Although press coverage of urban agriculture sometimes seems to suggest that growing food in the city is a new phenomenon, it's really a tradition with deep roots in Illinois and one that's especially strong in Chicago.
According to John R. Taylor, who is a doctoral candidate in the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences, Chicago led the nation in urban food production during World War II, with more than 1,500 community gardens and 250,000 home gardens contributing to the victory garden effort.
Over the past decade, city planners and various advocacy groups have sought to promote and support renewed interest in efforts to grow food there and in other large cities.
Why? Because home food gardens produce all kinds of good. As Taylor points out, they reduce food spending, and they sometimes provide income through the sale of excess production. They increase the consumption of fresh vegetables and improve the quality of diets by providing easy access to fresh, nutritious produce. And they encourage agricultural biodiversity, as well as the social goods of community building.
For planners, government officials and advocates who want to target their efforts effectively, it is important to know where people are already growing food. But in Chicago, as in other major U.S. cities, only limited information about the extent and locations of urban food production has been available up to now. Most efforts to map it have included only community gardens — as opposed to private ones — and they have depended on active participation by people involved with the gardens.
In collaboration with his faculty adviser, Sarah Taylor Lovell, John Taylor employed a new approach to mapping Chicago's food gardens and produced a far more comprehensive — and useful — document.
Working on a high-resolution aerial image that was generated by Google Earth on June 30 and July 1 of 2010, Taylor scanned the land area of the entire city, one screen at a time, looking for visual indicators of food gardens — squares or rectangles of bare earth or mulch, plants in rows, etc. He estimated the size of smaller gardens using the ruler tool in Google Earth and drew polygons around the larger ones, which were then exported to a geographic information system program.
That program enabled him to calculate the number and area of the gardens and merge the data about them with sociodemographic data about the neighborhoods where they were located.
Taylor's work also included on-the-ground visits to a sampling of the sites identified from the aerial image, which allowed him to gauge how accurate he had been in his analysis.
Overall, his effort showed that the community gardens previously identified by nongovernment organizations and government agencies are not particularly significant sites of food production; only 13 percent of them had food producing components. (The rest were primarily ornamental plantings — streetscapes and the like.)
The food production area of home gardens, including backyard gardens and gardens created by residents on nearby vacant land, was much more considerable — three times the amount of community gardens using a conservative estimate.
Precisely how this information may be useful in future efforts to promote urban agriculture remains to be worked out. But Taylor suggests approaches that emphasize scaling up home production of food based on existing resources could succeed where top-down approaches lacking local leadership have not.
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.