Urban campus, urban agriculture at DePaul University
March 28, 2013
By Ryan Johnson
The local food movement has been gaining steam for some time, and DePaul graduate student Steve Lu aims to make Chicago a shining example of sustainable, local food production.
Lu, an MBA candidate and greenhouse manager for DePaul’sEnvironmental Science and Studies Department in the College of Science and Health, has recently established an urban hydroponics system in the greenhouse at DePaul’s McGowan South building where he tests conditions that will allow for the most efficient, yet effective hydroponics farming.
“Steve’s experiments are aimed at finding the most efficient hydroponic setup for growing hydroponic crops,” said Judith Bramble, chair of the Environmental Studies department. “I think it’s a terrific goal, and we’ve given him access to the greenhouse and additional space to allow him to develop his concept.”
Chicago’s broken food model
Through his experiments, Lu hopes to move more city dwellers to a sustainable source of agriculture. This is important not only to large cities like Chicago but to DePaul as well.
“I think it’s especially important to DePaul because we pride ourselves on giving students an urban education,” Lu said. Lu stresses the importance of making fresh, locally grown food available to everybody, a concept he refers to as food sovereignty.
He noted that much of the food Chicagoans eat comes from California, Mexico or Florida. “People are realizing that getting our food from thousands of miles away is an unsustainable model, both logistically and environmentally.”
“I’m in agreement that it’s not sustainable,” Bramble added. “It’s extremely costly in terms of energy, and any time we use energy we contribute to the environmental problems associated with the use of fossil fuels. It’s unnecessary in the United States. From the statistics I have seen, we spend a smaller portion of our income on food than we ever have in the past. We expect our food to be cheap, but I don’t know if that’s what is best for society.”
Hydroponics allows the growth of plants without soil and conserves more than 90 percent of the water used in traditional farming, where water is fed to plants and then run off into the ground. Lu is now attempting to find artificial light sources that minimize energy use while maximizing output, which is key in indoor hydroponic farming.
“Since you are growing indoors, from a financial perspective, the cost of electricity is going to be your single biggest operational expense,” he said. There are several ways to save on energy costs, but if you’re not getting yield, you’re not really being efficient.”
A facelift for the Rust Belt
Lu notes that cities in the Rust Belt have redefined themselves over the years. Urban centers like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland used to be great industrial cities. As technology has progressed they have evolved into creative centers and jobs have migrated from blue-collar to white-collar.
““As a result, you have all these huge manufacturing and industrial facilities that are being under-utilized,” Lu said. “One idea is to turn those spaces into agriculture centers. I know Chicago is on the forefront of this movement, and there is an idea being proposed to turn a South Side neighborhood into one of the country’s biggest urban agriculture centers.”
Ultimately, Lu hopes to turn vacant manufacturing areas into thriving urban gardens and to expand hydroponic farming across the city.
“We’ve had an increase in the number of students interested in urban agriculture over the last few years,” Bramble said. “Steve is just amazing, and to the extent that we can help him with his career, I think it will benefit everybody.