Urban Stream: Food for the future, technology from the past (part2)

Posted by wesleysregan on September 09, 2012 6 Comments

For part 1 go here

One of the oldest challenges facing all communities, but particularly larger cities, is how do we get all the things we need into the community and effectively deal with getting the waste or unwanted byproducts back out of the community? If there is a serious failure to create and regulate systems that enable this on either side of the equation a community is unsustainable. Your people will either starve as their homes fall apart, or they’ll be covered in garbage as they compete with rats, pigeons and cockroaches for supremacy of public spaces.  But while mastering management of this dichotomy leads to the creation of livable cities it has also led to practices or ways of thinking that detach us from important natural processes, ones that we have grown up to believe happen somewhere “out there,” out of sight out of mind.

To paraphrase this problem, environmental activist, academic and author Derrek Jensen summed it up nicely in an interview on the program Democracy Now! when he said, (and I stress once again this is paraphrasing) “if you believe your water comes from a river you’re going to take care of that river and fight to the death to defend that river but if you believe that your water comes from a tap, you’re going to fight to the death to defend the system that made that tap.”

Urban Stream grows using hydroponics and aquaponics and has designed technologies and systems that reduce the cost of doing so

Too many of us think that water comes from a tap or groceries come from grocery stores without thinking about the river or the farm, or the fossil aquifer or phosphorus in the soil for that matter. Likewise, when we throw away the absurd amounts of packaging that comes with any number of consumer goods we tend to think that it becomes “somebody else’s problem now” it becomes a problem for the garbage truck and whoever the garbage truck takes that stuff too; someplace “out there” out of sight out of mind. Many of us are fighting to the death to defend that system, that completely unsustainable, inequitable and inefficient system. To do this is to live in dreamlike denial of our responsibility as a living, thinking being, to be aware of the consequences of our actions here. By believing that somebody else, somewhere else, will take care of it, or suffer the externalities of excess on our behalf like it were some natural Darwinian order of things, whether it’s communities in developing countries whose groundwater is now tainted by toxins leaking from mountains of spent batteries we’ve exported, or migrant farm laborers being paid subsistence-level wages right here in North America, the paracosm of consumerist society denies the existence of the toll it exacts when it gets the things it needs into its cities and the stuff it doesn’t back out. We can do better, and we don’t have to just stop making and buying stuff to do it. My partner Nick and I, through Urban Stream, want to help push us out of this paradigm and into the next by closing this wasteful and inefficient open system, dissolve the dichotomy of “here” (city) and “out there” (nature) and do away with the myth of waste, organic waste in particular. There is no waste, only resources, and resources are wealth. To waste resources is to destroy wealth.

Take the great Pacific garbage patch. Thousands of tonnes of useful plastic are choking marine wildlife and threatening our global food chain, unable to biodegrade. These plastics find their way into the hydrological cycle through rivers and coastlines and congregate in the middle of the north pacific. There are other such great garbage patches in other parts of the globe too. The wealth of ocean resources if stewarded responsibly is a renewable source of food – at least it has been.  Now a large portion of the Pacific is literally being choked to death slowly, by a gelatinous plastic blob the size of Texas that occupies an ocean vortex “somewhere out there”, i.e. nature. And mostly because of laziness. Laziness is not sexy. Taking action, doing something innovative, standing up for the environment, we think those kinds of things are sexy.

