Ancient/Emergent Agricultural Systems and Modern Technology: A Research Proposal for Urban Aquaculture

Illustration of Aztecs Building a Chinampa (via

We find ourselves at the confluence of two essential and far-reaching trends: that of exponential global population growth and what might be described as a collective forgetfulness.  As a recent lecture by Tanya Denckla Cobb of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation indicated, we are at a moment in history in which we must provide for the nutritional and other needs of an unprecedented amount of people, and yet certain aspects of knowledge gained over centuries or millennia to that end have been in the process of being replaced or superseded by elements of modern culture or technology.  As Cobb described, desert farming, for example – once a highly successful and widespread means of  food growth for indigenous populations of the southwestern United States – has become limited to such an extent that it may no longer be practiced within the coming generation.  Although the demand for food growth in such climates will continue – and perhaps expand with global desertification – this means of farming that has evolved or emerged through the trial and error of generations may no longer exist, largely replaced presently with a global, industrial food production and distribution system dependent on oil and modern technology that remains out of balance with natural systems and human needs.

It is in reaction to this larger global state that my research proposal arises.  Although I reject by no means the importance and potential promise of technology and am in fact an adamant proponent of vertical farming, I have a growing apprehension toward a dependence on modern technologies to address our current and future food needs.  Instead, I hope to investigate and expand upon the promises of modern technologies and vertical farming through technical and systemic lessons provided by millennia of previous agricultural experimentation.  Indeed, because agriculture is central to our establishment of cities, the issues addressed en route will not only be that of food generation but waste, quality of life, and others – thereby helping to place modern food growth in the context of historic and present natural and cultural systems.

Growing Power (via

To begin to address this larger issue for this semester, I will focus on one aspect of a potential indoor or vertical farm – that of aquaculture, or the synergistic production of marine animals (e.g., mainly fish) and plants together.  In order to combine the lessons offered by both traditional and modern aquaculture, this will be based mainly on two in-depth case studies: the indoor aquacultural system evident at Growing Power in Milwaukee and the emergent fish farming currently in place at the East Kolkata Wetlands, which utilizes the sewage from the city to generate fully one-third of its fish consumption.  I will investigate in depth how produce and fish are grown and how these methods fit into natural and cultural contexts, as well as speculate as to how these systems might be adapted and improved for future application.  In addition to this, I will place both projects in a larger historic context, which will include other means to grow plants aquaculturally such as was evident at Tenochtitlan before Spanish conquest (seen in the image at the beginning of the post).

Considerable research from written sources will be needed to do so, some of which are included at the end of the post.  However, I will also be in need of help from primary contacts, especially for aid in understanding the systems in place at Growing Power.  I have contacted Growing Power for information regarding their facilities, and have also contacted Mr. Wayne Reckard at The Kubala Washatko Architects, who serves as project director for the forthcoming vertical farm for Growing Power’s expansion.

Although a considerable portion of the information gained from these case studies and historic context will be in written form, diagramming the systems graphically will be especially important both in terms of understanding the systems in place and their application to future farms.  In order to do so, I hope to extend beyond Meadows’ examples of diagramming systems to utilizing what Edward Tufte proposes in Envisioning Information, in which he provides a series of recommendations to help the clarity of communication of an complicated information graphic.

Although his recommendations and their application in diagramming systems effectively deserves a separate post, I have provided two diagrams here that I posted earlier in the semester when I was speculating about my research project that attempted to incorporate Tufte’s recommendations.  (A recent post about the East Kolkata Wetlands can be found here, and an early post about systems in vertical farms, in part a response to my introduction to Thinking in Systems, can be found here.)  I plan to combine the larger systems thinking of the latter image with the easily identifiable visual qualities of the former to help explain the systems at work in the case studies.

Diagram Exploring Systems at East Kolkata Wetlands

Diagram of Hydroponic Farming Systems

Therefore, through systems graphics and a narrative about these two case studies and other historic examples, I hope to discern and describe ways in which aquaculture can be produced sustainably and, through incorporation with surrounding natural and cultural systems, help contribute beneficially to other aspects of the built and natural environments.  Because a former employer of mine hopes to begin an aquaculture business in Minneapolis, as I mentioned in a previous post, I feel an especially immediate need to explore these issues so that his business might not only function well by itself but improve issues pertaining to waste, community engagement, and nutritional health of the surrounding area.  In this way, instead of relying fully on modern technology that may be divorced from the larger history of fish production, we will be able to grow fish in a way that demonstrates to a greater extent the wisdom of trial and error through generations of farmers.

Sources for Research:

Bandyopadhaya, Tarasankar, et al.  Preliminary Study on Biodiversity of Sewage EFD Fisheries of East Kolkata Wetland Ecosystem. Kolkata: Institute of Wetland Management and Ecological Design, 2004.

Bunting, S. W., et al.  Workshop Proceedings – East Kolkata Wetlands and Livelihoods.  Kolkata: West Bengal Pollution Control Board, 2001.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe.  Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food.  New York: Free Press, 2002.

Ghosh, Dhrubajyoti.  Information Sheet on Ramsdar Wetlands. World Wide Fund for Nature – India (accessed September 17, 2010).

Juniper, Tony.  “Kolkata: Wonders of the Waste Land.”  Guardian Weekly (UK), August 6, 2004 ( (accessed September 19, 2010).

Kundu, Nitai, Mausumi Pal, and Sharmistha Saha.  “East Kolkata Wetlands: A Resource Recovery System Through Productive Activities.”  Proceedings of Taal2007: The 12th World Lake Conference, edited by M. Sengupta and R. Dalwani, p. 868-881.  2008.

Newman, Peter.  “The Distributed City.”  Blog Post, Island Press, February 2, 2009. ( (accessed September 18, 2010).

Rome, Adam.   The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Royte, Elizabeth.  “Street Farmer.”  The New York Times, July 1, 2009 (accessed October 11, 2010).

Sumner, Jennifer.  “Sustainable Horticulture and Community Development: More Than Just Organic Production.”  Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, Vol. 33, No. 4 (2009): 461-483.

Yasmeen, Gisele.  Urban Agriculture in India: A Survey of Expertise, Capacities, and Recent Experience.  New Delhi: International Development Research Centre – South Asia Regional Office, 2001.


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