Chicago Plans Nation’s Largest Urban Farming District

17 Nov, 2012

by Lori Rotenberk, via Grist.org

New Era Trails renderingChicago’s Black Belt area, on the historic South Side, was once a hub for jazz, blues, and literature, but today is riddled with vacant lots, poverty, and blight. Now, a new plan envisions the area as a thriving urban farm district.

In the coming weeks, the city’s planning department is expected to approve the creation of a green belt with a strong focus on urban agriculture within the neighborhood of Englewood.

The plan is an element of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development’s (DHE) Green Healthy Neighborhoods initiative, designed to shepherd and foster redevelopment in 13 square miles of the South Side. Years of disinvestment and population decline have left the area riddled with 11,000 vacant lots totaling 800 acres.

Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner for the DHE, says that although the plan lays out a district “with a small d,” the city has a deep history in urban planning know-how. He, along with other city officials and community organizers, hope the farm district will help stabilize the South Side by putting vacant land to use and creating entrepreneurial and job opportunities. They also expect it to become a model for other city planners as well as a tourist destination for people interested in farming and growing food.

At the core of the blueprint is the three-mile long New ERA (Englewood Re-making America) Trail, which will serve as the “spine” of the farm district, Strazzabosco says. A former railroad line, the three-mile-long trail will become a linear park with foot and bike trails and farm stands. The area designated as the district begins directly across from the trail, as that’s where an estimated 100 acres of city-owned, vacant parcels are located. Over time, they can be converted into farms and other agricultural projects.

Not only will the farms bring healthy and affordable food to the community, the hope is that they will also create jobs and attract new housing, industry, and businesses. Two half-acre job training farms already exist in the district — Growing Home’s Wood Street and Honore Street farms — as well as the 1.7-acre for-profit Perry Street Farm. All grow seasonal vegetables such as tomatoes, kale, lettuce, and beets. A fourth half-acre educational farm run by the Center for Urban Transformation and Angelic Organics Learning Center will be planted next spring.

Farms, however, are just the beginning of an overall urban planning project to rebuild the South Side from ground up. Think of it, says Brandon Johnson, “as a 21st-century community that just happens to have farms.”

Johnson, a public economist, heads the Washington Park Consortium, a neighborhood group made up of civic and business leaders who have been carefully planning the South Side’s future for the last two years.

Johnson and Strazzabosco both hope this effort differs from urban farming initiatives in both Detroit and Cleveland in that the city is not suffering from a collapsed economy.

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