Chicago Goes Green
It started from the ground up, thanks to Ken Dunn's pioneering efforts to transform urban brownfields into organic oases
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 10/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
The roof garden at Chicago City Hall has become a symbol of Mayor Richard Daley's ambition to turn the Windy City into the country's greenest urban area. Down on the ground, the smokestack metropolis that Carl Sandburg once described as the "hog butcher for the world" has slowly been transforming, starting with a grassroots movement to turn brownfields into community gardens. You might even say that Chicago's burgeoning interest in sustainable policies and green design rep- resents the flowering of Ken Dunn's community-oriented, holistic initiatives.
A native Kansan with a master's in philosophy from the University of Chicago, Dunn founded the Resource Center with a vision of turning every vacant lot into an organic plot where members of the community could grow food, acquire skills, and boost the local economy. His organization planted its first garden, on the South Side, in 1975.
Today, the Resource Center comprises multiple programs related to recycling, composting, and education. A Creative Reuse Warehouse collects and redistributes industrial overruns and by-products as educational and artistic materials. City Farms—three sites on the South Side and one between the Cabrini-Green and Gold Coast neighborhoods—provides organic produce to residents, farmers' markets, and restaurants. And the Chicago Architecture Foundation recently highlighted the Resource Center's prototype Mobile City Farmstead in the "Chicago Green" exhibition.
"Resource Center" is a play on words?
Absolutely. Our communities should be able to discover resources—both human and material—whose value has been overlooked. A resource can mean a homeless person, a neighborhood at risk, or a vacant lot. In other words, waste is just a resource in the wrong place. Our mission is to bring resources and the community together in a creative way.
How does the City Farms program make brownfields productive?
It's a holistic approach that integrates ecological, human, and economic concerns. When we lease a vacant lot, we first clean it up and put down a protective clay barrier to prevent leaching from any toxic materials left behind. Then we bring in fresh soil, which we fertilize organically with compost generated from restaurant trimmings and grass clippings that would normally go to the landfill. The final step is to invite unemployed and homeless people to learn about organic farming and apply for apprenticeships on these sites. Having the area occupied and productive makes it more appealing to prospective real-estate developers.
What happens when the land sells?
We literally roll up the compost and fencing and relocate them. What's left is a perfectly clean site, ready for redevelopment. Sometimes we have to move very quickly before the bulldozers come in.
Is that what inspired the Mobile City Farmstead?
Actually, that has more to do with the sustainable notion that people should not have to travel far to go to work. Our mission is to educate homeless people and provide them with support so that, within two years, they're knowledgeable enough to care for a farm independently. That's when we pack up our building and move it to another site.
DeStefano + Partners designed the prototype, using materials that are salvaged, cheap, degradable, and—most important—easily transported. Stuff like shipping containers, fencing, canvas, and bales of straw. This funky little 360-square-foot building, which will go next to the Cabrini-Green housing project, will provide storage for tools and produce, sheltered work space, an office, and a small farm stand. We'll be able to conduct classes there, too, and hold events like summertime dinners.
What's the construction schedule?
The Chicago Building Department is reviewing it, and we hope to have it installed in time for the 2005 planting season. If we can raise the money.
Are these farms temporary by design?
Not always. But with more than 90,000 vacant lots in Chicago, representing over 6,000 acres of underused land, they're a critical link in the sustainable process.
How do you define sustainable design?
Design that focuses on the needs of human beings and supports this planet rather than injuring it. It's about making materials choices that are responsible, finding products that aren't manufactured in exploitative ways, and sourcing locally when possible.
Creating a residential space, a workplace, or a community that incorporates the values of the population and improves quality of life for participants is a critical role for design—and a gigantic responsibility.