Sustainable plans for future urban spaces

aqua-greens-alvarez-petten Aqua Greens creators, Pablo Alvarez (left) and Craig Petten (right), pose for a picture in front of the Green Wall at Guelph-Humber. Photo by Celia Grimbly

Celia Grimbly
News Reporter

Local students with homegrown talent from Humber College are refreshing Toronto’s urban environment with sustainable technology designs and ideas.

The school’s Sustainable Energy and Building Technology program has catalyzed the creation of two companies, Aqua Greens and Skyline Farms, focused on urban agriculture and reimagining how urban space is used.

“Over the past 60 to 70 years, we have learned to do urban sprawl really well and it’s great that we figured out how to do that,” said Kerry Johnston, coordinator for the program. “But there are a lot of negative environmental impacts, negative energy impacts and resource utilization impacts.”

Urban sprawl is a term used to describe low-density development that stretches across large areas.

Humber launched the Sustainable Energy and Building program in 2008, but the students’ focus on agriculture and sustainable urban environments developed more recently, Johnston explained.

“In urban environments, there is growing trend towards locally grown food and urban agriculture,” he said.

Craig Petten and Pablo Alvarez graduated from the program in 2013 and have since been working on turning their final-year “aquaponics” project into an actual business in Toronto called Aqua Greens, said Johnston.

“Aquaponics is a hybrid farming technology that combines hydroponics and aquaculture,” said Petten. “Hydroponics is the direct application of nutrient rich water to the roots of plants and aquaculture is the fish side of the equation where we’re feeding the fish organic food, and out of their wastes, we pull out ammonia and it goes through natural bacterial cycle. two natural bacterial cycles actually, and feeds the plants.”

Aqua Greens received $10,000 from Humber’s New Venture Seed Fund last year to help with initial start-up costs, said Petten.

“We’re in a competition right now for the Humber LaunchPad, which is just amazing. It’s sort of the same style as Dragon’s Den pitching (for venture capital startup funds) and we’re learning so much from it,” said Alvarez.

Winners of the competition are awarded $40,000.

Those grants, combined with the $25,000 Aqua Green is hoping to raise through Kickstarter, would be used to purchase more equipment such as tanks and higher efficiency lighting, Alvarez said.

“In our set-up, we’re looking at about 3,000 to 4,000 square feet and because we’re growing vertically, stacking the growing beds, we’re able to get 10,000 to 20,000 square feet of growing space in a previously existing empty warehouse space in Toronto,” said Petten.

“So not only are we repurposing land that has been paved over before, we’re also making sure it’s all secure and we can do it 365 days a year,” he continued.

Skyline Farms is the other business originating from the program, created by Jake Harding and Gustavo Macias. It uses “Tower Garden” technology to improve urban agriculture within Toronto communities by allowing for high-rise small-scale farming.

Skyline Farms paired with the Toronto District School board’s My Food, My Way program for their pilot project, Macias said.

“We encountered a very successful growing year last year, so our pilot number one, which was located at Thistletown Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke, a high school, was great,” he said.

The duo also had success raising enough money to buy a 720-square-foot greenhouse and shut down the garden last October to make room for construction, Macias said.

“I learned that, working with the school board, you encounter a lot of bureaucracy and red tape,” he said. “Even if programs have a good following on behalf of the school board and everybody wants this to go through, regardless of the fact, working with the school board is just time consuming.”

Macias and Harding postponed construction of the greenhouse until this spring said Macias.

“The greenhouse will allow us to offer a 365-day a year, everyday growing and the conditions and environment in that greenhouse will be controlled by us 100 per cent so we would have no issue with winter, fall, et cetera,” he said.

Skyline Farms is talking with the city of Toronto to get into some industrial buildings, like Aqua Greens, and repurpose that unutilized space, Macias said.