Mapping Urban Agriculture in Chicago: A New View of Backyard Gardens

Urban agriculture is all the rage these days, for lots of good reasons. But how much of it is going on in our cities, and where in particular? Some PhD students at the University of IL decided to find out, using Google maps and then some on-the-ground field work. Their findings — which demonstrate the importance of backyard gardens to urban agricultural productivity — are most interesting.

 A neighborhood on Chicago's far northwest side. LPG, MPG and Backyard gardens on the far NW Side of Chicago; SPG labels refer to large, medium and small private gardens (Photo: John Taylor)

A neighborhood on Chicago’s far northwest side. LPG, MPG and Backyard gardens on the far NW Side of Chicago; SPG labels refer to large, medium and small private gardens
(Photo: John Taylor)

First, their study reveals that simple and publicly-accessible online mapping tools can be a useful and relatively easy (if time-intensive) way to map human activities and landscape features in urban areas, such as personal/community gardens and urban agricultural projects — even those that are very small scale. Second, the researchers suggest that small-scale urban practices are going on in hundreds of small, medium, and large residential garden plots in neighborhoods throughout every part of the city. While the study found that most of Chicago’s community gardens are not producing much food (though some are), the old-fashioned backyard garden has much potential to play a role in local urban food production, as a complement to the variously-sized urban agricultural production sites sprouting up in Chicago and other cities.

As Emily Badger in her 8 Jan 2013 essay, “Mapping Urban Agriculture from the Sky” (Atlantic Cities) notes,

Taylor and collaborator Sarah Lovell, who’ve published their findings in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, ultimately discovered that many of the city’s suspected community gardens weren’t producing food at all. But it turned out that backyard farmers all over Chicago – the keepers of “invisible” gardens no one sees from the sidewalk – may be seriously supplementing communities’ food supply in a way that researchers and advocates haven’t recognized before.

Private garden in a South Side backyard in Chicago (photo: John Taylor)

Private garden in a South Side backyard in Chicago
(photo: John Taylor)

Of the 1,236 documented “community gardens,” recognized by various groups throughout the city, it turned out only 160 – or 13 percent – were really growing food (according to aerial images from June of 2010). But trolling over the city, frame by frame on Google Earth, Taylor found what looked like 4,494 possible sites of urban agriculture, many of which appeared to be small residential gardens. Their total mass adds up to 264,181 square meters of urban agriculture, much of it on the city’s South and West sides and far northwest where minority and immigrant communities are located.

“There is often this idea that urban agriculture is something that’s new and sometimes perceived to be trendy,” Taylor says. “But of course it’s just been going on for generations in people’s backyards and in these interstitial spaces, like right-of-ways and vacant lots. Across the city, there are lots of folks who are doing this on their own, or with support from their neighbors.”

One garden in the city’s South Shore neighborhood has even been continuously cultivated since it was first planted as a victory garden during World War II. In other neighborhoods, particularly around Chinatown and in Eastern and Southern European communities of the northwest side, nearly every backyard viewed through Google Earth appears to be growing something.

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