I was delighted recently to be invited to give the first public lecture at an exciting new food venture in Antwerp, PAKT urban farm. Situated in a group of former industrial warehouses near the city’s ‘Groen Kwartier’ (Green Quarter), the farm forms part of an inspired new development by Yusuf and Ismail Yaman and Stefan Bostoen. With a common interest in food and a desire to create an ecologically friendly development inspired by the sorts of mix-used schemes pioneered over past decades in the old industrial quarters of Brooklyn and Berlin, the group decided to create, in their words, ‘a hotspot for entrepreneurs and urban farmers who nourish the heart of Antwerp with creativity and culinary experiments.’
The result is a vibrant mix of design firms, workshops and restaurants, all topped by an 1800m2 community farm, set up and run by Adje Van Oekelen, Bram Stessel and Sjarel Hectors, of local CSA De Volle Grond. Named ‘t DAK van PAKT (the roof at PAKT), the farm includes a 200 square-metre conservatory (of which more in a moment), fruit trees, a chicken coup and bee hives, as well as about one hundred metre-square raised beds in which local residents come to grow vegetables, fruit and herbs under the guidance of the DAK farmers.
For 50 euros per month, residents can rent a vegetable bed, collect fresh eggs, use the conservatory and take part in workshops, lectures and community cook-ins. The idea, Adje explains, is to share knowledge and skills in growing as well as culinary inspiration to boost local food production across the community.
To lighten the load of the raised beds, they are filled with straw bales, an ancient Aztec cultivation system that seems to work remarkably well. As Karl (seen above) explains, all the water that falls on the roof is collected, either in large basins or in the cultivation trays themselves, leading to more than 100,000 litres of rainwater recovery. Coffee grounds and food waste from the café are used in the farm’s compost, and the pizzeria due to open soon will source many of its herbs and vegetables from the farm. Meanwhile, people can come and buy vegetables from a Friday market, and there are plans for this to be open every day.
For co-founder Yusuf Yaman (seen here cooking up a feast), the heart of the project (appropriately enough) is the ‘Coeur de PAKT tomato’, which occupies pride of place in the large rooftop conservatory. The fruits, which can weigh up to 1.4 kilos, are a special beef tomato cultivated by Yaman from seeds that he came across many years ago in Bulgaria. The taste is out of this world, he tells me, and the fervour with which he describes it has me salivating, although sadly I was there too early in the season, so shall have to return in order to sample their legendary flavour. Meanwhile, the tomatoes’ popularity speaks for itself: the neighbouring two-star Michelin restaurant The Jane, Yusuf tells me, can’t get enough of them.
PAKT is a wonderful project: an example of what can be achieved when there is a vision of neighbourhood urban life that values community over profit and when the power of food to connect people is well understood. It is a visionary project – and a truly sitopian one.