Chicago’s Urban Agriculture Zoning Proposal

Growing Home, Inc.
On December 8, 2010, Chicago Mayor Daley introduced legislation to add community gardens and commercial urban farms to the city’s zoning ordinance. If adopted by the Chicago City Council, gardens and farms would become legal land uses within the city limits provided that they meet the requirements outlined in the zoning ordinance with respect to size, location, and operational parameters.
To many urban agriculture practitioners in Chicago, the new language provides certainty for the first time that community gardens and commercial farms are legal land uses within the city. Others fear that the proposed changes unduly restrict the scale of urban agriculture ventures and impose onerous restrictions that will make their businesses – and future larger scale urban agriculture ventures — untenable. The debate that will unfold in Chicago over the next month, as the city’s aldermen hold hearings on the proposal, is no different than discussions about the role of urban agriculture in city life that are being carried out in communities across North America.
Among the thorny questions for planners, policy makers, practitioners, and members of the public include: the appropriate scale of urban agriculture; whether food production should be interspersed throughout the city, form a contiguous productive landscape, or be concentrated on the periphery; whether food processing and sales are appropriate in residential neighborhoods; and more broadly whether food production deserves to be treated differently than other types of businesses competing for space in the city.
Chicago’s Food Planning Context
The proposed zoning changes are one element of a broader food systems planning process that has been underway in Chicago for much of the past decade. In 2009, the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council and the City of Chicago’s Department of Zoning and Planning developed a Food Systems Report to outline the food systems needs for Chicago and to provide a framework for a comprehensive regional planning effort led by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), the official metropolitan planning organization. Following an extensive planning and public participation process, the CMAP board adopted a regional plan called GO TO 2040 on October 13, 2010. GO TO 2040 covers a wide range of environmental and quality-of-life concerns, but what distinguishes from other sustainability-focused plans (like NYC’s PlaNYC 2030) is that it devotes an entire section to promoting a sustainable local food system. With respect to urban agriculture, the GO TO 2040 plan recommends that local governments in the Chicago region should “simplify and incentivize the conversion of vacant and underutilized lots, spaces, and rooftops into agricultural uses.”
Proposed Amendments
Chicago’s proposed zoning changes attempt to do just that. Under the proposed amendments, community gardens would be defined as neighborhood-based developments that provide space for members of the community to grow plants for beautification, education, recreation, community distribution or personal use. The gardens have to be sites that are owned and managed by public or civic entities, nonprofit organizations, or other community-based organizations that are responsible for maintenance and operations. Community gardens would be allowed in virtually every part of the city with the exception of manufacturing districts.
Community gardens in residential districts may not be larger than 18,750 square feet. Larger community gardens may exist in parks and open space districts. Sheds and greenhouses may not take up more than 10% of the community garden site, or 100 square feet, whichever is greater. Composting is limited to the materials generated on-site, not organic matter brought to the garden by local residents. And the processing, storage and sale of plants or plant products are prohibited on site.
The ordinance defines commercial gardens and greenhouses as growing locations used for the propagation, processing, storage and sale of plants and plant products. These include growing beds, hoop houses, greenhouses, vertical farms, and hydroponic systems.
Outdoor locations would be allowed in commercial and certain business and manufacturing districts, as well as planned manufacturing districts. Indoor facilities would also be allowed in every planned manufacturing district. With respect to composting, commercial gardens are also restricted to composting only the organic matter generated on-site.
Features of the Proposed Amendments that Warrant Further Discussion
Certain aspects of the proposed zoning ordinance changes have been criticized in recent news articles. While it is not clear whether these dissenting voices reflect broader opposition to the proposal – that will only become apparent when the Council holds its first hearing on the issue – the issues raised pertain to zoning for urban agriculture in every major city. And although every city is unique, looking at how other jurisdictions have addressed them is one way to evaluate Chicago’s proposal.
Size Limit on Community Gardens in Residential Neighborhoods
One concern is the proposed 18,750 square foot limit on community gardens in residential zones. (Gardens on public land have no such limits.) Advocates feel that large tracts of vacant land in low-income residential neighborhoods are an opportunity to develop urban agriculture projects at a scale that will make them financially viable and a significant source of fresh food for the neighborhoods in which they are located. The 18,750 square foot limit will prevent larger projects from locating in residential communities. On the other hand, existing residents who value the residential character of their community may prefer the development of more housing in their community. These debates are particularly contentious in cities with significant swaths vacant land, like Detroit, where proposals for large scale agriculture projects are being advanced by both private firms and non-profit organizations.
In Seattle, on September 23, 2010, the City Council adopted land use code changes that allow community gardens as permitted uses in all zones (with some limitations in industrial zones). In residential zones, urban farms are permitted as an accessory use without a permit if they are up to 4,000 square feet of planting area. Larger farms in residential zones require an administrative conditional use permit. In commercial zones, urban farms are allowed as a principal or accessory use, with facilities up to 10,000 square feet allowed in NC1 zones, 25,000 square feet in NC2 zones, and no size restrictions in NC3 or C zones. Urban farms are allowed as a principal or accessory use in industrial zones, including on the tops and sides of buildings.
In contrast to both Chicago and Seattle, San Francisco’s proposal defines “neighborhood agriculture” sites as those less than 1 acre (43,560 square feet). The San Francisco proposal includes community gardens, community supported agriculture, market gardens, and private farms. “Urban Industrial Agriculture” is defined as the production of food or horticultural crops on a plot of land 1 acre or larger, or on smaller parcels that cannot meet the physical and operational standards for Neighborhood Agriculture.
New York City zoning has for a long time allowed “truck gardens” and farmstands in residential and commercial districts, provided that no offensive odors or dust are created and that only products produced on the same property are sold from the garden. Urban agriculture is permitted in New York City’s manufacturing districts (M1, M2, or M3) without these nuisance or sales restrictions.
Food Sales
In contrast to Chicago, which does not have provisions for farmstands and therefore would treat food sales from a garden as a commercial activity not permitted in a residential zone, Seattle, New York and the proposed San Francisco zoning ordinances allow food sales from the farm site.
Treatment of Agriculture as an Interim Use
Another concern raised about Chicago’s proposed zoning ordinance changes is that urban agriculture projects that are meant to temporarily occupy vacant land slated for development would be disadvantaged by requirements for fencing and landscaping that apply to other businesses. Entrepreneurs throughout North America are experimenting with growing food in Earth Boxes, bags, and other mobile planters. A growing number of non-profit organizations would like to be able to farm sites on a temporary basis. Chicago’s own City Farm is designed to be relocated once the site it occupies is developed (although it has been in place for a decade). Should cities favor this kind of activity instead of other temporary uses such as parking lots, gas stations, storage lockers, etc? If standards are in place to protect the character and environment of a neighborhood is there any justification for carving out an exemption for a food production site?
In San Francisco, city officials created an innovative strategy, called a Green Developer Agreement (GDA) to address so-called soft sites, parcels that developers have received approval to build on but that lay fallow due to the economy. The goal of the GDA program is to provide financial incentives for the temporary greening, beautification and/or conversion of vacant development sites by offering developers the opportunity to lock-in their existing entitlements for a 5-8 year period provided that they use the site for a green purpose, including urban agriculture. The binding nature of the agreement ensures that the interim use remains for the period prior to construction, and it also protects developers from losing control over the site if the interim use is so popular that residents attempt to scuttle the original approved development.
Rooftop Agriculture
The Chicago zoning ordinance proposal does not address the issue of rooftop agriculture, although in dense cities, rooftops are increasingly looked to as potentially viable places to grow food. New York City has two commercial rooftop farms, one nearly an acre in size. Rooftop farms exist in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, as well as Chicago. Would it be appropriate to encourage building owners to install greenhouses by exempting the structures from bulk or height limits?
Seattle, in its recent zoning changes, decided to allow rooftop greenhouses to rise up to 15 feet above the height limit of property in the manufacturing, commercial, industrial, and downtown zones if the greenhouses are dedicated to food production. New York has not yet agreed to such an exemption, though a recent policy report by the City Council Speaker ( ) proposes to explore a variety of incentives for rooftop agriculture, including height allowances.
Final thoughts
As the proposed urban agriculture zoning ordinance is debated in the City Council, urban agriculture practitioners will undoubtedly raise these and other issues, citing existing and proposed policies adopted in other large cities. The challenge for Chicago’s alderman will be to think about the kinds of urban agriculture ventures that may be viable five, ten, and twenty years into the future, decide whether Chicago wants to attract those kinds of for and non-profit food production businesses, and ensure that the zoning ordinance incentivizes – and does not inhibit — the conversion of vacant and underutilized lots, spaces, and rooftops into agricultural uses. These are likely to include medium- to large-scale urban farms, aggregated backyard farms, rooftop agriculture, and livestock. Providing space for these activities, and the processing, distribution, and retail infrastructure necessary for farming to succeed, could very well improve Chicago’s environment and economy.