Emergency landing? Better know how to fight bears for fish

Back in the arctic as a child, I would spend quite a bit of time looking down at the gently curving horizon from one of my dad’s airplanes. He was a bush pilot and with my mom owned a fleet of about a dozen aircraft. The vastness of the arctic is frightening. Looking down at the patchwork of lakes, trees, muskeg and rock that extend as far as one can see is similar to staring out over the ocean. I guess the Alberta Tar sands might be something akin to the great pacific garbage patch then….Though I would occasionally go fishing on one of those lakes my main environment, the one where I knew people lived or were seemingly supposed to live, was a miniature model of pretty much any other north American town or city. Laid out on a grid pattern, square and rectangular houses, places to work in one area, places to shop in another area, places to live in their own area and so on. Neat, organized and predictable. Aside from the temperature that orderly little town shared little with the wild sprawling taiga and tundra that it was surrounded by, which at 11 years old seemed to extend to the corners of the earth. That was an ancient abyss from which one could walk out into and never return. The world seemed unthinkably large to me back then. A few trips overseas and a geography degree later, the world seems almost clausterphobically small and intimate. Like many others I’m sure that “out there” now seems alarmingly close, as “here” grows from local to global in scale. I feel that Pacific Garbage Patch drifting slowly towards me. I sense the tainted groundwater is trickling in my direction…and I have to do something.

Until one day when I am accepted for grad studies at UBC I will continue to insist that SFU is a far superior university….
Some schematics for the Micro-Farm concept

Nick and I met in university. He was completing his thesis on sustainable food systems as a biochemical engineering student at UBC and I was completing a degree in geography and urban studies at SFU. It was an unlikely but very complimentary marriage of values, ideas and perspectives. Urban Stream’s entry product is called a Micro-Farm and it’s capable of growing vegetables and herbs in an integrated vermiculture and aquaponic system that houses freshwater fish or prawns, it’s the size of a small shipping container. In fact, we are going to be building some out of shipping containers as they are a standard size, mass-produced, readily available, and can be transported via a number of common shipping methods. The system is designed to dramatically reduce the cost of producing food year-round by reclaiming the otherwise lost value (heat and nutrients) from food waste (which of course is actually a resource) which for far too long has been sent to landfills to slowly off-gas methane.

Urban Stream is also working with local restaurants to compost and grow leafy greens and herbs onsite through hydroponic trellises and also provides custom worm bins for smaller scale scraps diversion. Our variety of systems and methods are tailored towards urban and remote environments and are pest proof, vandal-proof, are designed to capture all usable outputs (including gases, leachates etc.) in order to grow year-round and produce multiple revenue streams. Technologies aside we provide waste audits for restaurants and consult on waste diversion or local food procurement options too. That is, we want to send business to our friends as well.

Aquaponics has been brought to the public attention once again through high profile projects like Growing Power, which has a number of farm sites in Wisconsin and Chicagoland and provides hands on training to new generations of farmers

Aquaponic systems fill an important niche in the urban farming continuum- namely protein. A few ancient cultures figured that out long ago, some cultures still to this day practice forms of integrated aquaculture, like the rice paddy farms of Vietnam or the Loko ‘ia, traditional fishponds of Hawaii. Urban Stream tries to emulate these types of systems through biomimicry, more accurately we try and create a protected circuit through which the natural processes will actually play out on their own with little interference from us.

Nick and I with one of our early prototypes- the urban garden cart. Great for restaurants!

Our first non R&D related growing system was built earlier this month and is now in full production and a second system is scheduled to be built out in the coming weeks for one of 11 restaurants located here in Vancouer who have signed Letters of Interest with us. We were recently recognized by Vancity Credit Union as a recipient of the Good Money Venture Impact Challenge Award, placing 3rd out of 40 businesses in the Province and are proud to be one of the founding urban farming businesses to form the Vancouver Urban Farming Society, a capacity building and policy advocacy group for urban growers that engages the city and other levels of government in the interest of developing appropriate land use and other policies to improve our local food system. But really, we are just getting started, and it’s not necessarily easy to launch something of this type here in Vancouver, or maybe anywhere for that matter.

