How To Turn a Vacant Building into an Urban Farm
Emmanuel Pratt’s Mycelia Project, an aquaponic farm in a former shoe factory, now distributes fish and fresh veggies from the South Side.
Photograph: Brian Kelly; Hair and Makeup: Jenna Baltes/Artists By Timothy Priano
The Urban Farmer
Name: Emmanuel Pratt
Founder: Mycelia Project
Cofounder: Sweet Water Foundation
“Welcome to the best-kept secret on the South Side,” says Emmanuel Pratt, gesturing toward the vast open space inside a former shoe factory at 96th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Today this low-slung building houses an aquaponic wonderland in which nitrogen-rich waste from tilapia-filled tanks fertilizes a variety of vegetables and herbs planted overhead. The fish and veggies will be sold to area restaurants such as MK and Wishbone—but not before this Chicago State University professor has used them to teach an important lesson about sustainability, repurposing, and urban renewal.
While aquaponics itself is the real green achievement, Pratt has accomplished much more: turning a deteriorating building into a means to educate everyone from kindergartners to graduate students about urban agriculture. After Chicago State oversaw the purchase of the old factory, Pratt began to assemble the Mycelia Project, the overarching name for his hybrid art-meets-agriculture experiment. “When you take the concept of blight and flip it on its head using fish and vegetables, you can show that there’s new life in spaces that have been idle for 20, 30 years,” he says.
Pratt has expanded the program to 50 schools in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit through his Sweet Water Foundation. He hopes that, by teaching basic concepts like soil chemistry and fishery management, he can groom generations of urban farmers. That’s why Julie Simpson, director of nonprofit services for New York-based TCC group, calls Pratt a true innovator who “moves the needle in our society for the better.”
His motto—a play on a derisive description of areas in decay—sums up what he hopes the passersby outside the former shoe factory will one day say: “There grows the neighborhood.”
Emmanuel Pratt is one of five winners of Chicago magazine’s 2013 Green Awards. Each year, we honor unsung locals whose innovations are putting Chicago on the national map and doing something good for the earth.
CORRECTION: The story was updated on 3/13/13 to reflect that Chicago State University originally purchased the shoe factory, not Pratt.