Pieter Valkering, Carijn Beumer and Ton Griekspoor Pieter Valkering, Carijn Beumer and Ton Griekspoor Sacha Ruland

Social innovation and the vegetable garden

In Society
Written by  Jos Cortenraad Wednesday, 24 October 2012 07:37

Crime, drugs, unemployment, deterioration and deprivation. Just five years ago, these were the less than flattering labels stuck to the Heerlen neighbourhoods of Meezenbroek, Schaesbergerveld and Palemig. Now, the ‘MSP’ district is considered a role model for social and sustainable innovation. The transformation is thanks in part to SUN, an interregional project that aims to make existing urban neighbourhoods more sustainable. Carijn Beumer and Pieter Valkering joined the project on behalf of Maastricht University.

Ton Griekspoor is serving coffee at a picnic table in one of more than 40 allotment gardens, neatly divided into rectangular plots, on the Limburgiastraat on the outskirts of Heerlen. Here, the usual tangle of rhubarb, tomatoes, leeks, onions, strawberries, beans and more are cultivated at the hands of amateur gardeners. Just outside the gate stands a row of fruit trees. At first glance it’s nothing special – just your average allotment in your average neighbourhood. But looks can be deceiving.

The allotments in the MSP district are living proof of a successful social innovation project. “There used to be seven big flats on this spot”, says the unpaid administrator, now without a hint of pride. “Not a nice place to live. Loiterers, drug dealers, noise and nuisance. One morning I even found a corpse on my doorstep. And just look at it now. The neighbourhood has really changed. The living environment has improved dramatically, partly thanks to this allotment. This is a place where people can get together; where immigrants and locals can get to know one another; where young and old work side by side. This garden is three years old and not a single thing has ever been destroyed. Honestly, I would never have expected that. Nothing was safe here before.”

Small scale

For the record: the flats were not demolished to make way for a garden. Together, Meezenbroek, Schaesbergerveld and Palemig form one of 40 disadvantaged districts in the Netherlands where extra investments are being made to end deprivation. They lie at the heart of the once prosperous eastern mining region, whose ageing population is now dwindling. Older homes are being demolished to make way for more green spaces and more suitable senior housing. “The space that became vacant on the Limburgiastraat offered a great opportunity for a SUN experiment”, says Carijn Beumer, a PhD candidate at the International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS) at Maastricht University. “SUN is one of the many projects launched in the MSP district. Supported by European funds, its aim is to transform urban neighbourhoods into sustainable and green places to live. Sustainability immediately calls to mind energy saving and large-scale projects like solar panels and wind farms. But it can also be done on a smaller scale with less money. Like vegetable gardens, for example. Similar projects in the United States have taught us that urban allotment gardens are a huge success. Growing your own fruit and vegetables helps you save money. Plus, it’s a good way to keep cities sustainably green.”


Seven districts in the cities of Liège, Eupen, Genk, Aachen, Eschweiler, Verviers and Heerlen have been part of the SUN project for five years now. “All of these cities have industrial histories and similar problems”, explains Pieter Valkering, a fellow researcher at ICIS. “Four regional universities are involved in the project: UM, Liège, Aachen and Hasselt. SUN is very interesting from an academic perspective. It gives us the chance to study the effects of allotment gardens in urban areas.”

SUN (short for Sustainable Urban Neighbourhoods) has four objectives: saving energy, strengthening the local economy, bringing more green to the district and promoting social cohesion. “Creating greener areas has automatically led to more social cohesion”, says Beumer. This was one of the preliminary conclusions after the project was finalised last summer. “The allotments bring people together. We’re seeing new initiatives emerge as well, like an exercise garden, neighbourhood parties and smaller events. People cook and invite the whole neighbourhood over to eat.”


Griekspoor nods in agreement. “The garden belongs to all of us; that’s the general feeling. The people here are proud of it. And on top of that, they’re noticing that it helps them save money. They don’t have to pay for it; they’re just expected to keep everything tidy and join a clean-up day every now and then. Everyone helps one another. They exchange seeds and products. When we started out, 95% had no idea how to garden. That figure has now been halved. It helps create a bond. I don’t claim that MSP is a model district, but that miserable atmosphere from a few years ago is definitely gone.”

Beumer sees plenty of opportunities for follow-up research and projects. “Absolutely. The success of the MSP district deserves a sequel. Several municipalities have already paid a visit to the garden and the orchard, and similar projects are now planned for Maastricht and Landgraaf.”


Valkering, who recently started his own vegetable garden, looks back on the project with satisfaction. “We had good results in all seven districts. This year we’re busy interviewing participants and evaluating the results with researchers at the other universities. As I see it, the learning process is just as important as the results themselves. Gaining insight into this learning process at different levels is one of our academic goals. At the individual level, people in the neighbourhoods learned how to grow tomatoes and how to apply sustainability in practice, thus giving concrete form to an abstract concept. In a broader sense, we can see that people are starting to view their neighbourhood in a whole new light. We’re also seeing former loiterers working collectively alongside elderly people and immigrants. And this is all happening across borders, in three different countries with three different languages. It’s priceless.”


Carijn Beumer (1978) holds an MA in Culture and Science Studies from the Faculty of Arts and Culture at Maastricht University. Now a PhD candidate at ICIS, she studies cultural perspectives on biodiversity conservation in a changing world and the role of urban areas in nature conservation. She has been a member of the Business Advisory Board of Enactus Maastricht (Entrepreneurial Action University Students) since September 2011.

Pieter Valkering (1975) studied physics in Utrecht and has been a researcher and tutor at ICIS since 2000. He specialises in the sustainable evaluation of water management and urban development.


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