I am so used to urban density followed by seemingly endless concentric circles of gradually decreasing-density sprawl, creeping along until rural lands appear at the very far end of the known world.

Amsterdam, for instance, reminds me of historical accounts that I have heard about Brooklyn and Queens — fertile farmland adjacent to Manhattan well into the 1920s.

When the wind shifts over the polders (the term for land beneath the dykes), you can smell livestock manure wafting through the sophisticated Centrum of Amsterdam.  A short bike ride from Centraal Station brings you uninterrupted vistas of grassy fields full of grazing cows, sheep, goats, and horses.  The maintenance of the polders as a peri-urban agricultural space is another way that the heavily urbanized Dutch keep close connections to their food supply.

Squatters and Green Guerillas

Amsterdam is home to Action Group S.W.O.M.P, akin to Green Guerillas in 1970s NYC.  S.W.O.M.P. = Slimme Woonwagenbewoners Op Mooie Plekjes (translation: Smart Caravan People Living in Beautiful Places). The action group formed in the mid 90′s — occupying empty lots and growing their own food there.

SWOMP 4 Permaculture Design with raised beds on sand.

SWOMP 4 is an experimental garden that hopes to experiment and demonstrate diverse approaches sustainable and climate neutral life in vacant spaces. SWOMP doesn’t believe in waiting for “governments and capitalists to give us permission to live our lives in a sustainable way, but we want to start now and learn what we need to learn to live without oil and big industry before it is too late.”

SWOMP 4 uses “permaculture design” growing food year round in the City to show (a) “that people don’t need to import food from all over the the world” and (b) “that industrial farming is both impractical and unnecessary.”  SWOMP 4 uses non-potable ground water for irrigation, composts waste and tests new approaches to growing, like vertical “mass of earth.”

Pilots and Planners

Discussing Amsterdam Pilot in "Farming the City" on September 14, 2010.

While I was visiting Amsterdam, I met with Francesca Miazzo, one of the editors of, focusing a year of inquiry upon “Farming the City.” She invited me to present, Naturally Occuring Retirement Community (NORC) Farm, created jointly with, during a “Week of Sustainability” 09.11-19.10. The CITIES exhibition was divided in three parts: Community activism, Material Design and Public Policy.

On September 14, 2010, CITIES organized workshops in which local farmers, local communities, policy makers, artists, architects and engineers were invited to share their knowledge, skills and intentions — imagining various ways of “Farming the City”. Fourteen innovative ideas for urban agriculture from around the world were presented for consideration as platforms for developing an Amsterdam Pilot project, which will be presented for adoption by the city of Amsterdam.

Farm-to-Table Restaurants

Everyone tells travelers to Amsterdam that the food is terrible.  Well, if you spent your vacation in NYC eating at Gray’s Papaya in Times Square, then you might say the same thing about the City that Never Sleeps.

In contrast to Amsterdam’s poor culinary reputation, the city is in the midst of an amazing food revolution — emphasizing robust flavors, local sourcing and farm-to-table ethics.  Several of the most amazing places to eat in Amsterdam also connect their cuisine to urban farming or peri-urban farm partners.  Amsterdam is home to several conceptual restaurants whose chefs seek to spur re-thinking of how we eat as much as what we eat.

Restaurant De Kas

De Kas Restaurant has its own urban farm & greenhouse.

In 2001, Chef Gert Jan Hageman stumbled upon a 1926 greenhouse that belonged to Amsterdam’s Municipal Nursery — slated for demolition.  Hageman converted the 8-metre high glass building into a restaurant and urban farm.

Situated within Frankendael Park, meals are served inside the soaring greenhouse where the chef grows many of the vegetables and edible flowers that you are served.  De Kas was designed by Piet Boon, preserving the industrial character of the original building. The dining experience reminded me of Stone Barns in NY except that De Kas is located about 100 metres from a tram line well inside the city limits.

De Kas Restaurant seafood salad with greens & edible flowers from its farm.

De Kas Restaurant local seafood salad with greens & flower from its farm.

Proef Restaurant

In 2004,  Studio Marie Vogelzang started “Proef” as a platform for diverse projects that investigate connections and relationships between food and design, cuisine and farming, consumer and producer.  ”Proef” means both “taste” and “eat” in Nederlands. I encountered Proef as the presenter of a conceptual art piece in Performa09 which I reviewed in TheGreenest.Net: Apples & Anti-Pasta (11.07.09).

A view through the tomato beds at Proef Restaurant's urban farm.

Proef Restaurant is one Vogelzang’s latest food design experiments, located in the Westergasfabriek arts complex.   The spatial layout of the restaurant blurs the lines between production and consumption.  Guests can dine inside the kitchen or in the urban farm in the adjacent yard. The experience brings you closer to the food that you eat and the people that prepare it for you.  The raised planters, the industrial setting, the informal vibe reminded me strongly of eating outside in Roberta’s garden in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Proef Restaurant caprese salad presents a re-examination of basic ingredients.

