Tom Purcell ‘61, known for his leadership and vision in revitalizing St. Louis, was involved with the development of Laclede’s Landing and the surrounding area decades ago, and more recently with MetroLink and regional economic development. Today he is still going strong, working on an innovative community startup that may have far-reaching effects on how our metro area embraces urban agriculture – one that may serve as a national model in sustainability in the future.
To understand Purcell’s initiative, The Green House Venture, you need to start with the future. “By 2050, we will face a huge challenge,” says Don Stump, Vice President of The Green House Venture. “Many large cities around the world will range from 18 to 50 million people. If the items on a plate of food in the U.S. now travel an average of 1,500 miles to get to us, how will we feed that many people? Cities will have to provide more of their own food.”
Stump, Professor of English and Co-Chair of the Urban Project at Saint Louis University, has been tackling this question for years. Since 1997, he has directed the Micah Program, the nation’s premier undergraduate academic program and learning community addressing urban poverty. In 2011, he set out to design and build a sustainable greenhouse with a multi-disciplinary team from SLU as part of the Urban Project. Just two years later, with funding from SLU’s Center for Sustainability, the team completed the design, which now serves as the technological basis for The Green House Venture.
Purcell, who possesses an impressive record in urban planning and business and community development, became partners with Stump in late 2014 to bring The Green House Venture to life. For the past few years, they’ve made extraordinary progress. If you hear about it from Purcell, who serves as President, you’ll learn about concepts like density, scale, timing, culture, pluralism, risk and pace of change. You’ll also become aware of Purcell’s expansive knowledge, sharp focus and unrelenting will to get things done, characteristics earned after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Captain in the USMCR and on more than 45 boards of government, non-profit and business organizations; reshaping several area neighborhoods; and founding the Community Alliance for Education for Saint Margaret of Scotland School and co-chairing the school’s recent campaign that funded the building of a middle school.
“I immediately knew where we should locate and build,” says Purcell, who earned an undergraduate and two masters degrees (Urban Affairs and M.B.A.) from Saint Louis University. One of the most dynamic areas of the city, he explains, is bordered by Delmar, Arsenal, Jefferson and Skinker. It’s market-driven with two major universities, lots of businesses – including Cortex Innovation Community – and a population representative of every socio-economic and cultural background.
“When we studied this area, we found education to be under stress,” he says, noting fewer public and private elementary schools in the city as well as the introduction of charter schools. “We strategized on how to create scale, given a shrinking city population, and help the remaining schools survive and even thrive.”
In 2013, Purcell announced plans to start The Green House Venture with a two-pronged strategy:
- Create a strategic alliance of four elementary schools, including Tower Grove Christian Academy, Mullanphy Investigative Learning Center, Saint Louis Language Immersion Schools and Saint Margaret of Scotland; and
- Develop an urban resource center focused on three challenges facing our nation: poor nutrition, inadequate science education and a lack of recognition of employment opportunity in the bioscience industry.
Two years later, The Green House Venture assembled a team of volunteer leaders and project consultants that includes Peter Benoist '66, President of Hercules Construction Management Company, and organizations like UIC, SWITCH, The Rome Group, DTLS, Landes and Associates, and Speth and Associates. Bryan Cave provided pro bono support in creating a memorandum of understanding (MOU), a legal framework that, according to Purcell, “understands the diverse cultures within the elementary schools and allows for consistent relationships, participation, policies and activities between these schools and partner institutions like Tower Grove Park and Saint Louis University.”
“I’ve never seen a project like this at this level,” says Terry Donohue '63, who serves on The Green House Venture Board and is leading its fundraising. “It is a real unique collaboration of individuals and organizations focused on educating and getting kids excited about bio-science and urban agriculture.”
Regarding the uniqueness of the endeavor, Purcell asks, “How often do you see a magnet, charter, parochial and Christian school working together so closely on something like this?”
The four schools provide scale for the project and represent more than 2,000 students of diverse backgrounds from 58 zip codes. The principals of these schools, who each serve on the Board, and professors from Saint Louis University are guiding the development of the curriculum and facility design.
