THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

Growing Food and Open Space in Chicago

June, 2022
A hoop house enclosed by a wooden structure, surrounded by low crops,  that has a line of people entering it. There is a Juneteenth banner hanging above the entrance.
Sweet Water Foundation's Thought Barn located in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood.Photo Credit: Sweet Water Foundation

Urban agriculture has a long history in the United States. For well over a century, it has supported local food systems, created employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, improved the environment, and provided social and recreational quality of life benefits. It has also served to create and maintain access to open land. During WWI, the U.S. government created the National War Garden Commission to encourage Americans to contribute to the war effort by growing their own fruits and vegetables. Citizens were urged to utilize all idle land to grow food including school and company grounds, parks, backyards, and vacant lots. During WWII, urban farms and gardens also played a critical role in food production, helped keep up Americans’ morale, and prompted the activation and productivity of unused space. Across the country, more than 20 million victory gardens were planted in empty lots, apartment rooftops, backyards and school grounds. By 1944, victory gardens produced more than 40% of all fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S.

Chicago's urban agricultural history began in the early 1900s and is tied with communal land access, productive land use, and local food systems. In 1907, the McCormick family offered 90 acres of its International Harvester company's land for vegetable gardening to help relieve food insecurity resulting from unemployment and poverty. During World War II, the city reportedly had more than 1,500 community gardens and 250,000 home gardens. It led the nation in wartime urban food production and served as a model for victory garden programs in other cities. The country's largest victory garden was in Chicago's West Ridge neighborhood from 1945-1947. A portion of the former site was resurrected in 2001 as the Peterson Garden Project, which now manages seven community garden sites on the city's far north side. The Rainbow Beach Community Garden in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood was founded as a victory garden during World War II and has been continuously gardened ever since.

In the late 1990s, as a result of its CitySpace Plan, Chicago began to develop policies and programs to increase publicly accessible open space in the city through vacant land use. It supported the development and expansion of urban farms and community gardens to make productive open space assets, especially in communities with large numbers of vacant lots. 

According to Advocates for Urban Agriculture, there are 890 self-reported growing sites throughout Chicago.  Approximately 30 are production farms. In addition to supporting local food systems and economies, Chicago’s urban farms and community gardens contribute important environmental and community benefits. They provide outdoor places and opportunities for people to come together, help combat ground contamination and stormwater runoff, and promote a healthy ecosystem. 

Farm Team in hoop house. Photo credit: Growing Home

Urban farming is an important program of Growing Home and Sweet Water Foundation, non-profit organizations located in the Englewood and Washington Park neighborhoods of Chicago.  Both organizations are beneficiaries of Chicago’s and local land use advocates’ efforts to make vacant land productive, increase accessible open space, and improve the city’s landscape. While Growing Home and Sweet Water Foundation have different organizational models and a different primary purpose, both intrinsically advance these objectives and more. Both have reclaimed space to make community focused neighborhood destinations that emphasize land and our interdependent relationship with it. Both have made space for people to build community, engage with each other, learn, eat fresh and organic foods, build sustainability and resilience, and experience abundance. Both steward the land and space they occupy. Each grows food and open space in the urban landscape. 

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