Urban Agriculture in Chicago

urban farming in chicago: city farm
Chicago's City Farm

Editor’s note: this post is a part of our series on successful urban farming initiatives in the United States.

While much green development over the past decade or so has happened on the coasts, Chicago has demonstrated to the rest of the US that flyover country has plenty to contribute on this front, also. Mayor Richard Daley’s push for green roofs in the city became symbolic of his efforts to make the Hog Butcher of the World the greenest city in America; new mayor Rahm Emanuel has continued and even expanded upon his predecessor’s efforts.

Sustainable development and urban agriculture go hand-in-hand, and Chicago’s taken some very innovative steps towards increasing food production within the urban core, and recognizing the social and environmental benefits that come from inner city farming. Among the examples of the city’s successful embrace of urban agriculture:

Once again, I’m just scratching the surface. To get a little more depth, take a look at this video produced by the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2009:

I know we’ve got friends in Chicago… so please tell us what we’ve missed!

Next: Kansas City

Image credit: Piush Dahal at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. Steve Savage

    This is a good thing on many levels. It gets people outdoors. It lets them witness first hand that growing plants isn’t trivial. It might improve some people’s nutrition. That said, just a few points:

    These are “gardens”, not “urban farms” That terminology is a bit insulting to people who make the bulk of their living in the high risk world of farming. Nothing wrong with gardening, I do it on a far larger scale than most of the individuals you are listing, but its still not farming.

    Honestly, I’d be worried about the lead and other heavy metals that would be found in the soil in a setting like the one pictured. You know I’m not easily alarmed by “toxic threats,” but after many decades of leaded paint use, leaded gas and other urban – persistent pollutants, I wouldn’t personally eat anything out of that soil. It would be far safer to use raised bed with all new growing media, or hydroponics on the roofs etc.

    The growing season in a place like Chicago is pretty short. Some things like winter squash store, but these people need produce all year. One great option would be to grow plants artificial media or water in abandoned buildings. The lighting can be super efficient with LED because only a couple of wavelengths can be absorbed by the plants anyway. I’m going to do a post on “protected culture” some day because it is an interesting option for a certain degree of decentralized production.

    1. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

      Steve– I wrote about a company in the Netherlands doing exactly what you’re discussing at SUNfiltered… it is a fascinating option (and one that dramatically lowers needed inputs, as I remember… including a big energy reduction).

      On calling these operations “farms” — I get what you’re saying, and, no doubt, there’s no comparable scale or financial risk here. But I’m inferring a label of “purely avocational” here (correct me if I’m wrong), and I don’t think that’s accurate. Most of these operations dedicate themselves not only to raising some food for their communities (and, no doubt, not enough to feed people completely), but also educating community members (particularly young people) on cultivation and business practices, as well as healthy eating. I’m certainly not suggesting these operations could replace the farms with which you work (or trying to denigrate or insult those farmers in any way), but my own experience with these kinds operations shows me a level of education, training, and investment (of time, talent, and money) that suggest something beyond avocational gardening.

      I’m going to look into the lead issue… that’s a definite concern, and I’d love to find out what’s happening in terms of site selection, soil testing, etc. Again, my own experience (which is limited) tells me that those running these operations would be taking those kinds of concerns into account, but I’d like to find out more…

      As always, appreciate your insight.

      1. Alex Poltorak

        Thank you for the article and follow-up discussion, Steve and Jeff. I myself have been on the urban ag scene for a short time but wanted to chime in on a few topics.
        Not specifically mentioned in the article: The Plant Chicago (www.plantchicago.com) is taking a former meat-packing facility that sat vacant for years and converting it into a “farm” inside and out. While volunteering at the Plant I started a company called The Urban Canopy (www.theurbancanopy.org) to grow fruits & veggies on idle rooftops, starting with the Plant’s. Growing Home (www.growinghomeinc.org), in the Englewood part of Chicago, uses farming as part of their job-training programs for ex-offenders. Three great orgs that deserve mention…
        Not all sites in Chicago have contamination from industrial activities, but ALL sites where plants grow on the ground have been professionally tested by certified labs and/or university programs (http://urbanext.illinois.edu/soiltest/). If there are contaminants present, the site often use several feet of “clay cap” to seal off that contaminant and then a few more feet of heavy woodchipping (or multi-year biological remediation) to ensure safe growing conditions.
        Despite the shortER growing season in Chicago, most growers here use nifty season extension tactics to lengthen the growing season. The Plant has a fully functional aquaponic system using LED grow lights in the basement! …and the plan is to even generate electricity on-site with an anaerobic digester (http://www.plantchicago.com/the-plant-wins-1-5m-for-renewable-energy-system/)
        My sincere $.02,

  2. Uncle B

    We witness the rise of post-industrial America. We witness the results of rampant corporatism and vulture capitalism on the land, on the people. Next: Electric bikes from Asia “Honda 50’s” even, perhaps great hoards of heavy metal poisoned vegans, reverted to Neanderthal ways. We see the demise of the former U.S.A. we watch the net for the “Ruins of Detroit City” and the waste left behind in Gary Indiana, and we wait for an awakening, but it does not come. The people are sedated, on Fluorides, on Pot, on Cocaine, and mass indoctrinations of the great corporate propaganda whores, Hollywood and movies, advertisements and magazines, numbed to reality, and never admitting that they themselves are convinced they too “dumb” to participate, not realizing nobody ever does – it is all illusion, Corporate illusion! To make money.

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