The Impact of Urban Agriculture on Social Justice in Chicago
Tori Budin and Kristen Miller
In Chicago, Illinois exists a great divide and oppression of people of color and can be seen through the food apartheid. To fight these injustices, we, social activists with backgrounds in agriculture and food systems, are presenting to Chicago politicians. Our goal is to work with these policymakers to implement new policies, zoning codes, and budgets to help support and grow urban agriculture throughout the city of Chicago.
We investigated the intersection of social justice and urban agriculture in Chicago, with a focus on the potential social benefits reaped from urban agriculture and the prevalent barriers to achieving them. Our findings were centered around four core research questions: (1) How does urban agriculture affect environmental justice? (2) What impact does urban agriculture have on food justice? (3) How is the community affected by urban agriculture? (4) What are the barriers in place acting against urban agriculture in Chicago? Our findings lay the groundwork for arguments supporting the implementation of urban agriculture as well as pointing out necessary considerations for proper execution. We conducted a literature review using peer-reviewed literature with a focus on urban agriculture and social justice. The literature suggests that the city of Chicago has the capability to advance social justice through urban agriculture by addressing the food apartheid and environmental injustice. We urge policymakers to help establish urban agriculture in Chicago with the goal of advancing social justice.
With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Covid-19 virus, food insecurity has become a more prevalent issue in the Chicago area. In addition to food insecurity, it is also evident that climate change is on the rise and our current food supply methods are not sustainable. These issues have led to an increasing focus on urban agriculture, in which food systems can become more local, more affordable, and more sustainable. Within the three main pillars of sustainability (environmental, social, and economic), urban agriculture helps all three but most profoundly benefits the social aspects. With the implementation of urban agriculture, communities can be greatly improved, and social justice can be advanced.
These trends can be clearly seen through the food apartheids that exist in many major cities and are very evident in the city of Chicago. As a team with backgrounds in food science, global health, and food systems, we have explored these issues and present the solution of urban agriculture implementation in Chicago.
Throughout our study, we explored how the three pillars of sustainability are each affected by urban agriculture within the city of Chicago. Throughout this website you will learn how urban agriculture affects the environment, the food apartheid occurring, and the community as well as exploring the obstacles that come along with urban agriculture.
To properly understand this webpage, it is vital to understand the commonly used terminology Local food can be generalized as food that is grown within the state or 400 miles according to the 2008 farm act, however, for this study, we will be focusing on food within the community or neighborhood. Another important term is food apartheids, an area or neighborhood in which there is a lack of access to fresh food, which is necessary for a healthy and balanced diet (O’Hara & Toussaint, 2021). While food apartheids used to be referred to as ‘food deserts’ it is important to emphasize that these ‘food deserts’ stem from racial and socioeconomic inequality.
For the full potential benefits of urban agriculture to be obtained, the city of Chicago needs to adjust its agenda and policies that affect the success of the farms. With these changes, food apartheids can be significantly decreased, fresh food can be readily available to everyone, and the environment of the community can be improved.
Urban agriculture provides key benefits to the environment, which works toward environmental justice. Environmental justice is the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of the environment. We identified four central environmental benefits from urban agriculture that positively affect residents and mitigate environmental hazards. The first is the regulation of local climate (Artmann & Sartison, 2018). Green spaces in urban areas can lower the air temperature and decrease the urban heat island effect (Lin et al., 2017). Additionally, there is mitigation of runoff due to urban agriculture (Artmann & Sartison, 2018). Stormwater runoff is absorbed more in farms and gardens compared to vacant and residential lots, which helps prevent flooding and other water damage (Gittleman et al., 2016). Furthermore, biodiversity is strengthened due to urban agriculture, which creates a more resilient environment (Artmann & Sartison, 2018). Lastly, urban agriculture raises environmental awareness throughout the city. This is done through various community events or workshops held (Artmann & Sartison, 2018). Education on climate change, nutrition, and gardening are all made a possibility through urban agriculture.
Within these Black predominant communities, there is an extreme lack of fresh food and produce. This lack of access to the appropriate food required for a nutritious balanced diet leads to an increase in many negative health effects such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (Horst et al., 2017). Not only are these communities disproportionally affected by the lack of fresh food, but they are also more likely to not have health insurance when compared to white communities, ultimately suppressing these communities even more. These areas also have a higher rate of high school dropouts and higher cases of unemployment (Nesbitt, 2009). In addition, the rate of incarceration is much higher in these areas, with a large portion consisting of youth. So how can urban agriculture fix these social injustices?
The first thing urban agriculture does is create jobs within the community. Starting in the 1990s and into the early 2000s urban agriculture became a way to decrease levels of unemployment while also benefiting the city’s image (Hoffmann, 2014). It was advantageous for policy leaders to convert abandoned and vandalized lots into urban farms. This movement was supported by Mayor Daley and a new department was created, the Department of the Environment. This movement helped to clean up the city, create a greener and more sustainable city and create more jobs for many people. In order to get these urban farms up and running, green job training programs were created such as the Chicago Conservation Corps and Greencorps Chicago. Greencorps Chicago became the flagship program of the Department of the Environment and works on training people, specifically on training black men who have been previously incarcerated.
