Evaluating productivity, resource use, and microbiology of urban agricultural systems

With a growing and increasingly urbanised global population, there are increased stresses on providing food, water, and energy resources in an equitable and safe manner. The issues of food security and food access are being exacerbated by climate change and urbanisation, as current agricultural land is becoming unsuitable for farming. Thus, there is a need for innovative ways to increase food production in places where food generally would not be grown – such as in urban areas.

Weaving food production into the urban fabric is becoming a common practice in cities across the world, as this aids in food self-sufficiency and increases healthy food access in poorer areas. Our research group is interesting in developing low-input, closed-loop urban growing systems using hydroponics and aquaponics. We are working both on low-tech systems for deprived, displaced communities, such as for refugee camps in Jordan, as well as more high-tech, large scale systems for maximum food production.

I will be working on evaluating the productivity of a variety of urban agriculture systems across the world, including commercial and community-scale hydroponic and aquaponic systems, as well as soil-based systems including raised beds, wicking beds, permaculture gardens, and food forests. These systems will be compared based on their production output, provided services, and embedded energy costs. Further, I will be focusing on characterising the microbiology of aquaponic systems.

Aquaponics is a unique way to grow food in a closed-loop manner, using aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soilless culture). The waste from the fish, which becomes toxic to fish if you do not change the water in the fish tank, is pumped to a hydroponic system of plants. Plants use the nutrients from the fish waste and filter the water, which can then be returned to the fish tank. Despite the use of these systems around the world, little research has been done to investigate the microbiology necessary to make this system work (for example, nitrifying bacteria are necessary to convert fish waste into a form of nitrogen plants can use). Therefore, my research will focus on collecting microbiology samples from a range of aquaponic systems around the world, to provide a general characterisation of the microbial communities present in aquaponic systems.

Further work will be performed to understand how microbiology differs based on system type, fish and fish feed type, crop type, growing media, and physical environment, and how this influences the growth of crops. This information will help growers make informed decisions on how to best design aquaponic systems to cultivate plant growth promoting microbes.

Field Work / Outreach

I will be working on gathering data for this project across the globe, with a special focus in the UK and US (especially Atlanta and New York City). I will also be working with an aquaponic greenhouse project in Oman. Further, I am also working on a project to teach refugee communities in Jordan how to grow crops hydroponically, as they are not able to use the soil. We are growing plants in a waste material, mattress foam, to also help repurpose waste materials on site.
Additionally, I am a volunteer at the Bija Foundation, a non-profit based out of Oakland, California, which works to support locally based sustainability projects. I serve as the Community Outreach and Agricultural Education Coordinator at Bija, working on a project called Code Green which aims to teach K-12 students computer science by coding sensors to automate hydroponic systems. This project is being spearheaded in Atlanta, as many students in the south of Atlanta do not have opportunities to learn computer science in high school and also live in food desert areas. In this way, students will be able to use practical computer science skills to help them grow fresh, healthy food in communities where this is generally not available.

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Nicole Kennard


Professor Tony Ryan

Professor of Physical Chemistry and Director of the Grantham Centre


Professor Duncan Cameron

Professor of Plant and Soil Biology, Royal Society University Research Fellow,