The Urban Greenhouse Challenge

Skygardeners Cover Photo

Written by Coach, Ceres Designer Marina Gieres 

Wageningen University & Research hosted the second edition of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge and we participated as the coach of the Skygardeners.

The Challenge 

Trends in urban growth present opportunities as well as challenges when it comes to the  environment and our food systems. Many cities are starting to look for ways to feed themselves sustainably and to create a liveable and healthy environment for urban dwellers. To support these developments and explore the potential of urban farming, Wageningen University & Research organized the Urban Greenhouse Challenge where BSc, MSc, and Ph.D. students all over the world designed an urban greenhouse. 

The projects integrated social, economic, environmental and technical aspects into one coherent concept. 

Every edition of the Urban Greenhouse Challenge is based on an existing location in one of the world’s major cities; this year it is in the city of Dongguan, China.

The Team

Ceres had the opportunity to coach one of the 20 selected teams, the Skygardeners. This experience allowed us to talk about the future of food production with 12 talented and innovative students with diverse backgrounds in Plant Sciences, Landscape Design, Environmental Sciences, Organic Agriculture, Biobased Sciences and Social Sciences. 

“The main reason I joined the challenge was the requirement for interdisciplinarity. Working in such a big team with people with different backgrounds meant that we had to find a common language to speak. We learned things we wouldn’t have studied in our classes and we understood how the other members had different working processes.” says Orfeas Petropoulos, one of the team members. 

The Concept

“To face the challenges of food and resource security, as well as well-being in modern China, it is necessary to redesign the environment we are living in. We want to deliver a design that expands on the concepts of sustainability and circularity, while also taking into account social challenges and the future of urban-rural relations.

An important objective for the entirety of China is to train the next generation of farmers. We want to do so in our greenhouse! 

Our project is conceptualized within the context of the fast transformation of Dongguan and the greater area into an innovative pole. Visitors will be able to enjoy an all-around experience of the food supply chain within the same building, from the producers directly to the consumers.That’s how Viridi was designed.” Skygardeners.

Building Concept-Design generation

The Building – Viridi

The main functions are located among four different floors including vertical farming, cultural education, and social interaction. 

Construction of the Building

Viridi has three growing spaces:

  1. On the ground floor there is a vertical farm for large-scale production.
  2. On the terrace, the Four Season Greenhouse is a sun-fed, seasonal greenhouse that is inspired by natural ecosystems. Some of the production is, in fact, used for the in-house restaurant and for selling to visitors. 
  3. A community garden for social purposes.

Foodways of China is a collective space for encounters, and an event area and market where food produced can be sold to visitors.

The Dongguan Urban Food School: students can experience different aspects of agribusiness and network within the industry.

The AGRI-art space is the place where food and agriculture are both celebrated and looked at as opportunities for the future: regenerative design and agriculture, biomimicry, blockchain, AI and food informatics, robotics, cultured meat, 3D-printed food, edible food packaging, etc.

The Experience

The coaching lasted three months and consisted of video-call meetings every week where the team prepared different topics to discuss and share updates on the project. Some of the meetings were very specific about technical points or design issues, and others were more general, which allowed us to talk broadly about the future of urban agriculture and how we imagine a more sustainable and healthier world. 

It was an exceptional way to mix our expertise in architectural and mechanical systems design with innovative and futuristic concepts brought by the team.

Artist Impression of the Building

Personally, I really enjoyed coaching because it allowed me to have a break from the daily design process and think more about the broader concepts involved in urban agriculture. At the same time, it was challenging to find the right scope when thinking about multiple aspects like the materials, the food production, the circularity, the business model and the social impact of the project; especially in a creative and innovative way. With the team, we wanted to discuss and cover everything, but not too specifically to lose the wider picture of the project.

Working Internationally During a Pandemic

At Ceres, we are used to having online meetings since some of us live not only in different states but also in different countries. As coaches, Bill Zanoni joined from Montana and myself from Argentina. Also, we had Hervé Maumus-Hue, who is from France but also currently working from Argentina, and Swapnil Kumar from India who helped with mechanical engineering advice.

The members of the team are from China, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, and Spain. Due to COVID-19 they had to work as a team but from home. 

“I felt that our motivation decreased when the pandemic started over the month of March. However, we managed to keep moving along the project. I think that having the online coaching really helped us to stay awake and motivated over the weeks.” says Paolo Pezzolla from the Skygardeners. “In my opinion, there are several rewards from this experience. One of them is that I learned how to work with people with different mindset, personality and culture than me.”

The Reward

Ceres believes and wants to create sustainable growing environments. The opportunity to participate in this competition has motivated us to keep working towards that goal together with the next generation and has inspired us to design more urban greenhouses to bring local grown food to cities. 

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