Ghent gets ready for Flanders’ first urban farm


A Ghent bioengineer wants to turn an industrial wasteland into a city farm

Not just a “wild idea”

Ghent residents will soon be able to pick flowers, grow courgettes, feed chickens, collect eggs, get rid of their green waste and drink a beer in a garden café while their kids play in the children’s farm. If none of this sounds surprising, consider that it’s all going down on an industrial wasteland, right next to the city’s busiest roundabout, with a power station across the street.

Open to all residents, Ghent’s first-ever city farm is scheduled to open in April, smack in the middle of the city centre.

The Ghent urban farm is just one of many ideas that have sprung from the mind of local bioengineer Bert Ostyn. “People should learn to live in green surroundings again”, he says, “mostly because it makes them feel more at ease. Flanders is too grey, made out of brick, and there’s barely any open space. We have to make our cities greener, and they will turn out to be more liveable.”

With his initiative Kangroen (Can Green), Ostyn, 31, wants to show people how easy it is to create green surroundings, even in very small city surfaces. He cites the vertical gardening sessions Kangroen has organised. In these workshops, residents are taught how to build gardens against city courtyard walls by using discarded wooden pallets.

The bioengineer has also designed and built green furniture items, like courtyard tables with built-in plants or patches of grass. “We try everything that can bring people closer to nature,” he says. “Every little bit helps.”

Ostyn has also been toying with bigger, more ambitious plans. He hopes to realise a Plukstraat (Picking Street), a neighbourhood where all the building facades have been converted into vertical herb gardens.

“Every inhabitant would grow different herbs, and everyone is free to go pick the herbs they need from their neighbours’ garden,” he explains. “Our streets will be greener; people will be closer to nature, and people will get closer to each other, as well.”

Christmas tree success

Grand plans and statements aside, Kangroen is no more than an idea – a concept with a mission statement on a website, conceived just last summer. But Ostyn has already gotten a lesson in the power of social media. “Two months ago, we came up with the idea of adopting Christmas trees,” he says. “We gave people the chance to not throw away or burn their Christmas trees, but to plant them on a small piece of unused land in the middle of the city. They can come back and get them next Christmas. In the meantime, we take care of them.”

People will be closer to nature, and people will get closer to each other, as well

- Bert Ostyn

What followed was a classic example of a modern-day communication. Ostyn’s event was created and shared on Facebook in late December. In about three weeks, some 70 Ghent locals signed up, until the event was full and registration had to be closed.

Earlier this month, dozens of families planted their Christmas trees, fitted with name tags, on a piece of wasteland near the Dampoort roundabout.

Kangroen was also picked up by national media outlets. Residents responded enthusiastically to the news reports, and volunteers, youth groups, non-profits and even Ghent’s city council offered to help with Kangroen’s other projects.

And the biggest of those projects is the city farm. The plan is for the wasteland near the old docks site (pictured) – in the middle of the city and just a few metres from the Christmas forest – to be transformed into an urban farm. The farm would include a flower picking field, a herb picking field, a children’s farm, a mushroom garden, a zucchini garden, a green-waste centre, a garden cafe and a chicken coop.

It sounds ambitious, but according to Ostyn, it isn’t just a wild idea. “Together with volunteers, we have already planted 10,000 flower bulbs for the flower field,” he says, adding that the garden café should be open by April.

Didactic gardening

The Ghent non-profit De Sleutel, which helps drug addicts get their lives back on track, has already agreed to take care of the chicken coop and the egg distribution. And Ostyn is still on the lookout for other organisations to participate in the project. “This is not just our project”, he says. “Every resident and every organisation is free to sign up.”

This is not just our project. Every resident and every organisation is free to sign up

- Bert Ostyn

A community farm on an industrial wasteland next to noisy streets and power stations might not seem like a very healthy location, but, says Ostyn, that’s not entirely accurate. “It’s not possible to just grow anything in a city environment because of pollution,” he admits. But he points out that the soil is currently being studied and that Velt, the Flemish organisation that promotes ecological living and gardening, is putting together a first list of guidelines on what can be grown in a city environment without health risks. “Mind you,” he says, “not all vegetables automatically get contaminated.”

It’s this kind of ecological-pedagogic dimension that Ostyn hopes the city farm will also include. “People will come to the bar and join in activities and see for themselves which vegetables and herbs grow in which seasons,” he says. “But people will also get informed about which vegetables they can grow themselves.”