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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

'Urban farming' is not always the right answer

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 20, 2010

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  Logan Square showing transit line, station, and plaza/orchard site (via Google Earth, markings by me)

Urban farming is all the rage, and not without reason, as more and more city dwellers are taking an interest in growing some of their own food, or at least buying as locally as possible, and as we search for creative uses for city properties not occupied by buildings.  I’m on record as supporting neighborhood ‘victory gardens’ in particular, along with such initiatives as the University of Cincinnati’s small (1.24 acres) urban farm on a municipal lot in a residential portion of that city.  I have also celebrated neighborhood community gardens in such residential areas as Denver's Highlands' Garden Village, Seattle's High Point, and Old North St. Louis.

But it is critical that the farming support the urban aspects of the city instead of displacing them.  This means the right kind of farming (e.g., vegetables, not sheep), at the right scale (small), and in the right spots (generally residential areas where other, more traditionally urban, uses are not displaced).  If we are to save the rural landscape, and the kind of rural economy that can support true family farming, we need cities to be cities, supporting compact and efficient patterns of land use and living that obviate farmland-eating sprawl.

  the market plaza site (via Google Earth)

Which brings me to a piece of vacant land near Chicago’s very urban Logan Square, a few hundred feet from a station on Chicago’s El rail transit system.  The land is owned by the transit agency, because it is on top of the El where it goes underground for a bit.  Before the rail-related construction, it was home to a Chinese restaurant, candy kitchen, billiard/bowling hall, bakery, drugstore, and car dealerships.  In the satellite image at the top of the post, you can see the outline of the parcel to the southeast of the square, and the location of the transit station on the opposite, northwest corner of the square.

  green space along Logan Blvd (via Google Earth)  green space along Logan Blvd (via Google Earth)

The Logan Square neighborhood has a decent amount of civic space because of the green square itself and the wide public green stretches along Logan Boulevard running east of the square (see photos) and Kedzie Boulevard running to the south.  Nonetheless the transit-owned parcel was recommended by the Logan Square Open Space Plan to be committed to additional public open space, specifically a tree-lined market plaza (see plan below) that could serve as an urban gathering place as well as a spot for farmers or other vendors to offer their wares.

  design for market plaza proposal (via Logan Square Open Space Plan)

Since then, however, a local organization “dedicated to preserving and popular­izing endangered and antique fruits” has been pushing for the space to be used for an orchard.  That is a very laudable pursuit in the right places, but my friend Payton Chung, who is a thoughtful city advocate, gardener, and neighborhood resident, believes this is a space better suited to people than to specimen horticulture, especially since fruit-bearing trees would likely have to be protected from people much of the year.  Payton has written an open letter to the sponsors of the orchard concept, and this is some of what he says:

I have spent my career advocating for smart neighborhood and city planning, including longtime volunteer service on local planning in the West Town and Logan Square community areas. I also spent years as a community gardener at Greenhouse Garden in Ukrainian Village, which houses a number of espaliered heirloom fruit trees.

“When I participated in the Logan Square Open Space Plan public outreach process, the conversation about this parcel centered around creating a space filled with human activity. across the street from the plaza site (via Google Earth)That makes sense given that this is one of Logan Square’s busiest corners, with thriving businesses opening up all around. Pedestrian-oriented retail districts like this need a critical mass of activity to thrive, and that activity should be reinforced whenever possible. That the retail is growing despite nearby parking lots, blank walls, empty storefronts, and high-speed thoroughfares is heartening, but we cannot take further growth for granted. A market plaza would bring more people and more commerce to this corner, helping all of the nearby businesses thrive…

“An orchard, closed and gated to the public for all but a few days each year (I know from experience that otherwise fruit and/or trees would be lost to theft or vandalism), would do nothing to reinforce this hub of activity. Creating a “walled garden” (lasting at least several, if not a hundred, years) at the key junction of the Logan-Milwaukee business district will freeze this budding area’s growth and prevent it from coalescing into something greater. a residential street in the Logan Square neighborhood (via Google Earth)In addition, I know from having dug in my own yard that the soil underneath this site does not lend itself to trees: construction of the subway portal and trench required extensive excavation which was backfilled with gravel aggregate, which lurks just a foot beneath the ground.

“Scores of vacant lots exist elsewhere in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Garfield Park, including high-visibility sites along the boulevard system or near the future Bloomingdale Trail. In fact, the Logan Square Open Space Plan identified several lots that would be ideal for community gardens, provided a group (like yours) was willing to step up and organize management of the site. Many of these would make for suitable locations for quiet agricultural uses, reinforcing the areas’ quiet residential or industrial character.

