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Watering for Future Growth

The story of how an inner city Philadelphia community garden ended up with an irrigation system powered by bicycle began approximately 200 miles away on Penn State’s University Park campus.

Last spring, Tommy McCann, a graduate student in Penn State’s Department of Landscape Architecture, related his experiences working with the garden to Dr. Timothy Simpson, a Penn State professor of mechanical engineering and industrial engineering with a predilection for working across disciplines. (McCann and Simpson were collaborators on the Creative Campus Innovations Grant project that has brought together faculty and staff in Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Dance, and Engineering with the Center for Performing Arts.)

McCann told Simpson how he ended up installing a high tunnel at the community garden with Dr. William Lamont, a Penn State horticulture professor and leader in high-tunnel activism in Philadelphia. For the past ten years, Lamont has been installing high tunnels with assistance from the Penn State Extension office in Philadelphia, and others from the statewide horticulture Extension team. Similar to a greenhouse, a high tunnel extends a farm’s growing season, but since its source of heat is the sun, it’s much cheaper.

The high tunnel that McCann assisted on belongs to Teens 4 Good, a program of the Federation of Neighborhood Centers that helps urban youth learn about agriculture and earn money while actively helping their community. McCann’s work with Teens 4 Good resulted from the program’s relationship with the Penn State Extension office in Philadelphia. Teens 4 Good employees have attended Extension trainings and participated in a farmers’ market that Extension co-sponsors.

McCann recalled how Teens 4 Good uses a city fire hydrant to water its crops approximately 150 feet away. “It seemed like a nuisance, there has to be a better way,” he told Simpson. “Yet that’s the model throughout Philadelphia—they use nearby hydrants.”

As director of the Penn State Learning Factory, which gives engineering students practical hands-on experience with industry-sponsored capstone design projects, Simpson is always on the lookout for potential projects that might have impact. After Simpson agreed that Teens 4 Good was a good fit for this program, he waived half the cost of the usual industry sponsorship, and McCann proceeded to raise the remaining $1,500 from various Penn State sponsors, including the College of Arts and Architecture, the Center for Sustainability, and the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

This past September, the Learning Factory launched the initiative, alongside 50 other industry-sponsored projects being offered that semester. Six Biological Engineering students (Matthew Gearhart, David Beckstead, Sarah Richer, Andrew Vensko, Angela Raimondi, and Kaitlyn Roberts) chose “Watering for Future Growth” as their semester-long capstone project, excited about the opportunity to work with teens to help their community.

McCann served as the official “client representative” for Teens 4 Good and the engineering design team. He wasn’t getting paid. Nor was he earning credit. His motivation: “I really enjoy acting as a liaison, working with people and making a difference,” he said. “And the project gave me an opportunity to get involved with Philadelphia and Penn State in a really interesting way.”

From the project’s inception, McCann engaged the organization’s teens in the design process. He invited ten students—juniors and seniors in high school—to the initial brainstorming sessions on the University Park campus. “None of the students had ever been to Penn State, nor frankly ever seen a campus like that,” said Diane Cornman-Levy, executive director of the Federation of Neighborhood Centers, which runs Teens 4 Good.

In that initial brainstorming session, the Penn State Biological Engineering students explained how they wanted to collect rainwater, and use it to water the crops. But the question remained: how to do that efficiently? The Teens 4 Good students suggested using a bicycle to pump the water out of a tank. “We could have races to see who could empty the tank faster,” they clamored.  This led the Penn State students to focus more seriously on the bicycle idea.

The resulting system directs rainwater from the high tunnel to a 500-gallon tank. A stationary bike attached to the tank produces pressure when pedaled, providing gardeners with a sustainable system for watering their plants.

The bike idea wasn’t just an innovative design tweak; it gave the teens a reason—and a safe place—to exercise. Plus, it empowered them to realize “they have good ideas and what they say matters,” McCann said.

Last December the Penn State students assembled their contraption on campus, then joined  50 other project teams at the College of Engineering’s Design Showcase. A few days later they installed the system at the Teens 4 Good garden. (Coincidentally, two of the teens who worked on the project have since applied to Penn State.)

While the growing season won’t begin for a few months, the water collection system is already making an impact. John Byrnes, a Penn State Extension Director in Philadelphia who has worked with Teens 4 Good and other urban farms, says the project has deepened the agency’s relationships through University connections Byrnes never could have predicted.

“Tommy very quickly observed that there were some operations that could run more efficiently, then went back to State College to develop this cross-disciplinary team,” he said.

Byrnes was so impressed with the work he invited McCann to participate in the February 15 Urban Sustainability Forum at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences. McCann didn’t attend solo. Teens 4 Good had a booth at the forum, and brought some of their students along. These students helped demo the bike, which was exhibited along with a model of the high tunnel.

“It’s remarkable exposure for the University,” Byrnes said. “There’s a chance other high tunnel operators will take a look at this and want one for themselves.” At a time when many agriculture players are researching for ways to deal with water runoff, the Learning Factory capstone design program offers an intriguing model. “This is one small example that you don’t just have to let the water go down the drain; you can figure out a way to recycle it.”

None of this would have happened without the ingenuity of a graduate student with a natural gift for bringing people together to solve problems. A desire to hone this knack for facilitation and community engagement is what brought McCann back to school.

In 1999 after receiving his undergraduate degree in Landscape Contracting from Penn State, McCann left the U.S. for his mother’s village in Ireland (“I said I’d go for twelve months and ended up staying for almost ten years.”) He worked as a landscape designer on various commercial projects, including a re-development of the famous Cliffs of Moher Visitor’s Center, one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. But McCann was eager to work in communities, and viewed his acceptance into Penn State’s M.L.A program as a necessary first step.

“I’m so pleased with how the project turned out,” he said, “and at how many people came together to make this vision a reality.”

Penn State’s H. Campbell and Eleanor R. Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture is a leader in professional design education comprised of an interdisciplinary confederation of strong design disciplines: Architecture, Design, and Landscape Architecture.

For more information, contact Michele Marchetti at