The vision for Agro Food Park outside of Aarhus. Courtesy of William McDonough and Partners

An agricultural park outside the city of Aarhus is a proving ground for the future of food innovation and urban farming.

More than nine billion people will need access to fresh food by 2050, and two-thirds of them will live in cities. With such a situation looming, it’s not surprising that researchers across the globe are working on food innovation and sustainable urban farming, from edible insect stations for Stockholm’s major intersections to crops grown underground in one of London’s WWII-era air raid shelters.

Agro Food Park in Denmark wants to be the epicenter of this research. Founded in 2009 outside Aarhus, the country’s second-largest city, its 460,000-square-foot campus currently houses around 80 organizations and their 1,000 employees. The outfits are both large and small, public and private, Danish and multinational, and they focus on various elements of agriculture, with expertise including flavor and bacteria.

Over the next 30 years, the park plans to build an additional three million square feet for hundreds more companies and thousands more workers, with the goal of becoming a self-proclaimed “Silicon Valley for agriculture.” Denmark may be one of the best places for this ambitious project, with the country already growing enough food to feed a population six times its size, often via eco-friendly practices. Growth at the park is already underway: Arla Foods, Scandinavia’s largest dairy manufacturer, will bring its innovation center later this year, and Aarhus University’s Department of Food Science will install itself as early as 2018.

The park’s tenants are already forward-thinking: One on the bug bandwagon offers larvae snacks in chili and sour cream and onion flavors. But the park’s aim to foster intense agricultural collaboration in a location that fuses rural and urban is what makes it particularly groundbreaking.

Plans for the park’s expansion, for instance, focus on making its space denser, easing chances for collaboration. “We will have a lot of city-like elements, such as a central lawn that serves as a meeting point,” the Agro Food Park manager Søren Madsen says. These elements are intended to make the park attractive to Aarhus’s citizens, as well. “We want them to be part of the park’s future,” Madsen adds. Beginning next year, a tram will encourage this back-and-forth by linking the park with downtown Aarhus, an 11-minute ride away.

The food park will feature elements of dense, urban living to stimulate contact and collaboration among tenants. (Courtesy of William McDonough and Partners)

The notion of a symbiotic relationship between the city and its agricultural outskirts is one close to the heart of William McDonough, the green architect hired to spearhead the park’s expansion. In an interview with Inhabitat about the project, McDonough spoke about growing up in Tokyo, where local farmers would come to the city in the morning with their carts full of produce and leave in the evening with them filled with the city’s sewage, to use as fertilizer. McDonough said he’s interested in “the idea that we would grow close, fresh, healthy food and use our own nutrients as part of the cycle.” He added that such a system—albeit executed on a large scale—is now crucial so that the world’s depleted soil can be rejuvenated. “That’s the kind of research that [companies and institutes will undertake] at Agro Food Park,” he says.

The park’s goal is to make such innovation truly global. Madsen says that he already frequently hosts international delegations from such countries as Belarus, Canada, and Thailand, who come to collaborate with tenants or learn about in-process initiatives.

And McDonough notes that studies such as those on soil health, paired with Denmark’s environmentalism, make the country a “key place” from which to export research to other countries. “We’re already in discussion about bringing many of our ideas to China at scale,” he said. “This is an important place for us to stand humbly in the soil while we play in the dirt, so to speak.”

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