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First-of-Its-Kind Study Shows Which Neighborhoods Have the Most Gardens

By Casey Cora | October 28, 2014 5:26am
 Researcher John Robert Taylor said Chinatown is a hotspot for backyard gardening activity. 
Backyard Gardens
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CHINATOWN — How many gardens are in the City in a Garden?

More than 4,000.

At least that's the finding of two University of Illinois researchers, John R. Taylor and Sarah Taylor Lovell.

The two (who are not related) set out to determine just how many urban agriculture plots there were in the city, which wasn't easy, despite the fact that Chicago's motto — urbs in horto — means "city in a garden." Taylor said existing lists of community gardening efforts are woefully incomplete and outdated.

"We decided to scan the entire land area of Chicago looking for gardens that hadn't been reported on any list: backyard gardens, utility right of ways and other things that I could see in Google Earth," said Taylor, 50, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois

 University of Illinois researchers analyzed high-resolution satellite images found and found more than 4,000 gardens in the city, and plotted them on a map
University of Illinois researchers analyzed high-resolution satellite images found and found more than 4,000 gardens in the city, and plotted them on a map
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John Robert Taylor

Casey Cora says the data can be helpful for officials in determining food and produce distribution:

Through meticulously plotting the addresses and analyzing U.S. Census data, the researchers found an abundance of home-based gardens in Bridgeport, Armour Square and Chinatown neighborhoods, all home to high concentrations of Chinese immigrants. 

"It appears Chinese origin households have a higher density [of gardening] than anywhere else in the city," he said.

Other areas that have a high concentration of home gardens include the Northwest Side neighborhoods of Belmont Heights, Schorsch Forest View and Big Oaks, where Polish-American residents in detached single-family homes with more space to grow crops.

On the Far South Side, it's South Deering, Hegewisch, Pullman and East Side, places where residents and groups take to vacant lots to produce food in community gardens.

"And well, there are a lot of vacant lots there," Taylor said.

In addition to the residential gardens, researchers identified community gardens, urban farms and gardens outside schools. Factor those in and the number of Chicago's food-producing gardens swells to 4,648 — and that's not counting the small gardens invisible to Google Earth. 

Still, the number of gardens in Chicago is down from World War II-era highs, when the city reportedly had some 1,500 community gardens and some 250,000 home gardens, researchers said. 

Anita Luk, director of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, wasn't surprised by the researchers' findings about Chinatown.

She said the neighborhood is packed with gardeners who harvest their modest crops and sell them in makeshift outdoor markets, a not entirely legal practice that's widely accepted in the community. 

"When you come down to Chinatown Saturday and Sunday mornings, you can see some farmers. They sell their own little squash, melons or whatever else. ... I think there is a sense of achievement. It's about the work and the anticipation," she said. 

Interestingly, open-air markets are frowned upon among other ethnic groups. One African-American told researchers she'd feel badly about selling her freshly harvested collard greens, saying "I just feel like I'm supposed to give them. I can't set no price for nobody." 

Taylor said the research work, which included searching thousands of high-resolution images for tell-tale signs of gardens, plotting them on maps, site visits and interviews with gardeners was painstaking.

"I was in a dark room for many many hours" over the two-year project, he said. 

Still, for all of the environmental positives that gardening can bring  — reducing the number of "food deserts," conserving biodiversity — there are a number of potential hazards that can "undermine their sustainability," such as growing food on contaminated soil and the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, researchers said. 

But none of the conclusions, good or bad, would be possible without having a baseline from which to measure against. 

Thanks to Taylor and Lovell, Chicago now has one.

"I think that maybe there is local knowledge of urban food production that maybe aren't being acknowledged and could be leveraged to maybe enhance the quality of urban life and enhance food security," Taylor said. 

The study is available by visiting this website. 

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