Consensus Still Lacking in Chicago on Proposed Urban Agriculture Zoning Changes

Reader Contribution by Harry Rhodes
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A little over a year ago, staff members in the Chicago Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning began looking at zoning and other policies in Chicago related to urban agriculture. They put together an interdepartmental Working Group to draw up policy changes encouraging urban agriculture. Unfortunately, in my view, the original Working Group did not include representatives from the urban agriculture community. 

Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA) — a network of about 400 organizations and urban farmers that promotes urban agriculture in and around Chicago — heard about the City’s Working Group and sent a letter to a Deputy Commissioner, petitioning to be included in this process. We received a very positive response, indicating that the Working Group would be happy to have AUA members as part of the process. Following this response, AUA members have had regular meetings with a representative of the Working Group. He provided updates and listened to feedback. We felt this was a very open process and were hopeful that ultimately it would lead to policies that recognized and supported urban agriculture.

However, after this initial positive impression, the process proved to be not always smooth and we did not always agree with the City’s approach or recommendations. For instance, in July, AUA sent a letter in response to some of the Working Group’s preliminary recommendations. One of these recommendations was to limit the size of community gardens to 18,750 square feet. We felt that this was a random size that might limit the development of larger community gardens with a focus on high-volume food production. We also had some questions about zoning classifications and definitions of gardens and farms. We suggested adding some language that might make the proposals more supportive of urban agriculture, and that might clarify some points that were vague to us.

We received a letter from the Zoning Commissioner affirming the Working Group’s support of urban agriculture, but stating that urban agriculture needs to “coexist with all other uses that are allowed in the City of Chicago….” Furthermore the letter said: “We feel the zoning recommendations, as presented, adequately and fairly address urban agriculture plant uses.”  In my view, this commissioner said essentially thank you very much for your input, but we will be doing things our way. We were very disappointed with this response, but continued to work with our allies in the department to move things ahead.

In December 2010, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley submitted an urban agriculture zoning ordinance amendment to the City Council. Feelings about this amendment were mixed. On one hand, it recognized for the first time urban agriculture as a legitimate use in the zoning code. This was a good first step that would help Growing Home and production farmers develop more urban farms.  Development of Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm had taken over three years, partly because there was no zoning use category for urban agriculture.

On the other hand, AUA objected to some of the language in the amendment, such as size limitations for community gardens, or restrictions on composting (which already exist in the code, so we

felt it was unnecessary to repeat them in the amendment; we warned city representatives that this language would not be received well, but they refused to budge).

Many other urban agriculture activists were very upset by the proposed amendment, saying that it would not really help urban agriculture, that it would not allow them to develop larger community gardens, not allow them to compost on a large scale, and that it would place added burdens on them by requiring fencing, landscaping and parking, among others.

While I understand these frustrations and agree that the City did not go far enough, it seems to me and to others at AUA that much of the opposition was based on misunderstandings regarding what the proposed amendment actually said. Therefore, I wrote an op-ed article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, trying to clarify what the proposed amendment would do; and AUA put together an FAQ, also trying to clarify matters.

Today the debate goes on. I believe that it would be good to get this amendment to the zoning ordinance passed as a first step in recognizing urban agriculture as a legitimate land use in Chicago. It certainly does not go far enough.  However, I feel that once this amendment is passed, we will be able to work with our allies in the city to promote new policies, including ones dealing with fish and bees (currently not allowed in Chicago on a commercial basis), that will truly support the development and expansion of urban agriculture in Chicago.

Growing Home, Inc. is a Chicago-based non-profit with the mission to operate, promote and demonstrate the use of organic agriculture as a vehicle for job training, employment, and community development. Growing Home develops innovative urban and other agriculture initiatives with economic development potential, and is a leader in advocating for local healthy food systems. Executive Director Harry Rhodes has been with Growing Home since 2001. Mr. Rhodes is among the leading advocates for urban agriculture in Chicago and one of the founders of Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA) where he is also serving on the steering committee.  

This article is reprinted with permission from Urban Grown, a free newsletter from the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture.