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Urban Farming in Swedish Cities

Green City Growers’ CEO & Founder, Jessie Banhazl, reports from the road in Sweden on her Eisenhower Fellowship. Learn more about her program objectives, and check out her previous posts from Gothenburg, Berlin ,and  Munich  

After leaving Gothenburg, I continued my journey to Sweden’s other largest cities- visiting Stockholm, Malmö, Uppsala, and Lund, all in a whirlwind week. I am still digesting the wealth of knowledge that was bestowed upon me, but I will do my best to summarize what I’ve learned.

In all 5 cities I visited, it was clear to me that community-oriented urban gardening was an important part of the culture in Sweden and was an important part of creating community and engagement spaces within city limits. Sustainable design, construction, and urban planning are also a huge priority for the country, with an emphasis on using natural resources responsibly, efficiently, and renewably. The conversation around urban food systems was sophisticated and showed a deep awareness of the value of urban agriculture for both social wellness and food system sustainability. While there a considerably less examples of commercial urban farming organizations in Sweden than in the US, it felt like only a matter of time before the industry would accelerate. More than in the US, the culture, government, and business communities are comfortable with making systemic changes in order to be more environmentally sustainable. I was so impressed with the use of renewable energy in Sweden, with most of their public transit system running off biogas created through the incineration of their waste instead of landfilling it. In fact, Sweden imports waste in order to generate enough biofuel for the country.

While many of the larger cities are surrounded by significant farmland, much of that land is used to produce feed and for grazing livestock. Pushback against urban farming comes from the belief that these cities have ample resources from the surrounding farmland. In fact, 70% of the produce the country consumes is imported. That said, efforts by the general public to cut back on meat consumption because of its significant impact on the environment was widespread, with many young people choosing to be vegetarian and vegan. The interest and desire for locally sourced food was also growing.

Startup culture was much stronger in Sweden than it was in Germany. With opportunities through government and EU funds for innovation, incubators and startup resource organizations were readily available and promoted new ideas and small businesses.

While urban food systems have not yet become a part of the fabric of urban life in Swedish cities, I believe it is only a matter of time before the industry explodes and the culture begins to fully support these activities and initiatives. People just get it when it comes to environmental sustainability in Sweden. The organizations I met and research I was presented with over my two weeks in the country prove that people are talking and thinking about urban farming in a meaningful way. I can’t wait to see what the future of urban farming looks like in Sweden.

Who I Met With:

Urban Oasis

One of the only commercial farming operations I met with during my stay in Sweden was Urban Oasis based in Stockholm. Founded in 2017, CEO Albert Payaro Llisterri and COO Marius Lasse Kopiez are operating an indoor farm which they are about to expand to grow additional leafy greens to be sold to market. A pending deal with an international food service company would set them up to grow food on-site at a large corporate campus as well. Neither Albert or Lasse is originally from Sweden. Both ended up in the country for university and decided to stay in Stockholm. Founded by Albert, he thought Stockholm was the perfect place to launch his business over another location in Europe- it’s the capital city, sustainability resonates in Scandinavia, and there is a strong support system through the startup culture and government-funded innovation incubators. They hope to have a decentralized system of indoor farms (500-20,000 square meters in size) that will provide hyper-local produce to local supermarkets and food service providers from as close as possible. With some big expansion plans on the horizon and a lot of great support, I think Urban Oasis is on the cusp of making a real name for themselves.

Norra Djurgardstaden (Royal Seaport)

While in Stockholm I got a chance to visit a newly built neighborhood, the Royal Seaport. Once completed, this area will contain 12,000-15,000 residential units. Stockholm owns 90% of the property, and it is the 2nd sustainability-focused new neighborhood in the city. 20 years in the making, this impressive neighborhood is a closed-loop system of renewable energy techniques and innovative design. All the buildings are required to have green roofs, rainwater catchment systems, use renewable energy sources, and provide usable green spaces. The organization within the city in charge of the development provides competence programs for all the developers building in the area, creating opportunities for the builders to learn from the city and each other to be able to meet these contractually obligated sustainability requirements. Other impressive features included constructing the entire neighborhood well above sea level to anticipate rising sea levels, rainwater and pollinator gardens within the public streets and sidewalks, and the use of biochar in the landscape installations to clean storm water runoff before it reaches the ocean. So cool!

