Sustainable Urban Delta

Interview on Food Producing Cities

The Sustainable Urban Delta Foundation was founded to inspire megacities on healthy and sustainable urban growth, with the production of local, healthy and fresh food as key element. The foundation aims to be a catalyst and connector in order to create a better future.

In this in-depth interview, we talk to founder Meiny Prins and business developer Marinus Luiten about their mission and plans to transform the urban environment. Both do so from different roles and perspectives. Since many years, Meiny is the CEO of Priva, worldwide specialist in climate control in horticulture, indoor farming and buildings, whereas Marinus contributes to the foundation from his background in Future Planet Studies and Sustainable Business development.

Meiny, a few years ago, you founded Sustainable Urban Delta. How did this initiative come about? What was your main inspiration?

‘The vision for Sustainable Urban Delta came from comparing the grey views of endless concrete I saw when flying over most cities to the green mosaic that is the Netherlands, arguably one large city on Europe’s west coast. I realized that my home country is a living, breathing, functioning and successful example of a food producing city.

The wastage built into the current global food supply chain was also a major driver and the often-total unavailability of fresh fruit and vegetables in inner city communities, known as food deserts, mainly affecting lower income groups. This has a major impact on health, education, and life expectancy. It is another example of how today’s food logistics industry is literally killing people.

And finally, it is the global warming combined with the catastrophic distribution and availability of food to billions of people, malnutrition, hunger, and even starvation in starker words. We don’t have full answers or solutions to either issue, but we can take huge steps in eradicating them both, global warming with the technology we have available today, and global hunger if we change our food supply chain and misguided government subsidies.’

You always say The Netherlands already is a Sustainable Urban Delta. What exactly do you mean by that? And how do you regard Sustainable Urban Deltas in a global context?

‘Cities are often built in deltas. Water is important as a resource to its inhabitants, but also necessary when it comes to logistics, transport, distribution of goods, including food. The Netherlands is a small, densely populated country in a water rich area. Its total number of inhabitants is comparable to larger cities in the rest of the world.

After WWII, there was a very strong societal consensus that food shortages of that scale should never happen again. In the Netherlands, that feeling was translated in meticulous planning regarding water management and fertile soils, and that is how the dutch intensive food production and trading system came about, in scale now the 2nd exporter of food after the USA.
I reckon that it’s very important that cities, large clusters of people living close together, take that into account and think about how their food supply is being arranged and guaranteed. Not only does war teach us how important that is, but the recent pandemic made that very clear as well.

What astonishes me though, when it comes to development in urban areas, is that city planners, architects and policy makers, the people that should think and decide about these issues, often don’t have any idea, notion or knowledge about food production at all. They don’t know anything about the necessary, critical infrastructure needed to ensure food security for the people living in their cities. Food is, above all, still very much associated with the countryside.

The model of the Sustainable Urban Delta can be replicated by any city that includes inner city agriculture in their design criteria: Provide inner city employment, fresher food, reduced greenhouse gases, optimal use of water, eliminate pesticides, educational and recreational facilities for the young and old, sustainability and security for the city’s food supply. The benefits are huge. And yes, it can be an indoor farm, rooftop farm, open field, tabletops, greenhouse or even a backyard as a vegetable garden. It can even be a sustainable chicken farm, fish farming, algae, or any food related business. That is up to the entrepreneur and his or her ambitions and marketplace.’

The Netherlands as an example of a Sustainable Urban Delta
The Netherlands as an example of a Sustainable Urban Delta

‘Our foundation aims to inspire city governments, city planners, architects, real estate developers, businesses, and citizens to rethink the way cities are designed and embrace the idea that part of their food can be produced locally and sustainably. Changing the way we produce and transport food will kick-start the circular economy and minimize food loss and waste: A rewarding perspective for a better quality of life, solving many environmental problems along the way.’

At EatThis., we have already had the honor to work with Sustainable Urban Delta on Rem Koolhaas’ Guggenheim expedition ‘Countryside, the Future’, where you participated by investing and building an indoor farm on 5th Avenue. What point did you want to make by doing so?