“I wish your organization luck on finding a great site for your worthy project.”

On Payton's blog, representatives of C.R.O.P., the organization sponsoring the orchard, respond (brief excerpt):

"It is important to not miss the point that the C.R.O.P. plan offers multi-use and access to that parcel of land. C.R.O.P. proposal for the site (via chicagorarities.orgThe schematics show that there is a planned public access 'Plaza' [note: light blue portion in image] adjacent to the orchard. This part of the site would presumably have unlimited public access, benches, plantings for an open air plaza that fronts right onto the 'busy traffic' portion of the Logan Square.

"Meanwhile, the south east portion of the site that is more narrow and runs down Milwaukee Ave [dark blue portion], would be set aside for the protected orchard. If the plan were to be approved by the City of Chicago, they would be involved in a substantial 'remediation' of the site which would include removal of the current gravel and clay soil and replacement with an extremely deep placement of soil appropriate for growth."

Could Logan Square residents have it both ways - an educational portion of the site with a protected orchard, and a more active civic portion freely accessible to the public?  The situation is intriguing precisely because it does not lend itself to easy answers.   

  across the street from the plaza site (via Google Earth)

I cannot say that I know the site firsthand, so I do not have an informed opinion of my own.  But intuitively I think Payton may have a point in saying that other sites would be better for the orchard.  Right across from the currently-dreary site in contention is an old Main-Street-style commercial district (photos above) that, at least when these Google Earth photos were taken, had not yet come back to thriving current uses.  But it certainly could: the strip looks ideal for commercial revitalization, using the historic building stock already in place.  It makes a lot of sense to me that, especially given the proximity to the transit station and the abundance of other green space in the neighborhood, this spot across from the commercial strip should be fully active, people-oriented open space if, in fact, it is to be open space at all.  Although the parcel is oddly shaped, its best use might even be for a small strip of neighborhood-serving shops and services, in buildings architecturally compatible with the style of the neighborhood, or even multifamily housing.  Twelve buildings were reportedly razed for the El construction; why not rebuild?

The entire parcel occupies less than half an acre, so it probably should be fully dedicated to its ultimate use.  I love the idea of the orchard in concept, but its proponents may be seizing the most opportunistic space rather than the best one for their project.  My instinct is that the residents of Chicago should have their orchard, but not on a potentially busy commercial strip so close to a transit station.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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ChewieMay 20 2010 09:41 AM

Good points.

Cities have to maintain their walkability and transit supporting density. Why not take the gardens to urban rooftops in cases where the roofs are structurally sound enough to support it? That way you can have your garden and your city too.

Jason KingMay 20 2010 11:51 AM

Kaid. Thanks for this post - as it brings up a great point with urban agriculture that I think we are grappling with as we integrate the uses. The dichotomous urban/rural divide and protection of farmland by reduction of sprawl is an important concept. But who is to say we shouldn't have woven into dense communities areas of productive landscape - complementing land set aside for natural areas and park lands, play spaces, trails, residential gardens, and streetscapes as a green fabric tying together dense walkable communities. What drove implementation of access to nature is not new urbanism or park planning principles - but historically reactions to the horrific living conditions of overly dense, industrial cities. Also, many urban parks with large expanses of lawn could also give up a sizable percentage of this space with no impact on our ability to play and less maintenance (or at least more productive maintenance) - and maybe encourage more users to get outside.

While we don't want to imbed farming within cities as a way to justify sprawl, and it's unlikely we will ever grow all of our food in urban areas (even with the rooftops, walls, and vertical farms that people claim will save us) - we could potentially use food production as a way of encouraging higher density that has the same footprint as a semi-dense city ringed with farmland - reducing transportation costs for selected foods. More importantly the notion of visibility of food, fruits, and animals and our active use through cultivation within cities is necessary - much like our need for access to nature - in reconnecting us to the natural processes around us.

In the case of the proposal you illustrate - i'm not familiar with the specifics to make the case for or against - perhaps this isn't the best spot for this type of use? The issue is often one of opportunity over appropriateness - where people have site access and an idea, but the two don't necessarily coincide. Good planning principles should still apply to placement of urban ag sites similar to all other urban elements in the toolkit of citymaking. I will have to disagree with the parameters you've set - why just vegetables? why small? why just residential areas?

To use this example as a way of dismissing all urban agriculture (or reducing it to a few small, safe, residential gardens) isn't productive (pardon the pun). Much like the idea the orchard could go elsewhere - perhaps the development could be located elsewhere too? Or both could co-exist to meet multiple goals? In essence it's a planning and design problem - and one few cities (or designers) are equipped to handle through traditional means of practice.

