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Clemson University institute to study 'vertical farming' feasibility in Charleston, S.C.

CLEMSON, S.C. Clemson University's Institute of Applied Ecology received EPA funding to develop a design-feasibility study to build a "vertical farm" in downtown Charleston.

The study, being done in collaboration with Clemson's Centers of Economic Excellence in Urban Ecology and Sustainable Development and the city of Charleston, will evaluate the repurposing of an existing building to house a vertical farm, powering it with solar and wind energy and using enhanced cyberinfrastructure and environmental informatics to monitor and operate the farm by incorporating the Intelligent River cyberinfrastructure network that will provide real-time remote-data acquisition.

As the world's population increases, developing farmable land will be a challenge. One option is to farm vertically instead of horizontally. Dense urban centers would have multistory buildings with floor atop floor of fruits and vegetables grown in highly environmentally efficient ways, such as using hydroponics and aeroponics.

Clemson University has formed an interdisciplinary team to conduct the analysis, which focuses on agriculture, horticulture, green building and the architectural potential of available sites that will be considered for a vertical farm location. Research elements will focus on water and energy self-sufficiency by incorporating elements of alternative energy sources and gray water collection and reuse; green-roof and vertical garden technologies; sustainable production of high-quality organic foods within a reduced urban footprint; enhanced hydroponics; rooftop and vertical wetlands for urban farmwater quality treatment; and multilevel community-based sustainable development education.

"This is an exciting opportunity for Charleston, EPA, Clemson and its collaborators," said Gene Eidson, director of Clemson's urban ecology center. "To plan and design a vertical farm calls for an array of resources. There are so many topics to be addressed; everything from location, structure and access to economics, environmental sustainability and social justice. Input will not only span Clemson University areas of expertise, but also involve specialists from the College of Charleston, the Citadel and Trident Tech.

"The project will take more than academics," he said. "We look to Charleston leaders and the public to help create a plan for providing food in a sustainable way for cities. More and more people live in urban settings and environmental realities and stresses demand that we imagine and implement innovative ways to feed, house, employ and transport populations."

The study itself, as well as the potential for the development of an actual vertical farm, will have strong impacts on community connectivity. The study will provide a collaborative environment for Clemson University's faculty and graduate students to link with regional universities, technical schools and high schools to create an education hub for sustainability that spans from campuses into the communities.

The presence of a vertical farm would promote environmental justice by supporting innovative approaches to bringing healthy foods to socioeconomically stressed citizens and neighborhoods and encouraging citywide and regional healthy food initiatives. The study includes two opportunities for focused discussion on the plan architects call them "charrettes" to ensure public participation.

Vertical farming first was envisioned by Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd in 1993 in their book "From Eco-Cities to Living Machines." The concept was later expanded in 1999 by Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University. In the last few years, many mainstream and scientific articles have been written about the vertical farm concept a high-rise approach to bringing fresh healthy produce from "tower to fork," emulating the "field to fork" movement toward a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle.

"EPA is very enthusiastic about this project. It explores how to transform overburdened environmental areas into vibrant and sustainable locations," said Gwen Keyes Fleming, regional administrator for EPA Region 4. "The feasibility study and plan are incorporating the best of EPA by using sound science and innovation to capture the core factors of launching an environmentally transformative initiative. The resulting work will be a model to inform and guide other cities and communities, particularly areas in need of revitalization."

The final study will be completed and presented to the city of Charleston in early 2012.


Contact: Gene Eidson
Clemson University

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