Programs like this one, help to create a sense of community and encouraged the participants to create community gardens out of vacant land in their neighborhoods. Hoffmann interviewed many participants who finished the Greencorps Chicago program and found that many participants had never even thought about their natural environments prior to the program. In most cases, the program even led to personal growth such as no longer littering and learning to care about the plants found around them. Not only does this program provide individuals with employment opportunities, but it also helps with the transition into a long-term job. According to Greencorps Chicago’s website, they are still working and having training today, however on a smaller scale due to the current pandemic. Through their program, they planted hundreds of trees, restored thousands of acres, all while increasing their trainees' employment levels from 38% employment before joining the organization to 81% employment of participants who completed the program (Figure 2 & 3, Greencorps).
Figure 2 and 3. Greencorps impact on employment prior to and after their internship program. Source: Greencorps Chicago
Urban agriculture is able to provide to these communities is access to fresh food (Horst et al., 2009). Participants in these urban agriculture farms are able to produce an excess of food and are therefore able to provide food for themselves and their families as well as for other people within the community. However, just having urban agriculture does not mean there will be an increase in food security; the correct practices need to be put in place in order to assure proper distribution and accessibility. Studies have shown that participating in local agriculture leads to increased knowledge about nutrition, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables as well as a decrease in obesity (Sonti et al., 2016). It is also emphasized by many advocates and scholars that urban agriculture may not completely eradicate food insecurity but rather is a step in the right direction and is supplemental to the food supply currently being brought into the homes of impoverished people (Horst et al., 2009). Urban agriculture is likely to not completely eradicate food insecurity as many of these farms are slow producing, and these urban farms lack the ability to produce all essential foods such as sugar, oils, flours, and animal products (Gutman, 1987).
Although urban agriculture may not be a complete answer to food insecurity it provides a great number of other benefits such as improved communities, better self-confidence, increased leadership, and overall improvement of the individuals involved. We see these positive correlations between urban agriculture and individuals in the study performed on students who participate in the East New York Farms Project, an organization that works on building community gardens with students ages 13 to 18 (Sonti et al., 2016). In this study, 50 alumni of this program were surveyed on Likert-type questions and were asked to rate how often they feel a certain way or participate in certain activities. It was found that participants of the ENYF programs scored higher in self-esteem and had strong communication and decision-making skills. These individuals are also less likely to succumb to peer pressure and are more likely to have a positive attitude towards their community. While this internship did not result in the majority of people growing their own food or having their own gardens, it did have a positive correlation on their life skills and their self-perception. It would be incredibly beneficial to have the scores of people from the same demographic and region who did not participate in this program to be able to see directly the difference this internship program had on these individuals.
Barriers to Urban Agriculture
Operating urban agriculture that strengthens social justice in the city of Chicago requires overcoming many barriers, specifically relating to city regulations, a lack of resources, and proper representation. Ordinances and zoning laws currently in place are restrictive to the successful implementation of urban agriculture in Chicago. Furthermore, there is a large number of necessary resources missing that are key to enhancing social justice through urban agriculture. Lastly, there are disparities in urban agriculture leadership, which hinders the ability of residents’ voices to be heard.
Policy and Zoning Hurdles
First, city ordinances are not inclusive nor clear when it comes to urban agriculture. City ordinances are not inclusive nor clear when it comes to urban agriculture. When interviewed, farmers pointed out the lack of clarity in the city ordinances in Chicago (Castillo et. al, 2013). Farmers explained that without sufficient guidance, they feel uncomfortable investing and participating in urban agriculture. Multiple interviews reflected the desire for protection and support from the government through improved city ordinances regulating urban agriculture. A recent improvement, however, was the 2011 zoning amendment, which defines community gardens and urban farming distinguishes where urban agriculture is permitted and establishes some regulations. Prior to this amendment, a special use permit was required to have land primarily used for agriculture. Still, the zoning ordinance doesn’t permit urban farms in residential zones or certain business districts.
Furthermore, there is a large number of necessary resources missing that are key to enhancing social justice through urban agriculture. We have identified four key categories of resources that are essential to the success of urban agriculture in Chicago. They are categorized as the following: land and water, funding, set-up, and research and evaluation.
In order for urban agriculture to successfully address social justice issues, land and water resources must be provided to farmers. Currently, the majority of the land for urban agriculture in Chicago is scarce or only available temporarily (Artmann & Sartison, 2018). The land is heavily competed over for differing uses, which makes finding spaces for urban agriculture challenging (Artmann & Sartison, 2018). An option is to use vacant lots, however, that becomes costly to purchase and prepare the land (Castillo et al., 2013). Urban agriculture is often used as a placeholder for vacant land, causing it to be an undependable resource (Horst et al., 2017). This disproportionately affects BIPOC due to race and class-based disparities in homeownership, thus a greater reliance on public land (Horst et al., 2017). If a farmer is forced to lease land, it leaves them vulnerable to changes subject to the owner (Castillo et al., 2013). Limited access to water has also proved to be a large barrier for urban agriculture farmers. It can be extremely difficult to find land already equipped with pipes and a spigot, which is essential and very costly to implement (Castillo et al., 2013). Additionally, plumbing permits can be challenging to obtain due to strict stormwater ordinances (Castillo et al., 2013).
