Tech-Powered Education

Sweet Water Foundation Transforms Chicago’s South Side

Julian Smith Writer

After seeing his hometown torn apart by poverty and crime, one man started an organization that uses agriculture projects to rebuild the community through education, collaboration and outreach.

Fifteen years ago, when Emmanuel Pratt returned from college to Chicago’s South Side where he’d spent much of his life, he found the once-familiar neighborhoods devastated by poverty and decay.

“All the places I went to when I grew up were gone,” he said.

Instead of leaving again, he decided to put his graduate training in architecture and urban planning to practical use. In 2009, he co-founded the Sweet Water Foundation with the mission to help communities rebuild by turning waste into a resource, specifically through high-tech urban farming.

Pratt believes that these methods can not only teach adults and kids about science and technology, but make communities more resilient by being able to grow their own food — literally feeding their minds and bodies.

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The foundation’s flagship is the Aquaponics Innovation Center, a research and education center in what was once a vacant shoe warehouse on the city’s South Side. In 2011, the Foundation partnered with Chicago State University to set up an extensive aquaponics system. Pratt worked with Intel to install sensors and technologies for collecting and visualizing data that helped him grow food in a container with no natural light.

Four 1,000-gallon tanks each contain hundreds of tilapia, whose ammonia-rich waste fertilizes plants like lettuce and chard. The plants’ roots filter the water in turn, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem of sorts.

The end result has helped to transform the neighborhood.

Although Pratt said a major part of the Aquaponics Innovation Center’s success involves producing food to sell to local chefs and stores, the center also helps Sweet Water Foundation accomplish larger community goals.

Thousands of local students and other residents visit the facility every year for hands-on lessons in gardening, ecology and nutrition. An apprenticeship program called There Grows the Neighborhood teaches at-risk youth skills like carpentry.

“We’re touching families in neighborhoods they live in, showing them how to feed and support themselves in a sustainable way,” said Pratt, who noted this project has received support from the city and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Education.

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The foundation’s footprint also includes the Perry Avenue Community Farm, a two-acre property in the Englewood/Washington Park neighborhood that was once the site of a notorious reform school. The urban farm now feeds hundreds of people a week during peak season.

Across the street, a once-abandoned three-bedroom home is now the Think-Do House, a community center and meeting place with a vibrant mural by local artist Max Sansing.

Sansing’s art also adorns a trio of Think-Do Pods. These converted shipping containers are filled with smaller aquaponics systems for growing and research.

Think-Do Pod transformation
Think-Do Pod transformation

Each 160-square foot space holds fish tanks fitted with sensors based on a hybrid Arduino/Raspberry Pi computing board. The technologies are open-source and inexpensive, Pratt says, making them perfect for a grass-roots approach.

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The sensor arrays let the program’s aspiring aquaponics practitioners, aka Aquapons, monitor the systems remotely, including pH, ammonia, nitrate and CO2 levels as well as temperature, lighting and pump flow. The technology allows them to share the data with other participants and aquaponics systems, all in the goal of optimizing grow rates.

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The outsides of the containers are essentially art projects that combine Sansing’s graffiti-inspired paintings with wood cutouts created by some of the foundation’s apprentices. The wood is leftover packing material from shipping construction glass. A basic conversion costs around $10,000-15,000, Pratt said.

“We realized these things were just sitting empty, all over the place,” Pratt said.

When the idea to convert the containers first came up, “everyone thought we were crazy,” Pratt said. “We are, but in a good way.”

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Inside a Think-Do Pod

The pods aren’t the only tool helping Sweet Water Foundation bring agriculture to unconventional places. The foundation has also helped set up a small but growing network of open-sourced urban farming installations called Urban Agriculture STE[A+]M Hubs in unused spaces in public school classrooms, churches and community centers.

The idea of a spreading network is central to the philosophy behind the effort, Pratt said. He likens the foundation’s community outreach to the thread-like network of mycelia that compose fungi.

Playing off this theme, the foundation set up a series of collaborative, science-themed art and cultural events called the Mycelia Project, where students can share innovation and inspiration.

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