Unearthing urban agriculture in the Great North
Community gardens, and more recently urban farms, have been an increasing focus of academic research, food activism, and policymaking. In this themed issue on urban agriculture, our article’s objective was to reveal some of the invisible spaces of food production in Chicago—on-lot and vacant lot home gardens. My interest in these gardens is both personal and professional. As an agroecologist, former Chicago resident, and longtime gardener myself, I’ve always been curious about what other people grow and do in their gardens and why. To sate this curiosity, I initially used Google Earth to peer into backyards and vacant lots and to map food production across the city down to the level of the residential lot. That work revealed that the area of home gardens in Chicago far exceeds that of community gardens and farms combined, a finding that inspired our mixed methods, ground-level study of the gardens of African American, Chinese-origin, and Mexican-origin households on the city’s south side.
As other authors in this themed issue note–with some skepticism–a wide range of claims have been made about the benefits of urban agriculture. Empirical evidence to support these claims has often been thin, particularly for home gardens in the Global North. In our mixed methods study, we found that some gardens appear to produce substantial amounts of food for the household and the larger community. Plants, of course, form the foundation for the productive and other ecosystem services associated with home gardens. Immigrant gardeners in Chicago, we found, conserve agrobiodiversity with roots in the Global South. They import food plants from their countries of origin and share seeds and cuttings with their friends, relatives, neighbors, and even university researchers. For me, as a self-professed plant geek, one of the pleasures of the research was the discovery of unfamiliar crop plants in Chicago backyards, such as a species of Jaltomata grown by a Mexican-origin gardener for its small, purple fruit. Equally rewarding—and sometimes frustrating—was trying to identify those plants based on often-idiosyncratic vernacular names and plant morphology.
Food gardens often include ornamental plants. In addition to being a source of pleasure, these plants may provide ecosystem services at the level of the residential lot and higher. There may be tradeoffs, though, between those services and food production. Shade trees and shrubs, for example, compete with crop plants for water, nutrients, and light and were largely absent from the gardens we studied. The species richness of herbaceous ornamental plants, on the other hand, varied widely across gardens and appeared to be influenced by culture, social ties, and a productionist orientation toward gardening.
Our research has only begun to explore the rich social and ecological dynamics of these gardens. It suggests, though, that home food gardens—and domestic gardens in general, as a major urban land use–have the potential to make a substantial contribution to urban systems at the level of the household and larger scales. Additional research, material support, and outreach to underserved populations are needed to fully realize that potential.
Featured Image: Examples of home food gardens of African American (top left), Mexican-origin (bottom left) and Chinese-origin (right) households in Chicago, IL.