I think there's also a distinct misconception that urban agriculture has to be a permanent fixture - permanently displacing what we conceive to be the best and greatest use of our precious urban land. While permanence is a great goal (and we should strive for many distributed gardens, farms, and orchards) - the difference between a landscape and a building is one of permanence. It's relatively low-investment and much easier to move/shift/adjust than say a mixed-use development (i.e. a building is going to be there for a while). So what's wrong with uses of urban agriculture - large and small that fit within our notions of good cities - as placeholders until eventual development is completed - or as rotating uses that occupy vacant lands then move to other locales?

If we take our brainpower not to figure out methods of doing this in viable ways - we'll all benefit. Where appropriate a number of solutions of all scales, both permanent and ephemeral - can be implemented to grow more food, entice the body and imagination, and improve, not detract from great city-making.

Kaid @ NRDCMay 20 2010 12:38 PM

Jason, your comments are thoughtful as always, but I think you may be reading more into my post than is there. Far from "using this example as a way of dismissing all urban agriculture," what I actually wrote was that "the [Logan Square] situation is intriguing precisely because it does not lend itself to easy answers." I also supported Payton's contention that a site still in the neighborhood but a bit farther away from the transit stop and commercial strip might be very suited indeed for the orchard.

You also will be hard pressed to find an advocate more supportive of using parks and other forms of soft landscape to support city living than myself. See my review of Peter Harnik's book a few posts back, my lament that more green space has not been integrated into the densification of Arlington, Virginia, or my very favorable mentions of community gardens in a number of neighborhoods (including in this post).

Where we may disagree is whether a commercial strip a block from a transit station is the best place. My instincts tell me that is the type of site where we want something more urban, and that in this case it may be the development or the plaza rather than the orchard that is the best use of the site. I also said, however, that I do not believe the answer is easy; my confidence level in that instinct, especially from afar, may be at, say, the 75% level rather than certainty.

The title of the post is that urban farming is not always the best answer, not that it never is. Please don't read more into my position than is there.

PeterMay 20 2010 03:15 PM

i agree with Jason that this post is too much about knocking down urban farming. here's why:

But it is critical that the farming support the urban aspects of the city instead of displacing them. This means the right kind of farming (e.g., vegetables, not sheep), at the right scale (small), and in the right spots (generally residential areas where other, more traditionally urban, uses are not displaced).

are there any other conditions we rabid hippies need to abide by to make sure we maintain the pristineness of urban urbanity? there's nothing that says cities have to, or even should, continue to look and operate tomorrow the way they look and operate today. people and places have _an obligation_ to become sustainable -- and that means, yes, growing food -- not forcing all the externalities of food production onto the suburbs.

why shouldn't farmland be in close proximity to a metro station? presumably the station could be used for people who are working the land, and to transport the goods, no?

and aren't there enough problems in cities that require addressing instead of bashing on the farmer people? these folks are basically taking the fight to Big Aggra and 'advocates' are falling all over themselves to say why urban farming is such a bad idea.

i'd rather we provide something closer to 'unconditional support for urban farming'. let's make every city sustainable by making every village sustainable. nothing is set in stone. cities change -- it's in their nature, as Jane Jacobs suggested. i'd suggest a compromise -- a 10-year 'controllership' to the orchard folks, and then a revote on the issue. let's see if an orchard can really ruin a city. if all goes according to plan, we get some yummy food, the orchard helps to revitalize the area, then the city buys out the orchard for an even bigger plot not so close-in.

see? everyone's happy.

Matt JensenMay 20 2010 03:36 PM

I appreciate this post. I currently live in Logan Square (you can actually see my building in the top photo). The space you discuss has been empty for quite a while and it would be great to have just about anything done there. However, for the amount of work and cost that it would take to dig out all of the existing soil, replace it, and then plant an orchard that would not regularly be open to the public is not something that seems optimal at all. I don't have much knowledge of orchard care, but I can't imagine that planting an orchard of endangered and antique fruits next to a busy street would be the best growing environment either.
There is a great farmer's market that meets every weekend right across the street from the site. It would be fantatistic if that site were to be developed so that it could be an area for the farmer's market. That way they would not need to block off part of the street every weekend. Also, if there were shelter available there as well, the farmer's market could possibly stay there year round instead of moving to the Congress Theatre in the winter months.
I guess the thing I am most worried about when it comes to projects like this is that normal Chicago city politics will prevail. IE, things will be promised, nothing will actually get accomplished, and where they say orchard, there will be one, malnourished tree...

