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Rooftop garden competition highlights the future of food production

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This semester, the Arizona Student Unions are holding a competition for undergraduate students to design a garden on the Student Union Memorial Center roof. Teams of five interdisciplinary students will have about three months to plan out a garden that will produce crops to be donated to the Campus Pantry at UA. 

This competition presents students from a wide variety of fields an opportunity to put their skills to work right in the heart of campus. Not to mention, each member of the winning team will win $1,000 in meal plan money, as well as $500 and $100 for the members of the second- and third-place teams. Beyond the financial reward, participants will have the pride of knowing they helped provide fresher food to the entire UA community. 

In addition to its more tangible benefits, the rooftop garden competition could also serve as a showcase for cutting-edge developments in a number of environmental fields.

“A competition such as this one is so important for the overall education of an architecture student. It provides real-world design experience and real-world impact,” said architecture senior Caitlin Kessler, president of UA’s American Institute for Architecture Students chapter. “The value is visible and tangible, and it sets students apart as leaders and designers within the Tucson community.”

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Much of the competition falls within the realm of landscape architecture—the design of public outdoor spaces. It’s an art and science that incorporates elements of architecture, ecology, agriculture and engineering. Most importantly, collaboration is key.

“As landscape architects, we think about environmental function, structural function and a lot about aesthetic function,” said Margaret Livingston, professor of landscape architecture at UA. “That idea of combining science and aesthetics can be very appealing to a lot of people.”

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Plans for the garden will need to include more than just plant types and structural design. 

“One thing we are asking students to do in their research is [plan] how much money is it going to take to sustain the garden, how are you going to staff the garden over the summer and winter and spring break when students are gone, how are we going to make this a sustainable, student-run, for-student initiative,” said Jessica Litvack, senior coordinator of student engagement and faculty programs. 

The contest is being co-sponsored by Shamrock Foods and Coca Cola. Their donations, along with funding from the student unions, will give contestants a $50,000 budget to design their garden.

The task may sound daunting for undergrads, but the competition allows for a great deal of collaboration between many unique disciplines. “This is for everybody, and anybody can participate,” said Christina Partica, sales coordinator at the Arizona Student Unions and a competition organizer. 

“Each team will have a mentor who is from Master Gardeners of Tucson,” Litvack said. “So if the team doesn’t have a deep understanding about gardening in particular, they have a lifeline that they can reach out to for assistance.”

While landscape architecture could provide guidance as to the layout of the garden, the field of nutrition will also play a crucial role in the success of a design. “The deficiency in the [UA Campus Pantry] is obviously the ability to have fresh food,” said Todd Millay, director of the Arizona Student Unions and judge for the competition. 

The Campus Pantry initiative was incorporated into the Student Union Memorial Center last semester. According to Millay, the rooftop garden competition is phase two of the campus pantry initiative. The goal is to be able to provide the pantry with nutritionally dense food and fill the gaps of imperishable food items. “People who are food insecure, meaning they don’t get enough food to eat on a regular basis, have a greatly increased risk for type II diabetes and other chronic illnesses,” said Melanie Hingle, UA assistant professor of nutritional sciences and public health. For this reason, part of the judging criteria will be the garden’s nutritional density. 

Hingle’s focus is on public health. She described her work as developing preventative programs “in the community, by the community” in order to fight the dual problem of food insecurity and risk for chronic illness. She hopes majors from her department will take this opportunity to help educate the community about the importance of nutrition.

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Another aspect of garden design, especially in a desert climate, is controlled environment agriculture—a high-tech type of food production where crops are grown in an enclosed environment utilizing hydroponic (soil-free) or related technologies to closely monitor every aspect of the system.

Professor of agricultural-biosystems engineering Gene Giacomelli is director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at UA. He researches bio-regenerative life support systems, such as greenhouses, with the goal of growing produce in the most efficient and sustainable manner possible. Giacomelli has worked closely with NASA to design controlled agriculture environments that may one day be utilized on the moon and Mars.

“We are engineers as well as horticultural plant science professors and students studying and doing research on how to grow nutrient-rich food more efficiently so that we can produce fresh vegetables at any time to compliment the food that we are getting from farms in the open field,” Giacomelli said.

Giacomelli hopes that the rooftop garden will serve as an educational tool to get students involved and informed about agriculture. “This is a great opportunity for education and developing interest in where our food comes from and how it’s grown,” Giacomelli said. “Make the connection, bring them up there to see it.”

Learn more about the competition or register to participate at the kickoff event this Friday, Feb. 3, at 6 p.m. in the Student Union Memorial Center’s Gallagher Theater. 

For more, watch for the Daily Wildcat’s feature documentary on urban agriculture and landscape architecture posting online this Saturday.


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