Urban Agriculture Ordinance

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Main actors

City Government

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Project area

Whole City/Administrative Region

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Ongoing since 2011/02

A reform of city laws to clarify existing rules and expand the opportunities for food growing and livestock rearing within municipal limits.

The Urban Agriculture Ordinance is a flexible and extensive reform process leading to the adoption of the Urban Agriculture Ordinance, which creates three sub-categories of urban agriculture: indoor, outdoor and rooftop production. Zoning can also be changed flexibly to permit temporary uses, to encourage the productive use of space that might otherwise sit vacant for a period of time. 

Sustainable Development Goals

End hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Reduce inequality within and among countries
Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Chicago, United States

Size and population development
As of the 2010 census, there were 2,695,598 people with 1,045,560 households living in Chicago. Chicago is one of the United States' most densely populated major cities- with 12,750 people per square mile. More than half the population of the state of Illinois lives in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Population composition
As of the 2010 census, the racial composition of the city was: 45.0% White (31.7% non-Hispanic whites); 32.9% Black or African American; 28.9% Hispanic or Latino (of any race); 13.4% from some other race; 5.5% Asian; 2.7% from two or more races; 0.5% American Indian

Main functions
The city of Chicago covers an area of 60,000 hectares and sits 176 meters above sea level on the south-western shore of Lake Michigan. At 190km wide and 495km long, it is the 5th largest body of fresh water in the world. The city is traversed by the Chicago and Calumet rivers. Chicago’s extensive parklands include 3,000 hectares of city parks. Chicago is famed for its bold architecture, the city skyline is punctuated with many skyscapers such as the iconic John Hancock Centre, Willis Tower and the neo-gothic Tribune Tower.

Main industries / business
Chicago is a major world financial center, with the second-largest central business district in the United States and the third-largest gross metropolitan product in the United States. The city and its surrounding metropolitan area contain the third-largest labor pool in the United States with about 4.48 million workers, as of 2014. The city of Chicago hosts 12 Fortune Global 500 companies and 17 Financial Times 500 companies and three Dow 30 companies: aerospace giant Boeing, Kraft Foods and McDonald's. Additionally, tourism, education, technology, manufacturing, publishing and food processing play major roles in the city's economy.

Sources for city budget
National, State and City governments taxation revenue.

Political structure
The government of the City of Chicago is divided into executive and legislative branches. The Mayor of Chicago is the chief executive, elected by general election for a term of four years, with no term limits. The mayor appoints commissioners and other officials who oversee the various departments. As well as the mayor, Chicago's clerk and treasurer are also elected citywide.

Administrative structure
The City Council is the legislative branch and is made up of 50 aldermen, one elected from each ward in the city. The council takes official action through the passage of ordinances and resolutions and approves the city budget.

In 2011 the City of Chicago began development of an Urban Agriculture Ordinance, in order to clarify existing rules and expand the opportunities for food-growing and livestock rearing within the municipal limits. As Brad Roback, City Planner explained:

"We were approached by some folks in 2011 wanting to utilize city land to grow food, and so we established an ad hoc working group to review the Public Health Code and the Zoning Code to work out what was allowed. And we found that there wasn’t much in the Municipal Code. There were rules – which still exist – that prohibited the raising of ‘large’ animals in the City on public health grounds. Goats, chickens – they’re not really addressed as such – so they’re sort of allowed by not being [expressly] disallowed. There’s no prohibition on keeping these animals as pets, but the issue arises if they’re keeping them commercially. 

So in 2011 we dealt with the urban agriculture issue only by looking at plants, and two different animals, namely fish and bees, because that’s where the interest was at the time. There were some entities that wanted to buy or lease city-owned property to set up aquaponics facilities, or keep bees, and we had no way of approving that."

The objectives of the process were to facilitate and enable the expansion of urban agriculture in a structured way throughout the City of Chicago, and especially in areas like Englewood which have been severely affected by decades of social and economic decline.  

The City of Chicago went through a year-long process of consultation with the Advocates for Urban Agriculture in Chicago, a ‘loose association of 2-300 people involved in growing food’, as well as Growing Power and the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council

The Urban Agriculture Ordinance has been incorporated into 1711, the Municipal Code. The 1957 version of the Code made allowances for ‘truck farms’, because there were still semi-rural areas on the outskirts of the City. When the Code was next re-written in 2004, ‘very few people were talking about growing food on vacant land’, according to Brad:
"The new version is more expansive the 1957 version, which only spoke of truck farms on the outskirts of the city. The new provisions allow, as of right, urban agriculture in any commercially zoned space. We have three sub-categories of urban ag: indoor, outdoor, and rooftop. Rooftop is allowed in the most districts – pretty much anything that allows commercial activities. The outdoor classification is also pretty expansive, as long as the zoning is commercial. And indoor urban ag is allowed any place you can have indoor commercial uses.  

The City has flexibility to change zoning classifications, e.g. from residential to commercial, on a temporary basis to allow for urban farming to take place in particular areas, such as Perry St in Englewood. What we’re doing is viewing urban ag as a productive system of open space land management. Even though these sites may be controlled and operated by private entities, people can still go there, and farm, and be active, and learn about fresh food. Eventually Perry St will all become parkland, and whether the existing farm stays will be up to the community." 

The cost of drafting the Urban Agriculture Ordinance was largely the staff time required from within the City of Chicago. One significant financial element is the cost of remediation of previously used and often contaminated land. Since this frequently involves the removal of rubble from previously erected buildings, capping the site with a clay barrier to seal contaminants, and then trucking in cost soil, the costs can be as much as $200,000 per acre. This is borne through budgetary allocations made by the City of Chicago. 

The main public financing tool is the TIFF, which 'sets a cap on property taxes, saying that the amount of taxes that go to the general funding of the City will be capped at a certain level. Anything above that – the ‘increment’ – has to be spent in a geographically specific location, and is only accessible to projects within that geography. And it has to be spent on infrastructure.' 

The Ordinance has created certainty for urban farmers, businesses and enterprises to take out leases on land, secure funding, make infrastructure investments, and commence operations. It has sent a strong signal that the commercial growing of food in many designated zones through the city is both permitted and encouraged. While it is too early to properly assess the full impacts, the expectation is that urban agriculture will serve as a significant component of urban renewal and regeneration in areas currently experiencing high poverty and crime, such as Englewood. 

In terms of the process, Brad commented: 

"It was a contentious process in some ways. There were people who felt the Ordinance should be going a lot further than it did.  And there were residents in parts of the City where people wanted to set up urban farms, like Englewood and Washington Park, who said, ‘I don’t want my house to be in the middle of a farm.’ The community didn’t want a bunch of people who didn’t live in the neighbourhood coming in and taking over all the land. 

We had to strike a balance between property owners and practitioners and advocates. The Ordinance that got passed was much better for this process." 

A barrier to further implementation is the high cost of site remediation and the limited funds the city has for this process. Alternative production systems (e.g. raised beds) can partially overcome this barrier. 

Chicago is one of a number of cities across the US midwest and beyond that are responding to community demand for increased certainty and security of tenure regarding access to land for food growing purposes. The participatory engagement processes that led to the adoption of the Urban Agricultural Ordinance meant that important sections of the community were well engaged with and informed about the process and its implications. This has given the Ordinance an enhanced level of visibility and legitimacy. 

Both the process and the outcome are transferrable to every urban context where there is significant potential for food growing in urban zones. 

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Nick Rose
Melbourne , Australia

Nick Rose

Individual | Food Systems Coordinator, Sustain: The Australian Food Network

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