Groningen sponge breathes green innovation

A chain of nature curves along the borders of the city of Groningen like a giant sponge. The nature areas spanning 7,500 hectares in total also form a climate buffer that is used to retain water, temper heat and bind CO2. Beautiful of course, but more can be done with this climate buffer and its surroundings. Students are now finding out exactly what.

Photo: Stichting Natuurbelang De Onlanden

It is a fascinating landscape, to the west, south and east of the city. Wetlands as far as the eye can see. A high-quality nature area where many bird species and the otter feel at home. Part of this, De Onlanden, was already a designated water storage years ago, like a sponge that can absorb water when it becomes too much in the city of Groningen. With the increasing knowledge about climate change, more functions were added. For example, that the sponge can also retain water in case of shortages. But also, that wet nature areas on peatland prevent peat oxidation, which saves a lot of CO2 emission.

“The entirety of nature areas and surrounding landscape is such a beautiful, large area that we can do much more with it,” explains Rieks van der Wal of the Dutch Forestry Commission. “Why don’t we look at whether we can promote a life cycle approach to farming, or whether we can use this area as an example and springboard for a greener city?”


It’s recently been happening, this looking. Van der Wal joined forces with the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. Together they founded the innovation workshop Groeningen, and dozens of students from the Hanze University of Applied Sciences now work there.

Rieks van der Wal, Staatsbosbeheer

Van der Wal: “The strength is that we have also involved companies, governments and residents in the project. We have worked to raise awareness of the area and the opportunities. Last year the ‘manifestival’ Groeningen was the final piece. Prior to it, no less than 170 students were busy with all kinds of issues and perspectives of Groeningen, with interesting results. You could say that this has delivered a platform full of initiatives, which are not only about climate, but also about a pleasant living environment, about opportunities for entrepreneurs and much more. If you look at it in a nutshell: together, we are designing the green city of the future.”

Bus ride brings momentum

A website is up and running, a brochure has been printed, the innovation workshop has started. The momentum it has found since has exceeded the wildest expectations of Rieks van der Wal. “We knew that there was a lot of potential in the area, but the way that students picked this up is unbelievable. They look in directions which we would never have found, they see opportunities that we were blind to.”

Example to the country

Students examined, for instance, how organic farmers from the area can market their products better. Van der Wal: “That may seem local, but it’s about a life cycle approach to farming as agricultural management, about reducing the carbon footprint. It is a way to make Groningen greener, an example to the rest of the country.”

The strength of the innovation workshop is that practice and education are in direct contact with each other. Knowledge is shared immediately, residents express their views, entrepreneurs show their challenges. And that’s how the most beautiful projects, innovations and ideas emerge, which are more than just a nice research project. This is about what is possible. Not in twenty years, but today. Van der Wal: “We have only just started. The innovation workshop is bubbling with meaning and inspiration. We devise and implement. To the green future.”


Website Project Groeningen