How Chicago Does and May Do Zoning for Urban Ag

November 2, 2010 at 10:12 am

Editor’s Note: We are please to once again have Lindsay Banks, who is paid to think about the future of Chicago, provide a report for the Local Beet.  Scratch any opponent of local or organic agriculture and you will soon find a thesis that only Big Ag can feed the world.  Amongst the defects, however, in their arguments is the existence of urban ag.  There are whole new fields, literally, a-growin’ that can supply our food.  Thing is, where all is possible, city zoning sometimes hinders.  Lindsay looks at some of the issues and what may happen for urban ag in Chicago.

city farm

Cities are always changing in term of residents’ values, goals, demographics, and mode preferences.  Sometimes, codes and policies are a little slow to follow.  After a presentation about urban agriculture, I became interested in learning more about how Chicago’s Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning (DZP) handles urban agriculture.  As a planner, I am aware of how zoning has caused unintended and undesirable consequences and how some current policies stand in the way of creating sustainable communities.

At the same time, I understand why we have zoning to protect ‘public health and welfare’ so that, for example, you will not have a dangerous toxic industrial use adjacent to residential neighborhoods (oops – coal-fired power plants in Pilsen and Little Village).  Zoning also aims to protect property owners from depreciating property values as a result of “negative externalities.”

DZP’s Office of Sustainable Development is currently looking into policy changes that would be more amenable to urban agriculture.  They told me that the city’s zoning was updated in 2004 (the first time since 1957!) and the code allowing agriculture was removed.  This was at a time when our economy was doing great and local food was not a high priority for most people.  As a result, the only agricultural use allowed is the Chicago Urban Ag High School.  The zoning does allow for community gardens; you can have a small section of your lot (no more than 20%) for food production, but you cannot sell the produce.

The farms in Chicago that sell produce were either “grandfathered in” when zoning changed, were granted a variance, or are now considered a Commercial Use, subject to a multitude of expensive landscaping requirements.  Consider the development at Clybourn and Division – City Farm – an award-winning farm near Cabrini-Green that converted an underutilized, blighted, city-owned brownfield into a luscious, productive haven that supports 4 full-time jobs.  This farm was created with an initial investment of approximately $50,000.  Under current zoning, this same farm would cost $300,000 (estimate by the Resource Center).

The zoning classification requires commercial uses to install a 6’ wrought iron fence with opaque walls, and do extensive landscaping – part of the city’s Landscape Ordinance.  Yet it seems like small-scale farming would be its own form of beautification and that street trees and opaque walls might inhibit vegetable growth with their shade.  If an organization or foundation with an extra $300,000 wanted to create jobs, improve air quality, increase pervious surfaces, and create a healthy, sustainable source of food, they would only be able to create one farm on one acre with 4 employees.  If these restrictions were not in place, they would be able to do this city-wide on 6 one-acre farms, employing 24 people.

At a time when people are desperate for jobs, starving for healthy food but getting obese on junk, I would really like to see more endeavors like City Farm.   In addition to creating jobs and providing healthy food options, they donate thousands of pounds of produce to homeless shelters, collect waste for compost (and prevent it from ending up in landfills), and run educational after-school programs and volunteer opportunities.

Another challenge with the zoning (as it stands), is that commercial uses are not permitted within a residential zone, so in residential areas known to be “food deserts,” we could not set up something like City Farm. The residents could run their own community garden, but not everyone wants to do the work to harvest their own food.

It seems as though the City of Chicago could take a lesson from cities like Cleveland or Seattle, where this increasingly important topic of local food has been addressed by creating agricultural districts and allowing urban farmers to sell in residential areas. Or maybe the City could change the requirements regarding landscaping to make a commercial farm more cost-effective.  It is unfortunate for organizations like City Farm, Growing Power, or Growing Home that have done so much good for the City and would like to continue to do so, but can barely afford it.

Chicago is working to improve the zoning code, and organizations like the Advocates for Urban Agriculture and the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council have provided recommendations for them.  These organizations also try to educate people and arm them with policy change suggestions, but the city will not be allowing commercial uses in residential areas anytime soon, so unless the landscape ordinance becomes more flexible (via agricultural districts?), Chicago could fall off the radar of “green” cities.

The proposed changes include allowances for personal gardens, community gardens (allowed in residential districts), and specifications for commercial farms / greenhouses, and will be going to city council in upcoming months; they will be reviewed by the city’s Zoning Committee, and the full city council will vote on the changes.  So if you really want to get involved, make friends with the zoning folks.



  1. I’m so for green roofs and urban agriculture. There is a prototype for amazing spiraling urban gardens. Local food is definitely the way to ensure food security.

  2. Lindsay says:

    I just learned that the zoning changes will not permit composting of off-site materials – meaning that urban farms that currently accept restaurant food waste would no longer be able to do so – with very detrimental impacts to waste disposal, greenhouse gases, and soil health for our city.

    To read Growing Power’s response to changes:

    To see the proposed changes:

    If you think the zoning changes would affect your work or your life, please submit an example to Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council at this address:
    lauralyn [at]

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