Some 65 acres of cropland lay hidden amidst Chicago's sprawl

2013-02-09T00:00:00Z Some 65 acres of cropland lay hidden amidst Chicago's sprawlBy Ajai Sreevatsan Medill News Service nwitimes.com
February 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

When Daniel Greenwald hatched a plan to build the largest rooftop vegetable garden in the Midwest right in the middle of downtown Chicago, a lot of people thought he was crazy.

That was in the summer of 2012. Greenwald, a restaurateur, doesn't yet have the 20,000 sq. ft. garden in place of the "giant slab of concrete" over his head. The plumbing was expensive and his funders were unconvinced. But he is still trying.

"I am still hoping to do it. Food should be locally sourced - something we put our love and care into," Greenwald said.

He is not alone. Chicago is full of people with green thumbs and wild garden transformations, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

They grow food in utility right-of-ways and vacant parking lots. Their ingenuity has transformed entire streets in the city's Northwest side into backyards dotted with mini-farms.

"It looks like home food gardens actually make a substantial contribution to urban food supply," said John Taylor, a doctoral student at the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois.

The contribution of the many translates into 4,648 urban agricultural sites, spread over a collective 65 acres of Chicago's land area of nearly 150,000 acres.

Much of produce grows on private property such as backyards. Only about 13 per cent of the food growing areas fall within established community gardens.

Taylor's initial interest was just to find a list of urban gardens to determine the spread of Chicago's greenery. He sourced a list from GreenNet in 2005 and started visiting each one.

"Most of them turned out to be primarily ornamental gardens. Surprisingly, there was no food production," he said.

So, he turned to Google Earth to take an inventory. One screen at a time, he viewed Chicago's entire landscape over 400 painstaking hours to determine the extent of land under food cultivation. "I started looking at vacant lots and backyards. The good thing about Google Earth is that you can browse through historical imagery and observe changes in vegetation," Taylor said.

The result of this high-tech hunt for Chicago's food sources yielded a number:  65 acres. That constitutes about 0.1 per cent of Chicago's land area. Yet, based on the estimated average vegetable yields per acre, these miniscule urban gardeners still produce more than 800,000 pounds of food per year.

"Home gardening is sometimes taken for granted," Taylor said. "It is considered silly or trivial. In developed countries, it's seen as just a hobby. Yet, for many, it is a lifeline."

However, Greenwald, who sources much of his ingredients from local farms in the greater Chicago area, says: "Chicago can do more. Growing food is a great source of income for the poverty stricken areas of the city."

Cities like New York and San Francisco are way ahead of the curve in this regard. New York has even identified and mapped nearly 600 acres of vacant land which can be immediately used for growing food.

"Food production should become part of the urban fabric. Right now, it is unappreciated and largely unsupported," Taylor said. "Much of the city-owned vacant land is in socially and economically marginalized neighborhoods. There is an opportunity to kick start food production in those areas."

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