SymbioCity

I met with Paul Dixelius from SKL International, a consulting organization working with municipalities globally to spread knowledge about Sweden’s unique and successful approach to decentralized power and localized government. In 2010, SKL formed the SymbioCity program with the hopes of providing consultation around sustainable urban planning to combat poverty by creating better living conditions through sustainable design. Unlike in the U.S, environmental protection and climate change are considered priorities for all of Sweden’s political parties, even the more conservative parties. Paul believes Swedes have a built-in sense of responsibility to the environment and believe that have green spaces in cities create a sense of security for residents. With only 1% of the country’s waste going into landfills, he believed it was only a matter of time before composting and sustainable, localized agriculture became priorities.

Uppsala Botanical Gardens

I got a serious history lesson visiting the historic botanical gardens in Uppsala, Sweden’s 4th largest city. Uppsala is the home of Carl Linneaus, known as the “father of modern taxonomy”, he is famous for his creation of the naming convention we use to classify plants to this day. We got a great tour of the two historical botanical gardens and learned about Linneaus’ influence on the history of plant identification and awareness around plant diversity and ecological awareness.

I also got a chance to meet with the botanical garden’s head gardener. We discussed the way they use the children’s garden and the vegetable garden as an educational tool for the public and in a more targeted way to train teachers to use the garden as a part of their classroom studies. We discussed the importance of both growing local, historically relevant plants while also showcasing plants from around the world.

City of Uppsala Community Gardens

I got a tour of a few of the community gardens managed by the City of Uppsala. Uppsala has 19 community garden and allotment garden areas, and is a very climate-focused municipality, having just won “most sustainable city” of the year, mostly due to their implementation of the Uppsala Climate Protocol. The Uppsala Climate Protocol was inspired by the UN’s work on its climate convention and today acts as a local Paris Agreement. The ambition for the Uppsala Climate Protocol is to take the lead in climate work and to be a model for other cities. Two years ago, the city had great success with implementing what they called their “urban farming year”. This initiative replaced all the city-managed planters throughout the city with edible plantings and providing public education programs and events to educate residents how to harvest and use the food grown. It was a huge success and the city is considering doing it again soon. While there were no restaurants in Uppsala, growing their own food on-site, a local food exchange for small-scale farmers selling to Uppsala residents on Facebook had 10,000 members all of which are interested in sourcing local produce.

City of Lund and City of Malmö Allotment Gardens and Community Gardens

I spent a fun morning with Janine Österman, urban garden coordinator for the City of Lund. Sweden’s 5th largest city with 100,000 residents, the city is heavily influenced by the presence of Lund University, one of the top colleges in Sweden.  Lund is just 10 minutes from Malmö, Sweden’s 3rd largest city. Janine’s position has oversight of a wide variety of urban gardening activities within the city. Lund did not have any commercial farming operations (they were all nearby in Malmö), but it did have a strong community gardening and allotment gardening scene, with residents passionate about growing food and utilizing outdoor spaces for community engagement. Janine brought me to one of the city’s allotment garden sites, established in the 1800’s. Allotment gardens in Sweden were set up differently than in Germany- residents could purchase these tiny houses and pay a rental fee to the city. You can live in your tiny house in the summer, but not year-round. These community spaces are extremely popular and have a sizable waiting list. Unlike Germany, there is no requirement to grow food on your plot, though many gardeners do. Fruit trees, especially apples, were extremely popular in the sites I visited.

Janine was tasked with a variety of community education around urban gardening as a part of her position. Her creative strategies included hosting workshops about replacing city trees with fruit trees, workshops about preservation and managing urban fruit, as well as education in how to best organize your community gardening association to divide tasks effectively. We also visited a community-run food forest which was exciting to see that residents were so interested in permaculture.

I also got the chance to meet with Shoshanna Iten from the City of Malmö. Malmö saw urban gardening to create a deeper social fabric and increase the quality of life for their residents. They created a vision of urban gardening in the city, that “it’s as natural to garden in the public parks as it is to walk in them”. While not there yet, Malmo’s commitment to creating additional spaces where residents can grow food and gather was a clear priority.