Similarly, the presentation of the dishes intends to alter diners’ assumptions and promote new understandings.  For instance, the ingredients of a caprese salad involves the pairing of fresh mozarella and fresh tomato dressed with basil leaves and a drizzle of good quality olive oil. Vogelzang serves the salad on a plate cleaved in two neat pieces with mozzarella placed on one side of the split and tomato on the other.  The round ball of mozzarella has a wedge cut out of its middle in the shape of a tomato slice.  The plating is playfully provoking a question about the relationship of the ingredients how they blend and separate.

Restaurant Merkelbach

Formal French gardens of Restaurant Merkelbach.

Restaurant Merkelbach is located in the former coach house and stunning formal gardens of the Frankendael estate that became the park of the same name.  The Restaurant takes its name from the last owner who generously open his home to curious visitors.  Chef Geert Burema applies a French-Mediterranean style to local ingredients, emphasizing freshness and seasonality, receiving mention in the pages of Food and Wine.

Burema developed a relationship Ben and Ria Voortwis of Lindenhoff Farm, just 12 kilometers away from the restaurant in Baambrugge. Voortwis raises free-range cows, pigs, lambs and chickens. His motto is “authentic taste” and his operation sells fresh meat as well as using all the parts of the animal to make sausages, pates, hams and other preserved meats.  Nose-to-tail Netherlands Style!

Voortwis is so concerned about freshness that he deliver eggs to customers within 10 hours of the hen’s laying. Burema and other chefs asked Voortwis about traditional Dutch butter and fresh raw milk cheeses, so the farmer started to produce them himself.  Now he produces over twenty types of dairy products.

Chefs asked him for lettuces and herbs, so Voortwis started to grow them.  And what vegetables he can’t grow himself, he sources from other, like-minded biologique (organic) farmers. The story of Chef Burema and Farmer Voortwis provides an important example about how a dynamic relationship between producer and consumer can create new markets for locally-produced, carefully sourced food.  The results of this flavor partnership are incredibly delicious.

Restaurant AS

Communal dining tables of rough hewn wood is part of the neo-primitive aesthetic of Restaurant As

This conceptual restaurant is close to impossible find, located inside Beatrixpark in the South Axis area (where tourists never tend to roam). As our bike ride got longer and longer, my wife begged me to admit that I was lost. Luckily, I wasn’t (although my iPhone was. . .).  Just as I was about to lose hope, I saw a sign for Prinses Irenestraat across the broad 4 lanes of Beethovenstraat.

I am glad we persevered: Restaurant AS is one of Amsterdam’s most creative restaurants full of food provocation and pleasure.  AS started as part of the now-defunct Platform 21, an experimental space for sustainable design and fashion, housed in a round brutalist concrete chapel (now “Kunst Kapel”) adjacent to a de-comissioned monastery. Everything from the kitchen and bar line is organic and local, like beer from Brouwerij ‘t IJ and fruit drinks Beemster polder.  However, AS is more than that. .

The motto of Restaurant AS is “cooking in its purest form.” According to Chef Sander Overeinder, the kitchen is outdoors and open “so that one may see, in a respectful manner, that one dies so the other may live.” Similarly, the dining process is dramatic, slow, casual and thoughtful (Our meal lasted three hours) — these traits are characteristic of New Netherlands cuisine.  And, in the spirit of open source software, Chef Overeinder provides all of his recipes online (follow tab labeled “steekgerecthen”).  By sharing his process as well as his recipes so overtly, Overeinder invites you to see cooking food as creative, spiritual, and social.

The chef selects the menu based on what is available according to seasonal and climatic changes. Overeinder looks for authentic, flavourful ingredients obtained from “suppliers that are small enough to make their own decisions,” such as De Wolf’s Dutch goat cheese from Terwolde, organic vegetables grown on Dutch soil, and a bit farther afield, like Panifico Deumila’s Pane di Altamura from Puglia.

Diners sit at long, rough-hewn communal tables (inside or outside) while meals are cooked within view a Tuscan oven. The server offers a choice of meat or fish. I took the stewed goat, prepared with almonds and saffron, flavored with lemon pickled in salt. Salty, sweet, gamey.

We drank a delicious organic red wine from France (I wish I could remember the name!) and met some friends from Brooklyn whom we stumbled upon earlier in the day.  On one side, we viewed the glare of neon sign from the Kunst Kapel –culture and creativity of human systems — and on the other we faced the dark forms of closely-set tall trees in the huge Beatrixpark.  The setting for Restaurant AS provided a fitting way to re-imagine food — poised between nature and culture — so perfectly understood by our Dutch hosts.

Neon sign "Kunst Kapel" (Art Chapel) announces Restaurant AS in the dark.

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