Can you introduce you and your team?
My name is Daniel Opbroek and together with my colleagues Rutger Henneman, Hilde Labadie and Gerenska Antonia we founded the GroenGoed Stichting which involves six community gardens: the Wilgenplantsoen, the Bloklandtuin, the Kinderparadijs, the Bergwegplantsoen, Eetbaar Park Pompenburg and Tuin op Hofbogen. We also closely collaborate with the Vredestuin foundation which includes Vredestuin Noord as well as the Vredestuin where we are today. As a team, we coordinate the weekly work moments in the different gardens. We make sure there are always two of us present. Besides us, everybody else who wants to join can just drop by.
How did you meet each other and how did you come up with the idea?
The idea emerged around twelve years ago during my medicine studies. That was a time when I started questioning a lot, specifically my own lifestyle. Through the emergence of the internet and the strengthened media, we had more access to information about the mechanisms prevalent in our society. I got more and more aware about how I unconsciously supported inequality and violence with my daily behavior. This awareness created the urgency to change.
Can you make an example what you mean with these mechanisms?
By then, I still ate meat for example. I learned that when I buy meat in the local supermarket, this meat might come from Dutch cows. However, their fodder most likely comes from all the way across the ocean where people are driven away from their lands to make space for soy farms. As soon as I knew that someone might have lost his livelihood just so that I can have my meat, I couldn’t eat it anymore. Besides the effect you have on other people’s lives, you also have to take the impact on the environment into account. That is, how much rainforest is burned every year for soy and cattle farms. That needs to change!
Also, we discovered that our food mostly comes from large economic distribution systems. I want to be less dependent on that. I want to be able to self-sustain my life.
So, how did you start?
One of the first things to learn that was growing my own food. I was looking around me if there were other people interested in that. That’s when I met Rutger who was one of the first I connected and started projects with. We organized a lot of discussion evenings in the neighborhood to exchange with people and spread awareness. We gathered a group of people to build the first community garden – the Bergwegplantsoen. That’s how it began!
Did the garden already exist or did you just go to city hall and ask for a place where you can build a garden?
The second (laughs). We already had a place in mind which was close to where Rutger and I lived at that time. The location was perfect as it was next to a home for elderly people. It has been our wish from the beginning to address all ages and work with children, elderly people and all age groups in between. When we started, Rutger and I were still studying. We really liked the project and also felt the importance. However, next to our studies, it was only as much as we could do. When we graduated, we decided to do this full time. We had more time to dedicate, so more gardens emerged.
Was the basic motivation to grow your own food and become self-sustaining or was it also the community aspect?
Both. The underlying concept we followed was the one of the transition towns. A permaculture* teacher in England had given the following assignment for his students: ‘We start from the city where we are now with it’s real current state. If we say, the goal is to be self-sustaining in let’s say 20 to 25 years. What do we need to do now to make this happen?’ All the students started working on different projects which eventually became a really nice model on how to do that (more information in the link above).
Based on the concept, it’s also really important that you work as a team. Partly, because you can naturally get more done, partly because you can sometimes feel very powerless when you want to fight the existing market mechanisms. I experienced it myself many times. Working together with other people releases a lot of energy and confidence… and that’s really important.
The project has quite developed since then. You have built and maintain eight gardens by now. How much have you also grown in terms of people participating?
Quite a lot. The number depends a little bit on how you define participating, as you can get involved in different ways. Every garden has its own group of people that come to the work moments every time. There is a group of people that comes every week. If you combine all the people from the different gardens, it’s about 75 or 100 people. That’s quite a decent group already. Additionally, there are more people that come every once in a while. Sometimes, people just come by that don’t want to garden, but for example bring a cake. There are also people that come to make music during the work moments. Additionally, we have a lot of events that people like to join, such as the camp fires we make every month in the Vredestuin, the harvest festival or our star gazing nights. We put a few telescopes up on the roof and talk about space (laughs).
How did you professionalize over the years?
