Granville: Transition Rogers Park Brings Community Through Urban Agriculture

Transition Rogers Park member Pam Richart leads
a meeting on urban agriculture (Photo by Emily Torem) 

Granville Stop IconBy Emily Torem
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, March 7, 2011

Pam Richart isn't afraid to go the distance in her support for urban agriculture.

“Some of us are ready to do a demonstration at the [Chicago] Park District if we don’t get what we need," Richart said.

On a clear, bright February morning, some Rogers Park residents and a handful of students, listened intently. Richart was referring to the current red tape that makes it difficult for communities to grow edible crops in their neighborhood.

This gathering was organized by the Urban Agriculture group from the larger community initiative Transition Rogers Park. TRP seeks to combat the twin resource problems of peak oil and climate change facing the 21st century through empowering communities to take charge of their food supply. Richart created the Urban Agriculture group, which aims to create a food system in the neighborhood.   

Sue Lannin, a Rogers Park resident who recently joined the group, agreed with others in the room that the community needs to reconnect with its food supply. 

"Something like 95 percent of the food people eat here is imported from out of state, it's primarily commodity crops that we're making," she said. "Fifty percent of the corn goes to animal feed; it's not corn that people eat, and the other 50 percent goes for ethanol or for highly processed items...corn syrup [and] corn oil.

“We have some of the richest farmland in the world, why are we not growing more fresh fruits and vegetables to feed people in their own communities?”

In Chicago, land is classified by a zoning code, which determines its permitted use. According to the Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA), urban agriculture and community gardening are not formally recognized in the zoning code and no clear guidelines exist for policymakers or city staff. As such, every endeavor to develop land into an urban garden has had to approach its legality on a case by case basis.  

A restriction which prevents produce from being sold on-site without re-zoning prevents community garden ventures from being profitable, which is another blockade to creating more of them. 

Growing Home, a thriving urban garden and job training center, was unable to get on its feet for two years because of zoning restrictions. A new ordinance would officially recognize urban agriculture and community garden as permitted land use, and would allow it to be pursued in commercially zoned areas without seeking special permission, however it has yet to be on the agenda for the Zoning Committee.

“Well, we got our ducks in a row but the city is our only hold up” Richart said. “I have faith it will happen and I am frustrated with bureaucracy and that’s the way it is.”

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, a proponent of urban agriculture throughout his campaign, promises to eliminate legal restrictions preventing the growth of urban farms, making it easier and clearer for communities and non-profits to grow and sell their own food. Following Mayor Daley’s dreams of making Chicago as green as it can be, perhaps Emanuel will pave the way for more groups like TRP.

The group is starting to work with Loyola University, which recently acquired more than 87 acres of land in Woodstock to use as its new Retreat and Ecology Campus. Transitions hopes to partner with them, and have food grown on their land to be sold back to the community of Rogers Park. Hopefully this would create opportunities for Rogers Park's labor pool as well.

During the meeting, the group discussed criteria for evaluating a parcel of land.

“Transitions is doing a hands-on community assessment of the properties here in Rogers Park that might be suitable for growing food,” Richart explained.

“We’re going to start with what we need: who’s got chickens?, who’s got bees...? Then we’re looking at potential spaces, where might we do agriculture--[where might we grow the food] is it roofs, is it parkways, is it private property? On Jarvis, people have front yards. Why can’t we transition that into edible food?”

Richart also emphasized the incredible role local food production plays in connecting people, not only with the food that they eat, but also with each other.

“The wonderful thing that food does for a neighborhood like Rogers Park is it builds communities," she said. "We have so many refugees here, so many peoples without ways to talk to one another.

"When it comes to growing and consuming food, “you’re talking, you’re learning about each others lives. A lot of folks who come here from another country have that food history that many of us don’t have, so we can learn from them, and we can learn from each other.

“People really want to do what we’re doing here. People want to get their hands dirty”

A map of some of Chicagoland's Urban Agriculture sites, including an urban Apiary (Bee Farm):

View Urban Agriculture in Chicago in a larger map

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