Believed to be Britain's largest commercial-scale development of its type so far, the Biospheric Project in Salford, Greater Manchester, opened to the public for the first time this month as part of the Manchester International Festival.
Project director Vincent Walsh called it "a model for urban regeneration that is also an enterprise creating jobs". Described as "part farm, part laboratory", the project is divided between a 780sq m plot of previously derelict land by the River Irwell that is being turned into an area of intensive agroforestry production and an adjacent three-storey former mill (see box).
During Grower's visit, around 60 workers and volunteers were working to ready the site, 15 employed directly by the Biospheric Foundation.
"In a very dense environment like this you have to think about the economic as well as social and environmental aspects," Walsh explained. "What returns does aquaponics bring compared to vermiculture?"
Outside, 80 fruit and other trees have been planted in rows, set precisely 7.5m apart to maximise solar capture on the lower tiers, where perennial fruit, vegetable and herb crops are grown.
Existing trees were felled but their biomass retained on site, with the trunks part buried and inoculated with mushroom spores. "Mushrooms are fundamental to every ecological system," added Walsh.
"But we are developing what will be the country's largest community mushroom-growing scheme. One local restaurateur spends £16,000 on oyster mushrooms alone - the potential is considerable."
However, the plants and crops will be carefully monitored for contaminants from the ground. "Bio-remediation is very important here," said Walsh. "There are many sites like this in cities that are simply left because authorities don't know what to do with them. The research is a massive part of this - it's very important but no one else is doing it."
Walsh has put in his own savings and his PhD allowance to fund the project. Support has also come from Salford City Council and a local housing developer.
"We have positioned it to developers as a test bed, providing feasibility studies for commercialisation," he said. "But we are keen for the community to take over. That will be the icing on the cake."
- Mill site Aquaculture and hydroponics
The aquaponics system inside the former mill is already raising tilapia, common carp and tench, in combination with hydroponic growing of herbaceous crops.
Electronics giant Siemens and landscape architects BDP and Queen's University Belfast are among the research partners.
Meanwhile, a hydroponic "biofacade" will replace the brick wall on the south side of the building. Project director Vincent Walsh said: "As with the garden, we aim to make every part of the building productive."