Food Oasis

Food Oasis

Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood could become the backbone of the nation’s largest urban agriculture district: The city’s planning commission is moving to approve an ambitious land-use plan that would reclaim some of the area’s 11,000 vacant lots, spanning 13 square miles.

Once home to the second busiest commercial intersection after downtown, the South Side neighborhood has lost nearly 70 percent of its population since 1960. Persistent poverty and gang violence have typically grabbed headlines there, but under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, more positive developments have appeared, such as urban farms breaking ground under the mayor’s new urban agriculture ordinance.

Along the way, the farms have broken stereotypes about community gardens and city farms being the domain of yuppies and well-to-do hobbyists.

“A lot of cities are recognizing the value of urban agriculture, to bring productive use to these vacant properties,” said Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development (DHE). DHE’s plan, expected to pass the city’s plan commission by the end of the year, is part of its larger Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative.

The “Recipe for Healthy Places” plan would establish an informal urban agriculture district to help tackle food insecurity and obesity in the vicinity of Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Park, and Woodlawn. A 2.5-mile abandoned rail line could be the district’s spine, with open lots and parks around its periphery serving as a marketplace for local produce and artisanal products. Locals have taken to calling it the “New Era Trail.”

“There’s an optimistic spirit in the community,” said Glenda Daniel, community greening director at Openlands: “They want green businesses in their neighborhood.” The city has designated 25 acres next to the Englewood line solely for agriculture-related uses, with future expansion possible, depending on the district’s success.

The city is not going to simply round up existing farms and gardens and declare a district. The Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative includes scaling back an abundance of retail zoning in the area and incentivizing development around a handful of commercial nodes. The idea is to encourage a budding grassroots movement around urban agriculture by consolidating data, promoting education, and even encouraging light manufacturing.

That would be a big leap for this relatively new phenomenon. In 2004, the city substantially reworked its zoning code, but did not even mention urban agriculture. Chicago has been involved with urban agriculture initiatives for several years, but only last year amended its zoning code to clearly define the practice.

The plan also calls for green infrastructure planning on the neighborhood scale, with vacant lots serving as bioswales or other elements of what the plan calls “productive landscapes.” Localized flooding is common in the area, so planners hope to slow rainfall on its way into the city’s over-taxed sewer system.

A 15-month outreach process bodes well for the plan’s grassroots ambitions, but the project is not without controversy. Some residents have objected to living in an agriculture district. More still have raised concerns about private land acquisitions by railroad company Norfolk Southern. Though not part of the city initiative, private acquisitions have some locals worried about rapid changes to their historic community.

The area’s transportation infrastructure and industrial legacy could be an asset to a burgeoning urban agriculture sector that so far has required government support. As the grassroots effort gains momentum, however, Chicago’s designation could give this movement critical mass.