Additionally, resources that help fund urban agriculture are necessary. The government subsidizes commodity crops grown on conventional farms, but barely supports produce grown in the urban setting, putting farmers at greater financial risk (Castillo et al., 2013). Local community farms are limited in budget and labor force which makes participation limited (Castillo et al., 2013). Furthermore, there have been disparities in who receives funding from the city, with BIPOC and people of low income being disadvantaged (Horst et al., 2017). The city of Chicago has begun to address this issue through a city-funded land trust which is able to purchase land to be protected as community gardens (Castillo et al., 2013).
Moreover, resources that provide guidance and access to necessary training, certifications, and insurance are essential. Urban farmers complained about a lack of farmer education on sustainable organic practices (Castillo et al., 2013). Furthermore, obtaining necessary certifications such as USDA GAP and organic certifications is difficult due to a lack of training facilities, intense paperwork, and high costs of applications (Castillo et al., 2013). If a farmer cannot become certified but still practices organic farming, they lose profit. Additionally, finding insurance that is appropriate, affordable, and fair has proven to be challenging (Castillo et al., 2013). Insurance companies can be unwilling or costly due to the lack of knowledge about handling urban agriculture.
Furthermore, there are missing resources allocated to research and evaluation of urban agriculture. Research should primarily focus on identifying prime land for urban agriculture in Chicago as well as comparing the various types of urban agriculture. Prime land can be identified through location proximity to underserved areas, water sources, quality of soil, available labor source, and distribution ability. The research on different types of urban agriculture should take into account the most suitable situation for each one as they vary in goals and participants.
Moreover, an evaluation of the effectiveness and efficiency of implemented urban agriculture should be conducted as seen in Figure 4. The efficiency of implementation should be reviewed by analyzing supporting actors, conditions, and technology (Artmann & Sartison, 2018). Impact efficiency should be taken into consideration as well by investigating the benefits and benefiting actors (Artmann & Sartison, 2018).
Figure 4: An assessment of the framework for urban agriculture. Source: Artmann & Sartison, 2018
Proper Leadership Implementation
Finally, it is necessary to actively ensure disadvantaged communities are represented appropriately in urban agriculture. Disparities in representation and leadership should be addressed (Horst et al., 2017). Urban agriculture should not be dominated by white leadership and participants. Low-income communities should be prioritized in establishing urban agriculture if the residents approve of it, and they should have the right to lead their own farms. There should be early involvement and communication with the residents so their requests and concerns can be considered.
To better understand the impact urban agriculture has on social justice in Chicago, we conducted a literature review. Our findings were centered around four core research questions: (1) How does urban agriculture affect environmental justice? (2) What impact does urban agriculture have on food justice? (3) How is the community affected by urban agriculture? (4) What are the barriers in place acting against urban agriculture in Chicago? We found that urban agriculture works towards achieving environmental justice through mitigating environmental burdens such as the heat island effect and flooding, and increasing environmental benefits such as strengthened biodiversity and environmental education. Additionally, food insecurity cannot be eradicated with the implementation of urban agriculture alone, however, it has proven to be a worthwhile combatant against it. Furthermore, urban agriculture benefits community members through employment opportunities, increased self-confidence, and strengthened leadership skills. Finally, we unpacked the major obstacles to urban agriculture to be city regulation oriented or related to a lack of resources or disparities in leadership.
The city government has the ability to lessen the barriers to urban agriculture through a variety of means.
First, the city could adjust its policies. In regards to restrictive city policies, a mixed-use zone could be established that combines residential and agricultural land uses to allow neighborhoods their own urban farm. Potentially, there could be an urban agriculture establishment for every given amount of people; in Seattle, there is a community garden allotted for every 2,500 residents (Horst et al., 2017). Furthermore, the city could create a consistent and coordinated policy regarding urban agriculture to remove farmer confusion.
Additionally, the city could allocate resources towards making urban agriculture successful. To create long-term land tenure, the city could establish a streamlined leasing process that operates through an inventory of vacant land available for urban agriculture, or identify potential city-owned land that can be offered as a location for urban farms (Horst et al., 2017). Additionally, affordable housing could be equipped with urban farming opportunities (Horst et al., 2017). Moreover, the city needs to allocate resources towards establishing water sources for urban agriculture. Potential solutions to overcome the funding barrier are for the city to offer grants to community groups, hire staff or garden management, and revise the funding process so that disadvantaged communities are assisted in receiving grants (Horst et al., 2017). In order to address the lack of support for farmers to set up for urban agriculture, the city could collaborate with training and certification sites to establish closer and more abundant locations. In regards to missing research and evaluation, the city could collaborate with local universities to seek out researchers and evaluators.
Lastly, to ensure the inclusion and focus on underserved communities, the city should help establish respectful relationships between city planners, food justice organizations, and diverse urban agriculture participants (Horst et al., 2017).
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