Lund University- Sustainable Urban Design Degree

I met with Louise Lövenstierne and her colleague from Lund University’s Sustainable Urban Design degree. This multi-disciplinary degree includes planners, architects, and landscape architects. The degree has increased in popularity dramatically in recent years, with 400 students applying for 25 slots this past year. Out of the innovative projects that students develop, 25% of them have included urban farming as a feature. We discussed that the number of square feet of the existing grocery stores in Sweden is equal to the total square feet of farmland in the country. What if those grocery stores were growing food on their roofs? Would it change the fact that 70% of the produce consumed in the country is imported by producing more food within the city? We also discussed the need to focus on “low tech” agricultural systems as well as “high tech”, as the low-tech systems cost significantly less in infrastructure and can be very effective ways to grow food in urban areas. They gifted me this great guide to the EU’s sustainability goals as well!

Ideon Innovation Incubator

I got a chance to sit down with the Ola Andersson, CEO of the Ideon Innovation lab. This startup incubator program provides support, office space, and funding opportunities for innovative startup organizations. Since 2004, 300 companies have gone through the program. The program includes a sustainability-focused training program to ensure companies are considering the most environmentally conscious way to produce their products. This program is funded by the government and there are opportunities to apply for and pitch for government funding to support your company. The support of the Swedish government (and the EU) of innovation and sustainability was great to learn more about, as it seems to be a big factor in creating opportunities to approach agriculture and business as a whole in new ways that can disrupt the more traditional, and often less efficient, ways of doing business.

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)

I spent the morning at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Alnarp, just north of Malmö. This world-renowned university is home to 3,000 researchers focused on agriculture. I had the pleasure of meeting a few of their researchers who discussed their work as it applied to urban farming. I learned soooo much from these presentations. We discussed the importance of community gardening to a the fabric of social life for people living in cities, marketing and communicating the importance of local food, utilizing agricultural land efficiently to feed the population, the importance of high-tech greenhouse growing for localizing food systems, and the importance of food safety education and protocol for urban gardening and farming. These concepts and the research supporting them are so important to the urban agriculture movement. Hearing facts and data on these topics was incredibly inspiring, as it showed a real possibility for local food and urban gardening to create significant environmental and social good- in fact they do already- and SLU can prove it.

I also visited the Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden, hosted at SLU. This incredible therapeutic garden provides patients with the opportunity to engage with gardening both passively and actively to heal for a variety of mental health ailments. The program Director, Patrik Grahn, presented on the program’s work with patients dealing with burnout. Through their therapeutic program, they were able to see all their patients go from non-functioning to functioning, with clear trends showing reduce stress symptoms and ability to return to the working world. At the garden, they are working with a wide variety of health issues to see what kinds of patients their garden program can help with. There was no question at the Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden that gardening can help people heal.


Botlilenborg + Stadsbruk

My final stop In Sweden was to meet with Cyrille Gauber and Saba Nazarian from Botlilenborg and Stadsbruk in Malmö. In the middle of Malmö’s extremely diverse Rosengård neighborhood (150 nationalities!), Botildenborg is an innovation center for sustainability. Focused on “Social Gastronomy”, the center hosts conferences, cooking workshops, and bringing cultures together around food and farming. With a wide variety of programs and activities, Botlilenborg’s programming was impressive and meant to reach people through a multitude of strategies, all with the hope of creating a more sustainable and equitable society.

Hosted at Botlilenborg is Stadsbruk, a program dedicated to educating and launching market farm operations in Sweden and beyond. On the property, the Stadsbruk program hosts an educational market farm which it uses as an example of innovative and productive small-scale intensive growing techniques. This farming program is operated by Saba Nazarian. Originally from Montreal, Saba relocated to Malmö to run this program after training under Curtis Stone and Jean Martin-Fortier, two of the most established and well-known market farmers in the world. Both the educational farm and the incubator run by Stadsbruk intend to provide emerging farmers with the skills and knowledge to be able to farm successfully on a small scale. By providing these resources, Stadsbruk is creating a network of successful small businesses that are localizing the food system and creating opportunities for individuals to become small-scale farmers. Since 2016, the program has worked with 70 businesses between their programs in Malmo and Gothenburg. They provide education, test beds to try out growing techniques, and land leases that start small and get bigger. They also assist in pricing, marketing, and bringing your product to market. This program structure has been so successful that Stadbruk consults with municipalities both within and outside of Sweden to implement this program. It was a huge please to meet both Cyrill and Saba and I look forward to staying in touch with them.

One more stop on my fellowship journey! I head to Paris next. Stay tuned….

 


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