I don’t have a ‘green thumb’. Keeping myself alive is challenging enough, let alone sustaining a bunch of plants. But I began to imagine that these two aspirations could become linked. What if I could support my own health with hyper-local, organically grown produce? Automation would save my plant friends suffering from my haphazard watering inclinations. Using simple, cheap, physical computing components (a soil moisture sensor, a microcontroller, and a pump), I built my first aquaponic system in my small Burlington apartment. Amazing! and then… I had to move.
Moving an active aquaponic system is not a trivial endeavor. Vermont winters are harsh, for one, so fish don‘t enjoy the relocation process. Furthermore, aquariums aren’t just filled with tap water: healthy tanks are diverse, symbiotic microcosms of bacteria, minerals, algae, and tiny helpful critters. To sustain my happy aquarium, I filled jar after jar with my precious, swampy water, and carried gallons of life, piecemeal, to their new home across town.
What if that eco-infrastructure had already been in place? Aquaponics, after all, are fundamentally the marriage of plumbing and electricity supporting life. New tenants have, in the 20th century, come to expect showers, ovens, refrigerators and toilets to come pre-installed in semipermanent urban housing. Increasingly, we see dishwashers in apartments, and laundry on-site. To imagine a sustainable food future: what if, in the 21st century, we came to expect aquaponic infrastructure in apartments? What if, instead of trucking kale across the country, we could call an eco-technician and hook up to the neighborhood aquaculture grid? Maybe we already share plant cuttings, kombucha mothers, or sourdough starters with our neighbors. We’re certainly sharing the lake and the trees and the air. What about our food system?
I’m not a city planner. I’m not an electrician, a plumber, a farmer, or a zoologist. But I had this idea, and I wanted to build a physicalization of my imaginary urban eco-topia. As a girl, I grew up playing with doll houses, and then simulation strategy games of cities and civilizations. As a design student, I learned the importance of iteration, of prototyping. Great ideas start small. So here is my aquaponic diorama: a small manifestation of an idea to shift towards a sustainable food future, starting with the tiniest of apartments.