Exploring the Benefits of Soil-less Urban Agriculture

  • Application end date: 11th February 2018
  • Funding Availability: Funded PhD project (EU/UK/International)
  • Department: Portsmouth School of Architecture
  • PhD Supervisor: Dr Silvio Caputo, Dr Heather Rumble, Dr Fabiano Lemes de Oliveira

Project code: ACES4320218

Project description

This doctoral investigation focuses on technology applied to Urban Agriculture (UA) in order to identify the ecological benefits that soil-less, hydroponic technologies of food production in cities can yield for local urban ecologies. At the same time, it intends to understand the impact of a sufficiently large deployment of such methods of production on the spatial configuration and design quality of the urban landscape.

UA (the growing of edible crops or even farming in an urban environment) is a term coined in the 1990s to connote a practice that already existed both in developed and developing countries, which was, at that point in time, acquiring higher relevance within the sustainable cities debate. Since then, UA has been understood as playing a key role within urban systems and for urban dwellers by providing healthy food, healthy lifestyles and ecosystem services, and catalysing social interaction and inclusion. UA is expanding fast and there is a growing demand for spaces suitable for cultivation. However, horticulture is selective in terms of biodiversity: allocating vast urban areas to UA, rather than to a different use of green land such as urban forests, may be detrimental to the overall urban biodiversity. Moreover, soil and air contamination in cities is frequent, potentially posing a threat for the consumption of urban produce.

Recently, UA projects are beginning to include within their scope technologies such as hydroponics or aquaponics (i.e. hydroponics associated with indoor fish farming to produce nutrient for plants), which require equipment and know-how that is beyond the conventional knowledge connected with horticulture and farming. Soil-less, hydroponic technologies were experimented and developed from the 1960s onwards, because they are space efficient and not reliant on a progressively deteriorating soil as a consequence of industrial exploitation of land, which is increasingly damaging ecological systems and soil fertility. Potentially, hydroponic-based UA could allow a larger urban land area to be landscaped and managed for higher levels of biodiversity and climate change mitigation, rather than cultivation. To date, studies can be found on the advantages in terms of carbon footprint of foodstuff hydroponically grown, but no study can be found on the ecological benefits that hydroponics could indirectly generate by reducing the amount of green land utilised for cultivation and using such land to enrich biodiversity. Can hydroponic systems be used to control the safety of food produced in cities and allow a higher degree of biodiversity? Can this potential ecological amelioration in general terms be quantified? Furthermore, what would the most suitable types of hydroponic systems be that can be implemented in cities and adapt to existing infrastructure and built environment?

The aim of this doctoral investigation is twofold: to measure the ecological benefits and drawbacks of UA hydroponics/aquaponics from a multi-disciplinary perspective (ecology and urban design) and to apply such measurements for a simulation of a city wide deployment of these types of UA, leading to the identification of their impact on the ecology and urban design quality at an urban scale, using Portsmouth as a case study. This requires the elaboration and testing of an innovative framework of assessment and the use of the data gathered for the simulation outlined above. It will also require the identification of ideal typologies of hydroponic systems within the existing urban configuration.

Objectives of this investigation are: 

  • Literature review on the state-of-the-art technologies and typologies of UA hydroponics/aquaponics;
  • The elaboration of a framework of assessment of their ecological benefits;
  • The identification of case studies and the measurement of their performance through the framework of assessment. This can entail the use of LCA software and other methods of measurement to identify ecological benefits;
  • Following the elaboration of a set of scenarios in which different types and scales of hydroponic systems are deployed in Portsmouth, the quantification of environmental and spatial impacts;
  • The formulation of planning recommendations to facilitate the use of suitable space for soil-less community and small enterprise projects. 

Supervisor profiles

Dr Silvio Caputo

Dr Heather Rumble

Dr Fabiano Lemes de Oliveira 

Admissions criteria

You’ll need a good first degree from an internationally recognised university (depending upon chosen course, minimum second class or equivalent) or a Master’s degree in an appropriate subject. Exceptionally, equivalent professional experience and/or qualifications will be considered. English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0.

Specific candidate requirements


  • Proven academic and/or professional experience in urban design/planning and green infrastructure in terms if history, design and on-going discipline-specific debate;
  • Familiarity with quantitative research methodologies;
  • Good academic writing skills;
  • Keen interest in interdisciplinary research.


  • Familiarity with ecology studies;
  • Previous research activities;
  • Previous experience in publishing.


Informal enquiries are encouraged and can be made to Dr Silvio Caputo at silvio.caputo@port.ac.uk (02392 842366) or Dr Heather Rumble at heather.rumble@port.ac.uk (02392 846540).

For administrative and admissions enquiries please contact cci-enquiries@port.ac.uk.

How to Apply

You can apply online at www.port.ac.uk/applyonline. You are required to create an account which gives you the flexibility to save the form, log out and return to it at any time convenient to you.

A link to the online application form and comprehensive guidance notes can be found at www.port.ac.uk/pgapply.

When applying, please quote project code: ACES4320218

Interview date: March 2018

Start date: June 2018.

Funding notes

UK/EU students -  The fully-funded, full-time three-year studentship provides a stipend that is in line with that offered by Research Councils UK of £14,553 per annum.

International students - International students applying for this project are eligible to be considered for the Portsmouth Global PhD scholarships.

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