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Tackling Philly Food Deserts with 3D-Printed Hydroponic Systems

a hand holding some green herbs


January 20, 2018

In a city known for its exploding restaurant scene, many low-income Philadelphians struggle daily with limited access to fresh, affordable food. Elise Krespan, a dual master’s student of biology and design research at Drexel, is working with colleagues in the URBN STEAMlab to alleviate widespread issues of food inaccessibility using 3D-printed hydroponic systems that grow produce without soil.

The development of hydroponic systems using cyanobacteria is currently the principal project of the URBN STEAMlab, a transdisciplinary, sustainability-focused laboratory directed by Drexel faculty Shivanthi Anandan, PhD, of the biology department, and D.S. Nicholas, RA, AIA, NCARB, of the design research program.

Krespan unites her unique pairing of disciplines in the project, for which she develops and performs testing on the prototypes for two separate theses.

“Hydroponic systems make gardening easier in urban environments and could help people grow food for themselves,” she says. “That’s where the design research comes in — talking to people to see if they’re open to it.”

Urban farming using low-cost materials to provide self-sustaining fruit and vegetable gardens may be one of many solutions to fill the gap between consumers and food markets.

The URBN STEAMlab team is currently experimenting with different systems, and has created interlocking, countertop and hanging gardens. They are also exploring how best to share the final product with the public, which they hope to accomplish in the upcoming academic year. In the meantime, they have attended community dinners at Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships to get feedback on some of their prototypes.

“By attending the dinners, we get to directly engage with the community,” Krespan says. “We get to learn from them, and we get to bring what we learned back to our work.”