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Interview Urban Solution

Pitching in and greening the city


Words by Sophie Wright

Photos by Florian Braakman

Founded in the heart of Rotterdam three years ago, STEK has become the city’s go-to spot to pick up organic garden delights, and some tips about what to do with them too. But look up past the plants and you’ll see a small office on a mezzanine, where a team of five designers and green-fingered experts run a collaborative design practice devoted to making their city greener. From private gardens to a public, community-led research project founded to tackle Rotterdam’s pollution problem, the team pools their resources to come up with practical solutions that improve their surroundings. In the garden, workshops are held and ideas are planted. Inspiring themselves and others to join in, get their hands dirty and help improve their city is an important part of the STEK ethos. We peeled back the moss on the table outside and sat down with Marieke and Eric from the team to hear about pitching in and reconnecting with our environment.

How did STEK start?

Eric: Well, there was something lacking in the city centre. There were no garden shops so people would have to go to large garden centres out of town, not even for plants but for building materials. We wanted to open a garden shop in town where people who don’t have a car could drop by and get plants and also information. A lot of us have backgrounds in something green, so we can help at the same time. And also just to start an adventure! I had never had a job in a shop before, and then I helped start one. So that was really nice. Some of us knew each other, some of us didn’t.

Marieke: Definitely, that was the idea. What you can reach by bike are hardware shops and you don’t get happy plants there! They don’t have organic seeds, they don’t have a large diversity. Now, everyone in the city can have more green and more diversity on their balconies. We’re facilitating this a bit, making the city more green.

What kind of workshops do you run here?

M: The workshops we run are mostly for people with a garden or a balcony, to learn how to sow seeds or the steps you have to take to make a garden. There’s a workshop planned in May about nature on your balcony, because people were saying, “I would like to turn my balcony into a nature reserve.” You think, Wow, that’s cool! They don’t know how but they should know how. It’s not so difficult.


What does STEK add to the city?

M: I think we support people in making their environments more natural.

E: Supporting them with knowledge and also with stuff, like organic soil and seeds. Otherwise you’d have to get in your car, or on the Internet. There are a lot of people coming for their own gardens and for projects and there are a lot of spots where we have done something in the neighbourhood. It’s really visible, we can see it’s spreading.

You’ve also collaborated on founding the Stadslab Luchtkwaliteit, a public research initiative, and you’re currently focusing on air quality in Rotterdam. Tell us about that.

M: It started with a question from the government to the local municipality of Rotterdam, asking everybody if they could help think about solutions to improve the air quality around ‘s-Gravendijkwal. As we were just around the corner, we thought, Hey, we can give some input by cleaning air with plants. We were investigating and experimenting with this idea and joined forces with others. As a group we got some funding from the Stimuleringsfonds and the government and became Stadslab, a ‘city lab’. It’s really an experiment: we have a clear common goal but during the whole period we are trying things out. We are open, independent and eager. We are trying to build a community, to influence politics and exchange knowledge on different levels. We work together with research institutes and experts on specific themes with the aim of steering Rotterdam in the direction of becoming a green city with a good climate and clean air.

E: There are already a lot of people coming to us and asking whether they can do something because they don’t want to wait until things change. People are more proactive and eager to do something themselves. There’s really a lot to improve if you start looking around with different eyes.

There’s really a lot to improve if you start looking around with different eyes.

What’s your vision for the future of Stadslab?

E: I think the nice thing is that we’re connecting a lot of people, and spreading the word. While we’re not researchers on climate change, we connect those who are to people who are interested. We’re also designing, of course. In a way, we are trying to put ideas into things that can actually be made.

M: I also think that the government is pulling back a little, giving people more space to experiment and start things themselves, which makes them more involved in their city and outdoor space. People should make use of it in a positive sense. They should get their chance, and grab the opportunity. Rotterdam is the worst spot for air quality in the Netherlands. We should be thinking, We have the knowledge, we’re going to make it the best. The idea that you can cooperate in making the worst things better is so good. I hope we can play a part in that.


What do you think we can do to steer cities towards a greener future?

M: Facilitate the right innovations. I don’t think you need to do anything more. It’s important to spread and share what you’re doing so people know what is going on. I think it’s interesting that the government is taking a new position. They are used to being proactive, they clean the streets – they do everything for us! It’s amazing actually, but we are all used to it. Give citizens the opportunity to be more proactive. I think that’s positive: that you really feel that it’s your environment. That it’s not just the place where you live and it’s all arranged. You clean your house, what’s so different behind your door?

How do you see STEK in the future?

E: I think it’s nice that the plans have developed, so we started small, then we made some hills in a park and now we’re doing the Stadslab. We’re attracting more and more people so the projects are becoming more complex. We design gardens, which is nice, but sometimes we want to work on projects that can influence the direction the city is growing in. All that, with more diverse greens, bees and butterflies.