Urban agriculture today makes us think of hipsters growing organic vegetables, the showpiece being the roof garden on the Schieblock building. But urban agriculture also existed during World War II out of sheer necessity. A lack of food supplies led to fields of rye and brown beans on Coolsingel and Botersloot!
The Netherlands feeds itself!
Food supplies were a factor for the German occupying forces right from the start of the war. With the slogan The Netherlands feeds itself!, they introduced measures to maintain food production. Allotment garden owners were forced to grow vegetables, and in March 1941 the Committee for Production presented plans to grow vegetables in parks and public gardens and on vacant sites owned by the city. The principle behind this initiative was that the country should be self-sufficient when it came to food. In 1942 some 50 hectares of land were made available for agriculture in Kralingse Bos, Jaffa, Gordelweg, Blijdorp, Spaansche Bocht, Hillegersberg and Varkenoord. A heathland reclamation society made the land suitable for growing crops. In 1943 an experiment was launched with ‘sites ready for development in the destroyed city centre, which can temporarily be used for other purposes’. These so-called Diwero sites were the responsibility of the Rotterdam Reconstruction Department, a government agency set up in December 1940. Once the rubble had been cleared, this agency could do little more, and a total building freeze was announced on 1 July 1942. Crops of rye and corn appeared on the Diwero sites along Coolsingel and Botersloot. Nevertheless, fields of crops accounted for just 19.5 hectares out of a total area of 188 hectares in the city. The harvest in 1943 totalled 2.6 million kilograms of vegetables, and harvest festivals were organized in the city.
Enthusiastic reports in the NSB newspaper
The Rotterdam editor of Het Nationale Dagblad, the newspaper published by the Dutch collaborators, expressed tremendous enthusiasm for urban agriculture:
People arriving into the city from Delftse Poort station are immediately struck by the remarkable change in the cityscape. For along the old Kruisstraat and Coolsingel, right in the heart of the city, they see grain growing, less healthy and dense amidst the rubble in some places than in others where the soil is more fertile, but still enough to generously reward the effort already made and yet to be made.
Agricultural land also stretched along Schiedamsedijk:
Where just a few years ago sailors from everywhere gathered in the dimly lit alleys and lanes of these entertainment districts, known around the world though often disreputable, to catch up on what they had missed on their voyages. Crops of rye now gleam here in the golden sunlight, verdant potato plants sprout upwards, and leguminous plants ripen.
Het Nationale Dagblad, 27 July 1943
On 28 July the newspaper reported on a harvest festival in Vroesenpark:
Yet another Dutch custom has been resurrected with a harvest festival for the workers. On Tuesday afternoon, when the bulk of the rye crop in Vroesepark had been cut, the workers gathered at the sheds, where national and black-red flags fluttered cheerfully and merry music soon enlivened the atmosphere. With this harvest festival amidst the stubble fields and the gleaming stalks still swaying in the sunlight, we imagined ourselves in the countryside, even though we were standing on the edge of the big city.
Het Nationale Dagblad, 28 July 1943
Widespread food shortages
The war made it impossible to import or export food. Since the start of mobilization in 1939, the uncertain situation encouraged people to stock up on supplies, and that in turn caused shortages. In response, the government took control of distributing foodstuffs and introduced a system of coupons for scarce produce. As the war dragged on, shortages of food and fuel worsened. The occupying forces also confiscated some of the harvest and supplies. More and more food was available with coupons only, and many people had to rely on soup kitchens. People also used substitutes of lesser quality and taste for things like coffee and tea. The black market flourished and pillaging and plundering were rampant. After ‘Mad Tuesday’ in September 1944, brazen inhabitants dug up potatoes growing on agricultural sites in the city without permission.
Conditions deteriorated dramatically during the ‘hunger winter’, the severe winter of 1944/45, and rations were further reduced. It became increasingly difficult to transport food from the countryside to the western parts of the country. A railway strike that began in September 1944 hampered transport. In retaliation for the strike, the German occupiers blocked all food transport heading westwards. Another problem was the shortage of workers to harvest the crops. Volunteers were sought to help on farms in Drenthe, but scarcely anybody from Rotterdam heeded the call, fearful as they were of being sent to Germany to work in labour camps.
In the ‘hunger winter’ people made clandestine journeys to farms to exchange valuables for food. A black market also blossomed. Things were so bad that potato peels, sugar beet and tulip bulbs also appeared on the menu, and even dogs and cats were not safe. In January 1945 there were just 770 calories available per person per day. An estimated 2500 people starved to death in Rotterdam in the final months of the war. Fortunately, the Germans gave the Allies permission for food airlifts in the last days of the war. And in Operation Manna, low-flying aircraft dropped food parcels in the Terbregge area in late April and early May.
A new conception
What happened to urban agriculture after liberation is unknown. Although reconstruction could start immediately, building activity did not begin everywhere straight away. No organization was responsible for city agriculture any more, farming returned to normal, and food could be imported again.
In a 1972 interview in an English-language magazine, architect Jaap Bakema explains how remarkable it must have been to see fields of corn in the city, even after liberation:
During the war I was in a concentration camp, but luckily managed to escape. Then I joined the Canadian Army as what was called an Education Officer. One day we made a trip to Rotterdam and I can still remember that one of the Canadian Education Officers said: “Look here boys. It’s just like what Bakema told you, it’s a fine example of green with some buildings in it” because it was all corn fields and only the old town hall and a few other buildings were standing in it. That was Rotterdam and it was such an established kind of situation, because there was really corn growing where houses used to be that he thought it was a new conception of a town.
Hilton Magazine, May 1972
A photograph dated December 1947 in the City Archives shows that sites around the city remained vacant for a long time. Exhausted oxen being transported to Eastern Europe were taken off ships to recover and graze in the area of Weena and Hofplein. And from 1974 to 1983 the still undeveloped Weena was home to a herd of deer that roamed the site occupied today by the Plaza complex. Artist Wim Gijzen’s ideas for pasture land on Schouwburgplein were not so strange after all.
More than 18 vegetable gardens have appeared in Rotterdam since 2011. Some are initiatives by local residents or housing associations to add some greenery to neighbourhoods, to grow food, and to encourage other activities. Many gardens are used for nature education programmes, others supply food to the food bank, and some sell their produce or process it (in collaboration with local youths) in meals in restaurants.
- Buurtmoestuin Blokkentuin 2014
- Buurtmoestuin (S)Moes 2016
- Buurtmoestuin Wilgenplantsoen 2014
- Dakakker Schieblock 2012
- Dakgaard Luchtsingel, Hofbogen 2016
- Dakpark Vierhavenstraat (park and vegetable garden) 2013
- De Pluktuin 2011
- Groene Oase 2018
- Hotspot Hutspot Lomba (cooking and gardening with youths) 2013
- Hotspot Hutspot Krootwijk and Heijprak after 2013
- Pluktuin Liskwartier 2013
- Stadskruidentuin Rotterdamse Munt 2014
- Stadslandbouw Schiebroek 2011
- Uit je eigenstad (Marconistraat city farm) 2012
- Voedselbos Kralingen 2013
- Voedseltuin Delfshaven (supplies the food bank) 2011
- Taka Tuka Tuin Zevenkamp 2013
- Wollefoppengroen 2012