‘Well, in short, to once more stress the point I already made above; the importance of food production in large cities, and, above all, the importance of the planning and knowledge about not only its production, but also its logistics and distribution. Of course, people cannot survive or depend only on tomatoes and lettuce produced in vertical farms, but in cities, food production is generally not on people’s minds at all.

In the Netherlands, food security is not an issue anymore, whereas in the USA it still is an issue with its food deserts. People there sometimes have to go a long way to buy healthy food, not only physically but also mentally. The pandemic illustrated beautifully, or rather painfully, how vulnerable the current food systems are. Due to the pandemic, the exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum did not have the success we hoped for, but its message was all the more powerful.’

Marinus, how did you become part of Sustainable Urban Delta?

‘I don’t have those so-called green fingers and I wasn’t born in Westland, but during my studies (I have a Bachelor in Future Planet Studies and a Master Sustainable Business and Innovations), I did realize food was an extremely interesting topic and working area where my interests in the fields of sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship come together.

I started my career at cooperative Horticoop. From there, I got to work in indoor farming and via Meiny I ended up at Sustainable Urban Delta, where I work as a business developer.

Sustainable Urban Delta foundation started with sharing inspiring and uplifting stories that focus on food production in (large) cities. Now, the foundation is taking its next steps. Can you share with us what they are and how this transition came about?

‘Indeed, storytelling was our initial focus. Our mission is to inspire cities to make choices towards healthier cities, towards food producing cities. We put focus on megacities that have the political will and intrinsic motivation to change.
Now, we see that cities approach us and tell us, ‘Okay, we value your stories, we understand what you’re trying to say, but how can we become that healthy city, that Sustainable Urban Delta?’

Singapore was the first big city that we got in touch with, because the Singapore Food Agency defined a challenging proposition; in 2030, 30% of the city’s need for food should be produced within the city state boundaries of Singapore itself (currently it is only 6%) and 50% of the energy needed for production must be renewable. It’s dubbed the 30/30 program.

Sustainable Urban Delta is now part of a larger consortium, headed by MKPL Architects, that, together with partners Kuiper Compagnons and Ramboll, works to realize part of this ambition in the therefore designated Lim Chu Kang area. We focus on key products such as mushrooms, seaweed and fresh produce from controlled environmental agriculture. We are currently compiling an integral plan and clearly see how important it is to understand the local food system, the market and local dietary culture before new practices can be implemented. To this end, knowledge transfer and training are extremely important.’

What other ambitions does Sustainable Urban Delta foundation have?

‘We hope to be able to execute more projects following the proof of concept that we developed in-house. We propose a three-phased approach where we first create a shared understanding with the stakeholders of a city what the local food system looks like, and what the best pathways to improve food security are. By doing so, we identify gaps in the existing food system. Then, we work with cities to select eligible sites, bring in investments and technology from our extensive network to support new developments in the food system. Lastly, we guide the city in the project implementation phase.

Besides Singapore, we’re working on a project in Hamburg together with the Hamburg Food Cluster. One of the great initiatives there is the Future Food Campus, where manure from regenerative farms in the greenbelt is used as power to operate a vertical farm and to produce cultivated meat. It’s a great and ambitious example of how the food value chain can be visualized towards the city’s inhabitants.

In addition, we look to become active in Abu Dhabi and to add to the work in Neom, introducing our principles and models in the earliest stages of urban planning.’

What do you think the future of food looks like?

I agree with Meiny that the mental and physical distance to our food is generally still increasing. In my opinion, that has contributed a lot to the overall devaluation of food; people do not value what’s on their plate and often don’t know where it comes from or how it was produced or which impact it had. That’s why, in my opinion, movements as ‘true pricing’ are so important.

I think that meat will, and should, become more expensive and I also believe that there will be room for cultured meat. I know that in the Netherlands/Europe, there’s a slow movement towards plant-based diets and I think this should go much faster.

At the same time, if you look at developing countries, as soon as people earn middle class incomes they will proceed to eat their own weight in meat. This tendency has been going on for the last 40 years and will not change overnight.

Last but not least, I hope that cities (and I mean their planners, architects, and the like) start to understand what responsibility they have to feed their inhabitants in an efficient and sustainable way so that healthy food is accessible to all.

This interview is part of our Inside Out series of in-depth interviews with our contributors. Follow us on Instagram or Twitter for updates!