All posts by Jed Higdon

Urban Farms Solve Food Waste

Urban gardening removes the long distances that food typically travels, eliminating waste.

While we visited a variety of businesses and clean technology startups throughout our trip in Germany and The Netherlands, the sites that had the greatest impact on me were the urban gardens. They utilized rooftops and brownfields at a range of scales from personal to commercial projects. Some, like UrbanFarmers in The Hague, even combined growing produce with fish farming. This type of sustainable food in the heart of cities is exactly what is needed to combat the lack of easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables in inner city environments. These gardens also decrease the urban heat island effect, which can make cities miserable to live in. Additionally, they can even increase biodiversity by encouraging different types of birds and insects to thrive in an urban environment. However, one of the least recognized benefits of urban farming is the fact that it impacts food waste in a major way.

In the United States, nearly 40% of all food grown is never eaten. In fact, the worldwide figure isn’t far off, with about one third of food being wasted every year. With the population exploding at unprecedented rates, the pressure is on to build more farms, clear cut more forests, and mistreat more animals for efficiency of production. Issues surrounding the agricultural industry are at the forefront of the most troubling environmental problems of our time. While industrialized countries face waste coming from consumer culture, developing nations waste most of their food by mismanaging it in the earlier stages of the supply chain. Despite this difference in reasons for loss of food, one of the worst offenders in worldwide waste is decomposition in transit. When the United States ships most of its fruit from South America, several tons of it decompose along the trip every year. They simply cannot survive such a long transit without some of the riper fruits rotting. This also has devastating effects on the flavor and quality of the fruits, which are picked much earlier than they should be. Overall, there are certain issues with shipping food around the world that are impossible to avoid.

When investigating the state of the international food trade, it becomes increasingly obvious that local sources of food are advantageous for a variety of reasons. Firstly, transit is kept to a minimum. DakAkker, the rooftop garden in Rotterdam, only ever moves their food by bike, emphasizing the local nature of their project. The fact that they provide edible flowers, which wilt when shipped too far, further displays the advantages of sourcing food locally. This is one example of a crop that would never survive in a shipping container for several days. It is also widely believed that the fresher food is, the better it tastes. That’s why many of the restaurants that buy from DakAkker use the produce the same day it is harvested. This simply is not possible when shown in an international food trade model.

Additionally, by skipping the thousand-mile trip from farm to table, food waste is kept to a minimum. There is significantly less, if any, decomposition in transit when food is grown and eaten within the same city. In general, people are happy to know that their food is sourced locally, and tend to enjoy the fact that it was grown near their homes. By adopting urban farming practices, cities can make a stand against food waste and encourage citizens to eat locally.

Apart from the obvious benefits of farming locally, placing gardens strategically can revitalize rough parts of town and be a smart use for previously wasted space. Rooftops represent a previously untapped resource that could allow the switch to more local methods of farming and eating. In conclusion, one of the best ways to have better food and combat food waste would be to start more urban farms within cities across the globe.

-Jed Higdon

Berlin’s Street Art Culture

Graffiti and Other Forms of Street Art in Berlin

During our alternative tour of Berlin today, a lot of time was devoted to discussing graffiti culture within Germany. Many of us came into the tour with generally negative feelings towards graffiti in public spaces, especially when it seems sloppy or inconsiderate. However, upon closer inspection, a lot of this street art is created with a message or goal in mind. When you start to look at it more like art and less like vandalism, graffiti can serve as a great window into the minds of the artists who create it.

This mural, painted in an area where street art is legal, pokes fun at tourists who take too many pictures. Ironically, I took a picture of it.

We started our tour on Dircksenstraße, a street near the famous Alexanderplatz square that leads towards Hackesher Market. To be located between so many upscale areas, Dircksenstraße is littered with street art in all forms. Our guide first showed us several pieces by popular artist El Bocho. His signature piece involves reimagining an old Czech cartoon called “Little Lucy”. In this show, a young girl named Lucy embarks on adventures with her cat; however, El Bocho chooses to twist their friendship in his artwork by depicting Lucy murdering her cat in a multitude of ways. Our tour guide suggested that this may be a way to show the levels of morality that exist in every one of us. No one is entirely good, like the original Lucy, just as no one is entirely evil, like his version of Lucy.

This is an example of the Little Lucy series that El Bocho has scattered throughout Berlin. Here Lucy is seen cutting her cat from a spit and using the meat in a döner, one of the most cherished fast food items in Germany.

Like El Bocho, graffiti artists try to find ways to leave their mark on the city they inhabit. The most common way they accomplish this is by leaving their tag, or their groups’ tag, in the most dangerous places possible. Different areas are dangerous for different reasons. For example, tagging a wall in a populated part of town is dangerous because of the high risk of being caught. On the other hand, tagging a sound barrier next to train tracks, or the top of a building’s wall, is dangerous due to the risk of dying. In fact, the very top of the exterior wall of any tall building is called the “heaven spot” for its desirability among artists.

A member of the POET graffiti group has claimed part of the heaven spot on this building. This was likely painted by someone being held by the belt from above.

Apart from graffiti, we also saw a lot of paste-ups throughout the alternative tour of Berlin. Paste-ups are a form of street are that involve printing, drawing, or painting on relatively cheap paper, and then pasting it a wall with special glue. This type of street art seemed to be more common in some of the areas we visited, likely because it is punishable by a fine of 25€, while graffiti can result in thousands in fines. Along Dircksenstraße, we mostly saw paste-ups done by SOBR, an international artist currently working in Berlin. His series titled “It’s Time to Dance” features photos of real people dancing in bars and clubs. He chooses to paint the people in black and white, and then covers them with colorful confetti after pasting them on the wall. This contrast draws attention to his artwork, which is common throughout Berlin.

