Urban agriculture center creates more than green space

January 24, 2014

In a former shoe warehouse on 96th and Cottage Grove, Chicago State University professor Emmanuel Pratt has turned a former shoe warehouse into an urban farm focusing on aquaponics.

What exactly is aquaponics? High school senior Seville Bell, a volunteer at the space, explains.

“Poop from the fish goes into this little tube and feed the nutrients to the plant and helps it grow and the plant cleans the water and goes back to the fish tank. I like that part because it’s about recycling. You’re not using a lot of water or cleaning the fish tank.”

Recycling is key to the entire enterprise. Used Mountain Dew bottles help water flow into plants. Old shoe racks have been rebuilt to hold classroom easels for teaching.

The aquaponics center can harvest up to 30,000 pounds of fish a year, much of it ending up in local restaurants or donated. But this once-vacant building is more than just a fish distributor or biology lab for college students.

“It’s not ultimately about just growing some food. It’s about using the food and the technique and tool of urban ag and aquaponics as an organizing tool in an area that is systemically and systematically disconnected,” Pratt says.

By disconnected, Pratt means from the larger economy. The facility is located where the neighborhoods of Pullman and Roseland meet — both are struggling with unemployment and economic development.

Relying on his background in graphic design and architecture, Pratt is flipping the idea of 20th century zoning codes on its head. Dance groups practice here. Community groups hold meetings. There’s been a pop-up art gallery. Sometimes people who just need some carpentry work will drop by.

Pratt hopes the aquaponics center will help people in the surrounding community — who are part of the informal economy — plug into the global economy.

is a WBEZ reporter. Follow Natalie on Google+,  Twitter.