8 thoughts on “Chicago’s Urban Agriculture Zoning Proposal”

  1. Thanks for this great, comprehensive review of the proposed zoning changes.

    There is one issue that you did not cover as a contentious issue — and I personally feel that it is the one that would hurt the sustainability (environmental and financial) of urban agriculture the most. That is the issue of not accepting off-site compost materials.

    One of the largest expenses in the creation of an urban farm – besides land acquisition – is soil. Using food scraps from restaurants and eco-minded residents to create compost soil is something the city should be arduously pursuing, not prohibiting. Large scale composting, as is done in San Francisco and cities around the world — has many environmental benefits, and could lead to the creation of many “green” jobs.


  2. Thanks — that is an important point, and is related to the broader issue of whether Chicago wishes to dramatically expand urban agriculture. If so, both large scale municipal composting and perhaps more permissive policies for decentralized composting will be necessary.


  3. Hey there! I was wondering if the city is working on anything involving urban livestock in coordination with urban agriculture. Chickens, goats, ducks, and possibly even milking cows? Didn't know if they were including it or not.


  4. This is really informative on the state of affairs regarding urban agriculture in Chicago. Is there a comprable set of data out there on urban agriculture (and its status regarding zoning ordinances and other policy) in NYC?


  5. Interesting…the point raised by Elle Spacek is an important one. Farming is always seen to be in relation to the livestock for its sustainability and healthy production rates..


  6. Hi there, I want to visit urban farms around the world as part of research I am proposing (between Sept 2012 and November 2012). I had read that Chicago was a bit of a “hot spot” for urban agriculture. And I see on this website that Chicago is more advanced in terms of city planning, etc, to cater for these types of activities.

    My goal is to investigate successful city farming models and explore what makes them successful. My angle is from a government policy perspective: that is, what can government do to enable such activities…

    Other places I'd intended on visiting include New York, Havana (Cuba) and Vancouver, Canada. Can you recommend visiting Chicago as part of my studies?


  7. YES! Chicago is a great place to see this stuff in action (though San Francisco is much better). Check out The Resource Center and Growing Power for larger operations, and especially go visit Growing Home in the Englewood neighborhood for a real and robust grass-roots initiative. Finally, there are new grass-roots community gardens popping up in the Woodlawn neighborhood, among others, and at schools, etc. Come check us out!


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