Mapping urban agriculture efforts in major cities isn’t a new idea—various projects in cities like San Francisco, New York and New Orleans plot out where their community gardens, urban farms and school gardens are located. But a new project in Chicago has dug deeper than the others by attempting to account for every backyard vegetable garden in the city.
John Taylor, a graduate student in the crop sciences department at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spent hundreds of hours sifting through Google Earth images and discovered 4,648 sites where food was being grown. Eighty-six percent of them were residential gardens, which accounted for 57 percent of all the food-producing land in Chicago. His results were published recently in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. Two hot spots are neighborhoods on the near south side, Chinatown and Bridgeport, where the the population is largely Chinese. There are also concentrations of gardens in the ethnic Eastern and Southern European neighborhoods on the far northwest side.
But do we really need to know how many people are tending tomato plants at home?
Taylor says yes. “By knowing where home gardening is occurring, NGOs and government agencies can more effectively target urban gardening programs that help home gardeners garden safely and sustainably. They can also identify areas where it isn’t occurring and develop programs that support home gardening in those neighborhoods,” he said in an email interview. “In developed countries the actual and potential contribution of home food gardens to household and community food security, community development, etc. have largely gone unnoticed by policymakers and academics, despite their proven value in developing countries.”
While they won’t be making public the exact locations of residential gardens, the data could help a number of community organizations that seek to grow and support urban agriculture in Chicago. As this NPR story reported, Advocates for Urban Agriculture is already using this research to inform The Chicago Urban Mapping Project, a more detailed map they are working on. And Howard Rosing, executive director of the Steans Center and Egan Urban Center at DePaul University, is using Taylor’s map to help measure how much food is being produced at area community gardens.
As Taylor says in his report, more locally grown food can help address a range of policy issues, including household and community food insecurity, limited access to fresh, healthy food, and public health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Considering that in some cities it can actually be illegal to grow a garden, we at Sustainable America are encouraged by Chicago’s efforts to include home gardeners in its urban agriculture data.
At Sustainable America we believe that local food systems are critical to creating food security in America. When food is produced near to the point of consumption, it doesn’t need to be transported miles from farm to plate and there are ways to eat and cook seasonal, local foods that will help to reduce our dependence on oil for transportation.