Lynn StevensMay 21 2010 12:19 PM

As a long-time Logan Square resident, I agree that this site is not the place for an orchard. Soil remediation and 7 year growth process aside, Milwaukee Avenue is a ideal place for commerce. Just a couple blocks north of this site used to be something like the 6th busiest intersection in Chicago.

In the aerial you can see the "square" itself (oval green cut diagonally by Milw Ave), and just north is a bit of a noman's triangle, left of that is a community garden, and north of that where you've noted the transit station is a rather desolate plaza. In it's own way, all this open space deters commercial development as it presents a barrier to foot traffic, unless it is heavily programmed.

There are other sites in the neighborhood more appropriate.

Jason GreenbergMay 26 2010 02:17 AM

As a longtime resident of the Logan Square neighborhood, I am familiar with the uses of private and public access space in and around the square. I am also familiar with the character of the neighborhood (Latino and Polish families descended from immigrants who moved to this heavily working class corridor in post war years followed by a wave of middle & upper-middle class professional families who have brought in a very left-leaning, community based family-focused perspective). The neighborhood is now filled with mixed pockets of second & third generations of the postwar families and the newer influx of social workers, academics, artists, individuals involved in advocacy issues, etc.

I say all this to point out that many residents are more likely to welcome a mom & pop shop, than a national chain. They are more open to educational and civic uses of the community public spaces than pursuing an interest in commercial/shopping developments. In the past years there has been a strong anti-development sentiment (when it is seen as generic and homogenizing)- with examples of community resistance to proposed condo developments and franchise chain stores --including a big movement against opening a Home Depot in the near neighborhood and etc.).

So this neighborhood is in transition, but it has not developed as fast as other neighborhoods that are more commercially active. And that has been a selling point for the families who have remained here or been attracted here. Its a little more sleepy and safe, not as hip, edgy or active as other trendy neighborhoods.

While the neighborhood doesn’t sport bustling commercial economic activity, things are developing substantially along the Milwaukee Ave and California Ave corridors. And with so many inactive and underutilized storefronts remaining dark on Milwaukee it seems redundant to designate this parcel of land under discussion to yet more commercial storefronts (and yet this seems to be cited as the only possible smart use of this land because of its proximity to transportation hub and as a major artery intersection by many of the commenters thus far.) I have to point out that an urban planning agenda with the goal of increased commercial strips for economic activity (read: gentrification) and mixed-use multifamily housing (read: condos with storefronts) is not in line with the character of the neighborhood.

And from a sustainable urban planning perspective, I understand the value of open access sidewalk cafe-style streets near transportation outlets, but often that kind of development brings unfortunate consequences. I think the “revitalization” of Divison Street, West of Ashland (on that same transportation line) into a cafe-style haven is a perfect example of this model of rampant commercial development that has adversely affected the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

So many of these posts come from well informed perspectives, but ones that assume a different goal for the neighborhood. Logan Square is a very vital neighborhood without having undergone a huge revitalization/development effort dependent on a commercial strip as its foundation. The Logan Square Chamber of Commerce has done a great job of developing important community events and infrastructure (like the Farmers Market and cultural programming in Logan Square Park) that reflect the values and character of the neighborhood. An orchard with a public access, educational component is a great twist on the idea of the functional uses of green spaces (true, there is already grassy park space in Logan Square and the verdant islands of the boulevards; so this alternative urban agricultural model with a large plaza adds a new element that by being visible on the high traffic intersection will make a strong statement about the character of the community. The orchard is meant to be developed as an educational laboratory. Sure, it could be buried on a side street in one of the other sites mentioned in the Logan Square Open Space Plan where few neighbors would see it. But to have it on the square would make it a part of the character of the neighborhood that has already enthusiastically embraced the “Know Your Food” locavoure sentiment of the Farmers Market. Adding an orchard focusing on fruit rariities would be a much more distinctive statement that a bunch of stores (drugstores, laundromats, cafes, etc.) that are already available elsewhere in the neighborhood or that could fill existing empty store frontage on Milwaukee.

Either way, after many years of inactivity at the site, I think almost all would agree that anything is better use of the land than its current dilapidated state as a muddy parking lot that looks like a haphazard junkyard. The CROP project also has the advantage of costing much less to activate that parcel of land than a building development of residential and/or commercial units.

Kaid @ NRDCMay 26 2010 10:49 AM

Thoughtful comments with different perspectives. Sounds like an engaged neighborhood to me.

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