In the fall of 1862, crops were disappearing, mysteriously, from the fields around the tranquil Shaker community at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.
A watch was ordered over several nights to see what was happening when the incident was brought to the attention of the governing Elders and Eldresses. The Battle of Perryville, Kentucky on October 8, 1862, brought the Civil War within seventeen miles of the close-knit, pacifist community’s doorstep. Soldiers from both Union and Confederate armies, it was revealed, were stealing the crops from the fields at night.
The diagnosis was simple, and – in keeping with a core Shaker principle of helping those in need – the governing body issued a swift, clear directive:
People are hungry.
Plant more food.
Urban Habitat Chicago (UHC) – founded ten years ago this year with the mission to promote sustainable concepts and practices in cities – is motivated by a similar conviction to that of the Shakers: having identified a basic need, find a straightforward strategy for meeting that need.
The basic idea behind the organization was that people’s native habitats are, increasingly, cities. Since people are a part of nature, cities could be thought of as ‘natural’ environments as well.
In full disclosure, I was fortunate to be a UHC founder in 2004, and acted as President from 2009-2011. My only current involvement is to cheer them on in whatever ways I can. Early years were a struggle, particularly finding and managing projects and initiatives that would embody the best ways for UHC to fulfill its mission. Projects included renovation of a carriage house in the under-served Lawndale community to act as an energy-efficient retrofit pilot, advocacy of building deconstruction (versus demolition) with Delta Institute and the Reuse People, a monthly lecture series, and designing and building gardens: rooftop gardens, vertical gardens, conversion of idle backyards into gardens, and school gardens.
UHC has survived, and refined what they do best: distinguishing themselves in the arena of urban agriculture in making what co-founder, guiding visionary, and ecological designer Michael Repkin might call ‘productive landscapes.’ More importantly, they have mastered the art of being able to demonstrate, through doing, how personal everyday actions can have a lasting impact.
This is readily apparent at the three scales on which Urban Habitat Chicago has had the opportunity to work. Two of the scales/projects I visited earlier this year, the first quite small (Figs. 1-2 to 1-3) and new to me, the third rather large, and one I have visited regularly since its inception(Fig. 1-1).
Scale One: Lot/Home
The edible lawn: putting lazy landscapes to work
UHC board members Anna and Andrew Arbetter live in fairly typical bungalow home in a fairly typical Chicago neighborhood. The landscape surrounding it, however, is rather atypical, being exemplary in the best sense of the word: it leads by example in what the average homeowner can do at low cost to demonstrate real contributions to sustainable urban living practices.
But this isn’t a thought-exercise.
The end goal: make healthy food.
The Arbetters have engineered a landscape (Fig. 1-2) in which nearly every square foot is active – building healthy soil, creating habitat, and managing stormwater, nearly always while producing good things to eat. Rainwater is directed through roof downspouts into rain gardens and planted with species that can handle a deluge from time to time. Water percolates into the subsoil via crushed stone, sand fill, and, ultimately, a French drain. Above it all, food crops grow in raised planter beds with high-quality organic soil.
One can almost hear those happy roots making their way downward while plants display their wares above: fresh peas, tomatoes, Swiss chard, turnips, and lettuces.
Arguably the most interesting – and latest – development is the edible lawn (Fig. 1-3), in collaboration with Michael Repkin. At first glance, one assumes “this patch needs a mow.” However, upon closer examination, it’s clear something else is going on.
The primary goal of this technique is ‘to maximize the caloric and nutritional output of underutilized spaces’. The edible lawn builds on the UHC 1 in 21 Initiative, a self-issued challenge for the organization to produce everything required to feed its entire membership for, at minimum, one out of the 21 weekly meals. The ‘2613 garden’ – the conversion of a typical Chicago backyard into a compact, productive landscape (sadly, no longer in existence) – was a prime example, with the fruits of those labors usually ending in Sunday gatherings with free-wheeling discussions over shared meals.
While there are other approaches to ‘edible lawns’, rather than jettison the idea of a lawn as an open multiuse space and opt for raised beds or full conversion of a lawn into gardens, the Arbetters and Repkin have managed to balance desires for a ‘traditional’ lawn with other benefits.
Think of the many grass-filled spaces that abound in the typical city, used for little other than walking across, consuming water, and requiring mowing in the process. The edible lawn is easily cut, and could pass as a conventional lawn. However, upon closer look, an understated beauty abounds: flowering radish, dandelion, arugula, lettuce, and other edible plants that could be treated almost as edible-ornamentals. Even carrots can do their thing unobtrusively, and, if left in place unharvested, will decay and leave voids, allowing greater aeration of the soil. Controlling mosquitoes and other pests is something few lawns do by themselves, often requiring the use of pesticides; the edible lawn has this covered, attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects to keep patrol. Best of all, in greatly reducing the food miles of the typical salad or plate of greens, the edible lawn is an easy move for city-dwellers for putting food on the table while which reconnecting residents with their environment in at least some small way, one turnip at a time.
Next time (part 2) , we visit a Chicago rooftop during the summer of 2007, where buckwheat sways in the breeze, collard greens with leaves as broad as a chair seat flourish, and tomatoes and peppers ripen, all in view of a passing elevated train.