Prime Real Estate
To some, the side of the highway is a litterground, a narrow sliver of wasteland, but it represents prime real estate for The Green House Venture. It turns out the nation’s highway system is the largest owned government property after the national parks, which cannot be cultivated or utilized for farming. “We saw this as a great opportunity to invest in highway embankment property for bioscience and urban agriculture,” says Purcell, who adds The Green House Venture is the first in Missouri – and the Midwest – to do so.
The Green House Venture leased and permitted 3.5 acres from MoDOT along Interstate 44, across DeTonty Avenue between Thurman Avenue and 39th Street. When funding is available, they will grow native Missouri crops on raised embankment terraces. The site will provide educational opportunities while also serving as a test plot for the state in bringing back native plants along highways to revive bee populations for plant pollination.
In addition to its embankment property, The Green House Venture purchased land from the Land Renewal Authority just across the street on the corner of DeTonty and Lawrence, where it will build a science education and outreach center. This site will contain a greenhouse, classroom, children’s growing gallery and a teaching lab, all designed to stimulate interest in science, urban food production, community engagement, sustainability and economic development. A fundraising effort is underway to develop the facility ($4 million) and embankment ($450,000).
Eventually, all four schools will be able to bring full classes to sophisticated lab space at The Green House Venture for long-term growing experiments. The school teachers will conduct the lessons, and The Green House Venture will provide experts to facilitate the instruction. Tours and workshops with special speakers will also be available to schools beyond the four partnering institutions.
In 2015, MIT developed the Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg), which features a controlled-environment agriculture platform called a food computer. The food computer is like a lab in a box that can fine-tune and accelerate the growing process. All of its hardware, software and data are open source, creating a standardized open platform for agricultural research and experimentation. It may represent the future of urban agriculture, and The Green House Venture is taking full advantage of it. According to Phillip Speth, a seasoned web developer who is creating the online education platform for Green House, “The food computers can literally go ‘Jurassic.’”
That’s true – to a certain extent. While food computers may not bring dinosaurs back from extinction, they can control nearly all environmental variables for plant growth, producing food with optimal flavor in less than half the time by conventional means. They also have sensors for data collection of experiments, or ‘recipes,’ each stored in a central, publicly accessible database.
Speth says each of the four schools in The Green House Venture will soon have a food computer. “This will allow us to set up more controlled environments, do better experiments and improve data collection. It will also help us to make meaning out of our experiments with bioinformatics and share results with other schools.”
Currently, The Green House Venture is educating five students from each of its schools through an after-school Ambassadors program. Last semester, several Jr. Bills took a joint field trip with the Ambassadors, helping them with water testing at Tower Grove Park.
“It went exceptionally well,” says SLUH science teacher Bill Anderson '78, who serves on The Green House Venture Board and is assisting with the curriculum development. “We are planning a second field trip this semester, when the students will come to SLUH for our Environmental Science STEM balloon launch as part of their weather unit.”
Among other program initiatives, The Green House Venture is developing a summer science explorer camp in Tower Grove Park, creating and copyrighting its own curriculum, and establishing new partnerships with Washington University, Saint Louis University, Harris-Stowe State University and St. Louis Community College for curriculum purposes.
The Green House Venture is targeting young students because, as Stump says, “That’s when kids develop their interests and passions.” The organization’s long-term vision, however, extends beyond elementary school to build on that interest and provide the tools and resources for future success.
This spring, for instance, experts from Washington University will meet with the students about bioscience careers and opportunities. In the St. Louis region, biotech offers more jobs than any other STEM field, and 10 percent of the available openings in this sector go unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers. Relationships are being forged with other local universities to build a cultural and institutional network and leverage the center’s impact by providing job opportunities for young graduates.
“Ultimately, we want to become a hub for schools all over, especially for those in underserved areas, by sharing our curriculum, equipment and facility,” says Purcell.
It’s a lofty aspiration, but optimism abounds when you talk with Purcell and other volunteer project leaders.
“The beauty of innovation is doing something a little differently or more creatively than is already being done elsewhere, and in a way that has ramifications beyond our area,” he says. “Success of The Green House Venture relies on the willingness of many, including SLUH alumni, to accept risk and embrace the opportunity for St. Louis to remain relevant and play a dynamic role in the 21st century.”