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The Urban Farm’s Living Lab is alive with collaborative research

This year, the call for research proposals opens to the entire university community
By: Michelle Grady
December 07, 2021
People working on the Urban Farm on the top of the ENG building.

The Urban Farm is expanding research opportunities for the university community in the new year. 

The university’s rooftop Urban Farm is not just a place to grow food - since 2020, the farm has scaled up capacity for research partnerships through the launch of a Living Lab. And in February 2022, the invitation to partner with the farm to conduct research will be expanded to the entire university community. 

“This past year was the 'soft launch' of the open call for research proposals; we only circulated the opportunity to professors and researchers who had expressed interest in the past,” says Sharene Shafie, research coordinator at the Urban Farm. “This year, we’d like to open it up to the larger university community. We’re looking specifically for projects that are related to ecological rooftop farming that respond to the research priorities that have been developed in response to community consultation, like Indigenous wisdom, food justice and ecosystem services.” More details can be found on the farm’s Research Applications and Requests webpage.

The green roof was established in 2004 and named the Andrew and Valerie Pringle Environmental Green Roof atop the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre as a traditional green roof. It was converted into a space to grow food in 2013 after two School of Nutrition students, Catherine Lung and Stephanie Nishi, were inspired to grow food on campus. The farm’s staff and volunteers grow food that is donated to community partners, sold online, at the university’s farmers market and to Ryerson Eats and Oakham House. 

Below, two researchers share their stories about working with the farm over the last year and a half, and the collaborative nature of the space. 

Investigating engineered soil for food production

“I always knew about the farm, even before I came to the university,” says Michelle Dang, a master’s student in molecular science and the Urban Farm’s graduate research farm assistant. 

“The farm created a Career Boost position for a graduate research assistant; they were looking for someone with a research background and an interest in farming and ecology, and my research interests aligned,” says Dang, who is conducting participant-based research for her master’s in cannabis home-growing practices. “It’s been such a collaborative experience being at the farm. The folks there have been teaching me so much about ecological farming and agriculture and in return, I can teach them about research methods like efficient data collection and designing experiments.” 

In 2009, the City of Toronto brought bylaws that rooftops over a certain amount of square footage should be converted into green spaces. The bylaws stated specifications around the soil as well. 

Dang has been working with Ines Lacarne, lead field assistant at the farm, to conduct research on the engineered soil in use and how to make it more suitable for growing crops. “Engineered soil is great for flowers and shrubs, but it isn’t always the best for growing vegetables because of the soil’s low organic matter. So, this is where the project that we worked on last summer was born. We wanted to amend the soil with biochar, which is lauded to improve the health properties of the soil.”

“The study showed us that you can’t rush the way soil builds its organic matter, and minerals and other nutrients,” says Dang. “Engineered soil is very different from natural soil that farmers are used to working with. This is one of the tricky things with having a rooftop farm compared to a ground-level farm that has soil that's had at least thousands of years to build its mineral and organic matter properties. When you have engineered soil, it hasn't had that time to build that good quality stuff that you would want in a soil to grow crops.”

Dang says the farm would love to accommodate other researchers looking at soil quality and how to make spaces like these generate more fruitful and nutritious yields. “With the new plot on the Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex (DCC) building, we’re still wondering about how to approach it. And so that's where, potentially with this new round of research proposals, we may explore new avenues.”

Expanding research scope to address climate change

Tamer Almaaitah, a third-year PhD candidate in civil engineering at the university, has been conducting his research at the Urban Farm for about a year and a half now. He partnered with the farm to study green infrastructure in urban green roofs and farms. “My research focuses on designing and implementing green infrastructure to help in stormwater management and microclimate improvements, particularly to adapt to climate change,” says Almaaitah. 

“My PhD is funded by an NSERC CREATE training program called 'Design of Living Infrastructure for Ecosystem Services' (DesignLIFES). I am interested in seeing how green infrastructure could help in managing stormwater and elevated heat during the growing season. Green roofs are not just aesthetic applications, they are living climate change adaptation infrastructure.”

The rooftop farm was added as a case study through collaboration between Almaaitah’s supervisor, professor Darko Joksimovic in the Department of Civil Engineering and the farm team. “My original plan was to perform my research only on a typical green roof, but by including the rooftop farm, I’ve shifted my focus. Every green infrastructure application is different. While cities and municipalities can develop their regulations and bylaws, research helps us understand the performance of these facilities and develop better design recommendations.” Almaaitah is also monitoring the performance of blue, blue-green and green roofs at the University of Toronto, and he plans to compare these with the rooftop farm by the end of his study.

“Urban agriculture provides a variety of social and economic benefits, including food security. But there’s little information on how rooftop farms help manage surface runoff and mitigate urban heat islands - two problems manifested by climate change.”

Almaaitah says working with the team at the Urban Farm has been beneficial to his research, and has allowed him to expand his research beyond its initial parameters. “We discussed my research scope and what my equipment and scheduling needs were. The team's collaboration and the use of wireless sensors helped me perform the required research activities with minimal disruption to the farmers’ activities.”

“The Urban Farm Living Lab is thrilled to have supported such successful studies this year and is looking forward to the year ahead,” says Shafie. With the open call for research proposals coming up in the new year, researchers will be able to apply during the month of February 2022. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to support even more amazing research.”

To see the Urban Farm’s research priorities for 2022 and to apply, visit their website.

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