In a smart garden of Eden

John looked at me with sad, melancholic eyes. He just told me, after I gave a speech at a conference on mental wellbeing and burn out, that he had been suffering for quite a while from a severe burn out. Life as an expat in Brussels, away from the family, absorbed in work and deadlines, disconnected from his network of friends and acquaintances, was demanding and difficult. I have to admit that John wasn’t the first expat I met who had this problem. But his eyes started to shine when he learned about the big city garden, Bel Akker, at the roof of the Abattoirs – actually the biggest of Europe with its 4000 m² - where people with a depression or burn out can start to grow crops and work peacefully to find new balance or inner peace.

It turned out that, in his hometown, John loved to garden when the stress kicked in. Thus, I introduced him to Bel Akker, where over one hundred kilograms of biological vegetables are grown and subsequently used in the restaurant Bel Mundo as well as sold at lunch shop Bel O and local food markets. The yield of this urban garden can be significantly increased if smart networks and intelligent sensors, using the Internet of Things (IoT) to determine the best possible conditions, are applied. It also reduces the stress one could have from impeding yield losses due to the accurate registration of information. Technology and handwork, agriculture and the city, mental wellbeing and economy are all melding beautifully in this contemporary garden of Eden.

I was glad to see that John found his way to Bel Akker and got to know lots of new people. But I’m also looking forward to watching hundreds of children visit the place. Most children in our cities are not entirely aware of how their food is grown or where it comes from, nor how much coordinated effort and handling it takes until it reaches the shelfs in supermarkets. To counter this, Bel Akker introduced the Time Out project to give kids the possibility to unleash their energy and get a hands-on gardening experience. In this way they see that connecting with nature through farming is not some medieval practice but a very contemporary activity, made considerably easier by new technologies and a wide array of digital assets. On top of that, research at the University of Wisconsin proved that city gardens actually take up more CO2 than native grasslands or arboreta, hence, our Bel Akker is also part of the fight against climate change.

I hope all of Brussels’ citizens will spend some time at this smart garden of Eden since reconnecting with nature is a pleasant and healthy way of counteracting the daily stress we experience. Although Brussels is one of the greenest capitals in Europe, the location of Bel Akker is just perfect, because the district of Molenbeek is severely deprived of green spaces.

The city of the future will be smarter and greener. And it’s not only going to be about who has the best or brightest applications but about whose citizens feel most at ease, alive and connected to their city and cohabitants.

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Bianca Debaets

State Secretary of the Brussels-Capital Region and Member of Brussels City Council

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