Urban Agriculture Lab Sets Green Standard

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Urban Agriculture Lab

More people are living in cities than ever before, and some believe that 66 per cent of the world’s population will be urban by 2050. As urbanization increases, encroaching onto rural areas currently used for agriculture, researchers are looking for ways to create more livable cities and boost local food supplies.

On the rooftop of the Palais des congrès de Montréal, researchers are experimenting with new techniques in urban farming at the Urban Agriculture Lab. Situated on 33,500 square feet of roof space, the project has produced many firsts in North America and showcases these innovations to building owners and delegates.

“We have a lot of roof space in Montreal, most of which isn’t used,” says Eric Duchemin, scientific director of the Laboratoire sur l’agriculture urbaine (AU/LAB), an Urban Agriculture Lab partner. “What we are doing with this project is to show people it’s possible to use the roof of their buildings for urban farming and that it is economically viable. We’re trying new technologies and gathering data to share with other entrepreneurs around the world who want to create the same.”

Last summer, the project won the AIPC Innovation Award, which recognizes excellence in convention centre management by showcasing innovative initiatives. Here are five ways this living laboratory of green space is setting a standard in the industry.

Fighting Heat Islands with Space Optimization

Heat islands form when built-up cities become hotter. Energy demand increases, along with air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. VERTical, one component of the Urban Agriculture Lab, is the first project in North America to launch urban vertical farming on scaffolds. Spanning 6,000 square feet of floor space and 5,000 square feet of vertical space, the free-standing farming structures are equipped with experimental wall tarps. Since summer 2016, it has sprouted different types of plants to mitigate heat islands and enhance air quality in the downtown area.

The VERTical project also increases the density of vegetable production. More local crops can be produced this way, while reducing environmental damage. Fresh produce, namely fine herbs, fruits, leafy vegetables and edible flowers, are all enjoyed. Last summer, crops produced strawberries from 10,000 plants.

Boosting Quantity and Quality of Local Produce

Urban Agriculture Lab

Culti-VERT, another project at the Urban Agriculture Lab, experiments with a variety of fruits and vegetables using container gardens — 150 Biotop containers, 150 Alternatives containers and 200 SmartPots — on 6,000 square feet of green space. From ground cherries, eggplant and rare cultivars to medicinal and pollinating plants, the crops yield a total of 650 to 1000 kilograms a year. Fresh produce is used in dishes at event galas by Capital Catering, the Palais’ food service provider, and given to La Maison du Père, an organization that helps the homeless. According to Chrystine Loriaux, director of marketing and communications at the Palais des congrès de Montréal, it is a “truly experimental and innovative” project.

Ground-cover plants also test the cooling effect on the roof membrane. For example, it grows sedums and grasses using five parcels of 300 square feet. Rainwater irrigates the parcels that each employ a different system, including Soprema, Hydrotech, Liveroof, Xeroflor and Zinco.

Supporting Pollinators

Small groups are given exclusive tours of the rooftop and delegates are free to view ongoing projects, such as the three bee hives which hold up to 100,000 bees. The Italian species, which bring in 60 to 80 kilograms of local honey per season, is known to adapt well to urban environments. Many flowers and plants from the Culti-VERT and VERTical projects depend on them as pollinators. Educating groups about these hard-working insects will help them appreciate how the world’s food supply would diminish without their help, and show them a larger perspective on sustainability.

Growing Northern Vineyards

In 2017, the Palais des congrès de Montréal opened Canada’s first urban rooftop, the world’s firstin a northern environment. Researches are looking at how efficiently vines can grow on rooftops and how they interact with cold temperatures.

Spanning 2,000 square feet, 80 vines were planted in resilient geotextile containers and fertilized using low levels of organic matter mixed with crushed recycled glass wine bottles.

With the adverse effects of climate change and the need for less material consumption, repurposing the glass helps support a circular economy in the city.

Despite the frigid Montreal winter these past two months, Duchemin believes the vines will survive. He is currently working with a team in Paris, France to help implement the same platform there. Indigenous grape varieties planted include Frontenac Black (red wine), Frontenac White (white wine), Marquette (red wine) and Petite Pearl (red wine). The first grape harvest is planned for 2020.

Creating Social Change

While urban farms are trendy in many cities, people need to understand how they can be sustained.

Urban Agriculture Lab

“They are good for everyone in the city and overall health,” says Duchemin. “But if urban farms plan to exist, they need an economical model, so we are undertaking research, while trying to understand how to create jobs and hire people to work on the farm.”

The lab also inspires building owners to see the social and economic value of rooftops gardens and how they can be incorporated into new and existing structures.

“We really wanted to raise awareness among building owners and managers around greening city rooftops by creating a demonstration project like the lab,” adds Loriaux. “It has high potential to deploy green roofs in commercial real estate in major urban centres and we are always happy to explain what we are doing, show others the recipe and connect them with partners we work with.”

Going Beyond Green

Environmental awareness has played a large role in the meetings industry for a few years now, but new levels of sustainability are now an imperative. Beyond basic waste management features, delegates care about what buildings are doing for the planet.

“We can do more for the whole earth and to do that, we need to invest more time into research,” says Loriaux.

In the next five years, the team at the Urban Agriculture Lab hopes to table up a research and development platform for urban farming, one that works in a circular economy and reuses all organic matter in the city to create fertilizers.

The Palais’ Urban Agriculture Lab has several vocations: nurturing, educating, understanding and protecting the environment. This combination led the Québec Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to include the Lab in the Carrefour de recherche, d’expertise et de transfert en agriculture urbaine, or CRETAU, a network focused on urban farming research and expertise, and the transfer of urban farming best practices.

To learn more about the Palais des congrès de Montréal, visit http://congresmtl.com/en/.

Palais des Congres de Montreal

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