Not-So-Secret Gardens

Uncovering Chicago’s gardens—and planting their locations on a map—could help sow the farming movement.

June 15, 2015

Photo: Piush Dahal/Flickr

The vacant lot next door to Billy Burdett’s house in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood was once an ornamental garden with some vegetables here and there. Then the lot’s owner got busy and abandoned it. Weeds sprouted in the flower beds and soon covered the soil. Burdett and his wife would look longingly at the empty space and think about how amazing it would be to have a garden of their very own. Luckily, the owner was more than happy to let them work his land. (For one thing, he wouldn’t have to pay any city fines for an overgrown yard.)

Burdett, now the director of the nonprofit Advocates for Urban Agriculture, and his wife planted potatoes and peppers, quince and cucumbers, and more than a dozen other fruits and vegetables. The Burdetts eventually moved away, but before they did, they passed on the plot to other would-be gardeners. This hand-me-down mini-farm is one of many hidden green spaces finding their way onto a map of Chicago’s gardens.

About 90 percent of the food consumed in Illinois is grown out of state, but guerrilla gardeners, restaurateurs, and other growers have been raising beds, sowing seeds, and pruning stalks across Chicago, all part of the blossoming urban-farming movement. But there has been no way to know just how green Chicago’s thumb is—until now.

With the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project, researchers are on a mission to find where and how much food is grown within the Windy City. This data was once only available in the form of a hodgepodge of community-garden lists that weren’t always complete or accurate. For instance, when John Taylor, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, compared one of those lists to what he could see on Google Earth in 2012, he found that just 13 percent of the listed gardens produced food. That seemed low, so he started scanning the entire city. Suddenly, he was looking at nearly 4,650 gardens. (He checked his work by visiting a number of them in person.) Turns out, 86 percent of those gardens grew fruits and vegetables, as he reported in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. Much of the 64 acres of land Taylor found were home gardens, illustrating what private yards, decks, and roofs are bringing to the local food movement.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Taylor’s data is part of the citywide mapping project. Launched earlier this year, the interactive website details 830 locations so far, with many more to come. So now, a resident who wants to know if a nearby garden sells its produce can type in her address to find out, and an office worker who wants to hoe a row on his lunch breaks can inquire about availability.

“It’s really a public utility meant for the public use,” says project member and cultural anthropologist Howard Rosing, director of DePaul University’s Steans Center. With the new data set, Rosing plans to publish what he refers to as Chicago’s Harvest Study later this month. The report will examine the benefits, yields, and value of the food grown in the city’s gardens.

Besides helping out shoppers and hobbyists, the project hopes to help direct food policy by encouraging lawmakers to give would-be gardeners access to land at low prices. Only in 2011 did the city change its zoning laws to allow urban agriculture. Since then, city farmers have been busy installing composting heaps, beehives, and even indoor fish farms.

On the map, lawmakers will find quantifiable proof of how garden-friendly policies can benefit communities by creating jobs and encouraging healthy eating—especially in food deserts, where restaurants and quality grocery stores are scarce.

During the world wars, U.S. victory gardens produced as much as 40 percent of the country’s fruits and veggies. Nowadays, we could even do better. “We can produce a huge chunk of our food right here,” says Burdett, whose organization is one of the mapping project's leaders.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, cities currently grow or raise as much as 20 percent of the global food supply. Nobody knows exactly how many tomatoes, tomatillos, cilantro, and corn Chicagoans are pumping out, but we’re getting closer to tallying it up, inch by inch, row by row. 

Photo: Linda N./FlickrCity Farm Chicago

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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