An anti-Trump paste-up is peeling off of the wall along Dircksenstraße. Many Europeans feel strongly about his presidency, and he is a common figure in street art throughout the continent.

In addition to these more visible forms of street art, we also discussed some strategies that groups use for temporary awareness. For example, the popular group called 1UP sometimes engages in “train bombing”, an activity which involves rushing into a train yard and covering a train wagon in graffiti in a matter of seconds. Germany, especially in its big cities, is very quick when it comes to cleaning their trains and train stations. However, train bombing will allow graffiti to travel for at least a day before it is removed, showing everyone the groups’ daring stunt.

Although all of these forms of illegal street art are common in Berlin, there is also a fair amount of commissioned, legal artwork to admire. Victor Ash’s “Cosmonaut” is one such piece. It stands at 72 feet tall and is painted in the style of a stenciled painting, although it was done freehand. At one point, the shadow of a nearby flag would land in the cosmonauts’ hand at night, however, the flag has since been removed. Ash has said that the mural was meant to represent the Cold War era space race between East and West, an important issue for Berlin since it was caught in the middle of this power struggle.

Victor Ash’s “Cosmonaut” stands tall over a block in Kreuzberg. It has received international attention as one of the most well-known paintings in Berlin.

After our alternative tour, many students, myself included, came away with new ideas on graffiti and street art. Although it can certainly be disturbing and ruin certain areas, such as well-known monuments, it can also offer deep insights into current issues and even be aesthetically pleasing. In certain cities, like Berlin, street art has become a part of the culture and is likely here to stay.

-Jed Higdon

Biking to Leiden

Examining sophisticated bicycle infrastructure

Today began with an approximately 8-mile bike ride to Leiden from The Student Hotel in The Hague. Although biking with a group of 26 is never easy, the sophisticated bicycle infrastructure of The Netherlands made the trip very enjoyable. Compared to the intense biking from the day before, this was a relaxed ride. We decided to stop at the Castle Duivenvoorde, built in 1226, along the way. Although it was not as large as stereotypical European castles, it was worth seeing. A moat in the form of a gentle river surrounded the base of the structure. Surprisingly, this castle has been owned by the same family for its entire history. We kept our tour of the outside brief so as not to disturb the family currently living inside.

Castle Duivenvoorde hs stayed in the same family since its construction in 1226. In fact, the ancestors of the original owners still live there today.

After walking the grounds of the castle for a while, we made our way back to the ‘bicycle highway’ that connects Leiden to The Hague. These roads typically run through wilderness areas and are safely removed from the busy highways that allow cars and trucks. Throughout the whole ride, we passed several people walking, a few horses, and only one car. Even with us being right outside of one of the most urbanized areas of The Netherlands, it felt as though we were deep in a secluded forest. It wasn’t until we were very close to the Central Station of Leiden that we emerged into an urban environment.

“Bike highways” connect metropolitan regions through scenic trails in the wilderness. This is the trail that connects The Hague to Leiden.

Before reaching the city center, we passed a sculpture honoring the life of Rembrandt van Rijn. Born in Leiden, Rembrandt grew up in a house close to the sculpture. He eventually moved to Amsterdam so he could sell his world-famous paintings for better prices. Citizens of Leiden are still proud to claim Rembrandt as theirs, and even boast a museum including many of his most renowned works. However, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam holds the majority of Rembrandts’ paintings today.

A statue honors the famous painter Rembrandt in a square near his birth home in Leiden. He later moved to Amsterdam to increase the size of his market.

Finally, we reached the center of Leiden. Like most Dutch cities, the Central Train Station marks the hub of life in the city. We parked our bicycles in an underground parking garage with the capacity to house over 20,000 bikes in racks and lock-stations. Then, it was time to roam the city. We spent most of the day exploring a festival, restaurants, and the local castle. Although we never discovered the purpose of the large festival, we were all excited to receive free snacks and drinks. The city is full of delicious restaurants ranging from authentic Italian to true Dutch cuisine. The castle provided a stunning view of the city from its vantage point on a hill. Most European castles are constructed on hills or mountains for defensive reasons.

The train station in Leiden includes a large underground bicycle station. This one can support over 2,000 bicycles at once!

Other students spent their free time eating their way through an open-air market, investigating the two main churches in Leiden, or watching a rowing race in the canals of the city. The market offered everything from fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers to traditional sweet treats like Stroop waffles, all at a great price. Even meats like sausage and chicken were sold in cooked and raw forms. Unfortunately, one of the churches was closed due to a wedding, but it was still amazing to admire it from the outside. Some students were even lucky enough to witness an intense race between several teams of rowers in the canals that connect parts of the city.

Students look on as rowers race in the canals of Leiden. Canals are a common sight in Dutch cities and are often used for recreation.
One of the churches in Leiden dominates the skyline from the castle in the city center. The second major church in Leiden is just out of frame to the left.

After a long day of exploring the city of Leiden in smaller groups, we reconvened in front of the bicycle parking garage. Professor Rademaker led us back to The Hague via an alternate route along a canal. Although this route was much less wooded and included more homes, it was nice to see the water. We covered the 8 miles between us and the hotel faster than expected and could leave for dinner once we returned. It was nice to have a more laid-back day to explore a new city while still getting to learn about and experience the incredibly organized and user-friendly bicycle infrastructure of The Netherlands.

-Jed Higdon