We definitely feel we are on the leading edge with other growers who are trying to balance doing things sustainably, organically, and in ways that are culturally appropriate for communities along with using innovative systems and technologies that are pretty daring in both their form and function. The most extreme manifestation of this being things like Dickson’ Despommier’s Vertical Farms or other highly technical mega-projects that trend towards technological solutions in regards to food systems infrastructure, so to speak. Rather than reclaiming land, raised beds on brownfields, conversions of lawns, and other things that we see in Vancouver or other cities throughout North America. Urban Stream is somewhere between these two visions of urban farming. Pastoral and Technological-Utopian you could say.

We have a long way to go but it’s our dream that one day our technology will be as ubiquitous and also as innocuous as common street lamps, utility boxes, park benches or other infrastructure that we are surrounded by, quietly doing its thing behind the scenes or between the lines as it helps transform cities into truly sustainable settlements. We see our products being really convenient for those practicing urban agriculture in more low-tech ways too; Which frankly is most likely going to be the trend for a while to come in my opinion. We think it’s a good time to be in this business.

Dubai, this proposed tower is purported to be able to provide food for 40,000 poeple. Image from http://www.menainfra.com/news/oasis-tower-dubai-vertical-farm/

Cities today operate in a totally different fashion than they did 100 years ago. They are taller, larger, faster and more complex than may have been imaginable at the turn of last century. Not only this but they form a global matrix of flows in which highly connected urban economies mix production, innovation and consumption as culture, capital and risk surges like electricity through a relatively chaotic yet somewhat regulated system. This globally diffuse network of cities are driven by powerful information systems that we find at our fingertips and with digital natives entering into positions of creative power within the private and public sector, the way cities operate, look, feel and generally work my be as equally different another 100 years from now than they are now- in fact they may have to be if we or our descendants are to live in any reasonable measure of comfort then. But it begins, in my

A recent City of Vancouver design competition showcased architectural visions like this, the Harvest Green Project, by Romses Architects. For more information see http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/9/view/6300/romses-architects-harvest-green-project-vancouver.html

opinion, with radically rethinking our relationship between “here” and “out there” or City and Nature and breaking down the paracosm we have created in which the externalities of our culture, our economy and the food system that fuels it can pretend to be somehow warded off forever. The reckoning is here. Whether one believes that this relationship is better reconciled through Tower Farms in skyscrapers or converting lawns and reclaiming brownfields, the underlying concept is the same for me. We can no longer afford to keep separate the form and function of the built environment and the natural environment.

Cities have begun to see themselves as part of this global network of flows and exchanges, now we need to properly intertwine this cultural and economic global urbanism with the organic and finite physical systems that provide the foundational nutrients and building blocks that gave rise to and sustain human society. Cities can no longer just be about cities, they need to be about the whole planet they inhabit. They need to also be about what’s “out there” where all the stuff that cities need comes from

Inner City Farms, converting lawns into productive food growing spaces ICF has several sites in East Vancouver, including my own front yard! Photo from http://rabble.ca/news/2012/04/vancouvers-urban-farming-movement-growing

and where all the stuff we don’t want cluttering our urban environment is carelessly tossed. Remote communities are saddled with their own unique circumstances, but equally need to re-examine their situations specifically within the context of food security. The old norms are leaving us, and solutions are needed fast here too.

Simply put we need new ways of doing things, whether we’re in Vancouver or in the far north, ways that not only stop the damage we are doing to the natural environment and ourselves but can hopefully help heal us both too.


Progress is the steady stream of the unlikely creating the unexpected in order to overcome the impossible. I think that Urban Farming, done sustainably, and other emerging food systems technologies may be one of the greatest job creation sectors and cultural drivers to emerge in centuries. We are just scratching the surface of this today.

It’s those kinds of ideas that inspire Urban Stream, and inspire me.
Wes Regan is co-founder and Vice-President of Urban Stream Innovation and a founding Director of the Vancouver Urban Farming Society

He holds a BA in Human Geography and Certificate in Urban Studies From Simon Fraser University and an Associates Degree in Geography from Langara College

6 thoughts on “Urban Stream: Food for the future, technology from the past (part2)

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