Greenhouse connects Temple, North Philly communities

Former students spent more than a year renovating a greenhouse to increase resident access to affordable produce.

Several alumni helped renovate the high tunnel at the Poplar community garden on 8th and Poplar streets, which will increase the amount of fresh produce available to Poplar residents. | DYLAN LONG / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Brett Riley biked past the same run-down greenhouse on Poplar Street every day during his commute to Temple University. He never thought twice about its torn, vandalized framework.  

When his senior design group needed a location for its proposed greenhouse, the 2018 mechanical engineering alumnus found himself recognizing the greenhouse’s potential. His mission changed: instead of building one, his group would help renovate it.

“They happened to have a high tunnel greenhouse that was pretty beat up, and one thing led to another and we basically said, ‘Hey, we can help you out if you let us,’” Riley said. 

The greenhouse at the community garden on 8th and Poplar streets became the focus of Riley’s senior design project, a cumulative group assignment required by the College of Engineering. Riley’s team worked to renovate the high tunnel, which is an unheated, self-sustaining greenhouse that lengthens the growing season of the local community garden, which was founded in 2005. 

The high tunnel houses crops including heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, eggplants, basil, passionfruit, ginger and peppers. It allows the plants to grow in lower temperatures that would usually be too cold, increasing the garden’s production. 

Riley’s group spent one and a half years working on the project, and a new group will continue their efforts in Spring 2019. 

Marta Lynch, the farm manager and education director at the garden, said the renovation made the garden more functional and improved its ability to control plants’ environments. 

“We really had very minimal control before because of all the damages,” she added. 

Riley and his team recognized the greenhouse would help the Poplar community access affordable produce and educate young students about urban farming. To keep costs down, the group focused on making the greenhouse self-sustainable. 

Riley’s groupmate and 2018 civil engineering alumna Gianna Makler has always been interested in sustainability. 

She focused on disconnecting the site’s irrigation system from municipal water by using a drip irrigation system that prevents water loss by capturing rainwater and sending it through the greenhouse via a solar-powered pump. 

“We thought, ‘OK, we’ll capture rainwater, we’ll use as much of it as we can and this way we don’t have to rely on the city water,’” Makler said. “‘They won’t have to pay those bills.’”

Riley and Makler’s group had limited funding for the project, so they reached out to organizations, past senior design groups and OwlCrowd, Temple’s crowdfunding program, for support. The students received a solar panel and controller from a past group, donations from alumni and batteries from DECA, a tech and business nonprofit. 

Rouzbeh Tehrani, a civil and environmental engineering professor and 2013 civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. alumnus, worked closely with the group to renovate the garden. He was drawn to the project because of his own struggle accessing healthy, affordable food as a student, he said.

“We do have a food desert issue [in North Philadelphia],” Tehrani said. “Even if you can afford it, it’s a serious commute to go to the grocery store. After that is the matter of affordability. Can you afford to have enough fruits and vegetables in your diet?” 

The Poplar community garden holds a farmers market on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. from May to October. Riley, who lives in the area, buys most of his produce there, he said.

The garden also provides educational opportunities for students ages 6-26.

Lynch works closely with North Philadelphia schools and organizations, like the East Poplar Recreation Center, Philly Youth Network and PowerCorpsPHL to educate Philadelphians about urban gardening and healthy eating. 

 “It’s definitely a space where a lot of love has gone into it from a lot of different people,” Lynch said. 

Both Makler and Tehrani hope the Poplar community garden can help bridge gaps between the North Philadelphia community and Temple.

“The expansion of Temple into North Philadelphia has been gathering mixed feelings from the community,” Makler said. “I think we can all agree that these types of projects, where Temple students are getting involved with the community, brings that barrier down a little bit.”

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