In the beginning, we only had individual gardens. First, we founded Stichting Vredestuin with the Vredestuin Noord at the Gordelweg and this Vredestuin at the Pompenburg Park. Two years ago we also founded Stichting GroenGoed for the other six gardens. Stichting GroenGoed is also the foundation through which we communicate and receive financial support. Officially making it a foundation became really important for our development. It makes it really easy to communicate about the gardens to people which also gives room for new growth. Now we have much more overview on the effects of the gardening, specifically our education and wellbeing efforts. In that regard, we have been actively approached for collaborations by the people in the neighbourhood that work in the field of health and wellbeing. When people join the garden that have been in difficult psychological or physical situations, it’s really nice to see how people grow and start to feel better. We have much more direct contact with people. When we learn in the garden about personal struggles people are having, it is easy to connect with them and help.
If I want to get involved, how does this work?
You can come to the weekly work moments, just one or two times if you feel like it. You can also get involved more long term. There is an agenda for these weekly work moments per garden. You can just come by, no registration needed. That makes it easy for people to join. Today for example, there were a few new people. We always welcome them and tell them what we are working on today. If they want to come back, we would sit down, have a conversation on the motivation and explain more on how the gardens work. Then we can try to find a role in the group that matches their needs and wishes. Some come here because they want to learn how to grow vegetables, some want to do something for their community. You can pair people that know a lot about gardening with the ones without much experience.
If people want to join, do they need to be skilled in gardening?
No, it can be a function of the garden to learn how to garden.
What do you do with your harvest?
The vegetables we harvest are divided amongst the people that work here. There is not a direct relation of how much you have to work to how much food you get. When we work together, we share the harvest. If we have a lot of surplus, we bring it to places like the voedselbank.
Going forward, what do you want to achieve?
We want to scale up as much as possible. But of course it’s not only about the quantity, but also about the quality of growing. It isn’t a hobby or something that happens on the side, we want to become a real economically viable alternative to the current food chain. Right now, it’s impossible to price-wise compete with the vegetables in the supermarket. We are also not trying that. But there might come a time when economic circumstances change, so that it will become needed to look at alternatives to the current system. Then, it will be important that there are projects like ours that have been experimenting with solutions how to grow food in the city. It’s important that there are working projects that you can scale up when the situation is right.
How would you summarize how you contribute to a more sustainable and green Rotterdam?
GroenGoed contributes to a city in which we live in harmony with the earth and with each other. We do this in the most concrete way possible: we grow fruit, vegetables and herbs in neighborhood gardens for the self-sufficiency of everyone who wants to participate. We garden to fight poverty, increase people’s wellbeing and build a sustainable city. In fact, we are also cleaning and ‘upgrading’ entire areas. Before people were gardening here it was a really neglected area. People were dumping refrigerators. Overall, we have a lot of effects that you don’t see at first sight, specifically on a social basis. People have a place where they can exchange, connect, grow and develop. They carry their experience back in their homes which can also change entire communities.
How then do you measure how successful you are?
We collect data on how much harvest we have, how many people came, of those how many children or elderly people. Also, how many signals we picked up that somebody needs help. What is more, I always like to invite our stakeholders to the garden, so that they can feel and experience how it works here.
We also try to collect more qualitative data in the form of personal stories and quotes. Last year even a nice mini-documentary has been made about the gardens and the way we contribute to the city. (coming soon!)
What do you need support with at the moment?
There is always space for more people to join the gardens. Luckily the amount of people in the garden is currently sufficient for proper maintenance, but the more people the better (smiles). Besides the direct involvement, it’s very important for us is that more people know about the gardens and the importance of what we do. Let me give you an example. This garden will disappear in a few years, because there are gonna be big buildings built here. That’s a shame, but what’s really nice is that the developer invited us to the design table for another garden. That could only happen because the developers saw and appreciated the value of the gardens.
I always bring my compost to the Vredestuin. Can you also bring your compost to the other gardens?
That’s great! Putting your compost in the regular trash is such a waste of resources. You can indeed bring your compost to Vredestuin at Pompenburg location.
* Permaculture is a set of design principles centered on whole systems thinking, simulating, or directly utilizing the patterns and resilient features observed in natural ecosystems. It uses these principles in a growing number of fields from regenerative agriculture, rewilding, and community resilience.