Apples from Asphalt

Originally published in 

Mobile City Farmstead is bringing a little bit of the heartland into the big city, one vacant lot at a time.

Never mind that it’s summer in the Midwest; driving through one of Chicago’s tougher neighborhoods—windows up and doors locked—organic vegetables aren’t the first things to spring to mind. Or maybe they are. Since 1975, Kansas farm boy-cum-philosopher Ken Dunn, of the Resource Center, a nonprofit environmental education organization in Chicago, has been planting a seed of faith in sustainable urban agriculture, trans-forming vacant lots with nutrient-rich compost and sowing holes in the urban fabric with tomatoes, melons, and salad greens. And recently, Mobile City Farmstead, created by five young Chicago designers, has joined up with Dunn’s City Farm to create progressive, sustain-able, transportable architecture.

It’s estimated that on any given day, Chicago has over 80,000 vacant lots, covering between 6,000 and 9,000 acres. With 400 demolitions and new constructions under way at any time, the Windy City’s reality is a transient one. “It’s a dispiriting sort of rolling devastation,” says Dunn, whose references range from the grass-roots physicality of compost to John Locke’s cerebral philosophy of property rights. In fact, it was on his journey into the city to study philosophy at the University of Chicago that Dunn was, he says, “blown away” by the ravaged surroundings. “It was so full of things that needed to be done,” he continues. “So full of people needing something to do.”

In 1968, Dunn says, he began “connecting people with the land.” That is, he convinced some guys loitering near a vacant lot to help him clean it up, taking the recyclables in for cash and splitting the money with them. “It came to about $2.75 each,” he says. “But then we had a cleaned-up lot—an open space upon which the sun fell.”

Using other overlooked urban materials—clay, grass clippings, vegetable waste, horse manure from city carriage horses—Dunn gradually transformed this and other raw jungles like it into three green acres on five parcels of land in the city’s transitional neighborhoods, including a tract planted in a demilitarized zone between the infamous Cabrini-Green public-housing project and  Chicago’s tony Gold Coast. These little green acres, now managed by Dunn’s wife, Kristine Greiber, the daughter of Wisconsin dairy farmers who met Dunn while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, have attracted as much attention from the city’s hippest restaurants and epicures as from progressive designers and green-space advocates. Then, when Chicago architect Helmut Jahn and the nonprofit Lakefront Supportive Housing an-nounced plans to redevelop the Cabrini site, Dunn readily agreed it was time to pull up stakes and move on, noting philosophically, “Farmers rotate crops to accommodate natural forces. We rotate farms.”

And thanks to a nifty mobile modular storage/office/educational space created for City Farm by designers Matthew Kuhl, Karin Lucas, Amy Struckmeyer, Shwetha Subramanian, and Dan Rappel, Dunn’s pioneering urban-agriculture project can move in style.

“We were attracted to Ken’s attitude that farming is not the best use for this land—that it should be returned to the urban fabric when the economy changes,” says Rappel, the team’s ad hoc design leader. “It’s guerrilla farming—you’re in, you farm, and you’re outta there.”

Mobile City Farmstead’s design, which was recognized for excellence at Chicago’s Sustainable Design Challenge in 2004, reflects that itinerant sensibility. The team used lightweight, utilitarian, and inexpensive materials to create a modern icon that could become a neighborhood point of green pride—and a place to buy a decent tomato.

“We took totally transportable materials and organized them in a way that looks purposeful and recognizable,” explains Rappel, who cites architect and social activist Samuel Mockbee as the group’s inspiration. Like the found and recycled materials used in Mockbee’s Rural Studio’s projects, Mobile City Farmstead uses diverse materials, such as salvaged shipping crates, straw bales, chain link fence, and canvas to create a uniquely urban architectural prototype. “The aesthetic is modern in that it’s very honest—we’re not pretending to design a happy little farm here,” says Rappel. “And since this will be built by volunteers, we can’t spend time building fussy details.”

“Mobility is literally the driving force behind the design,” adds Matthew Kuhl. “But then we just took a bunch of cool stuff and thought, What else can this do?” As with any mobile operation, versatility is paramount. Canvas awnings not only provide shade for the workers, social gatherings, and onsite educational programs, but also collect rainwater for irrigation. The chain link fence, a necessary and relatively cheap evil, is softened with scissor angles and clambering plants. Straw bale walls mitigate noise and hide tools and ubiquitous farm clutter.

As far as actually building the prototype, both Dunn and the Farmstead designers have been somewhat reticent about entering into Chicago’s notoriously daunting permitting process. Lately, however, Chicago has been taking a very green turn. Perhaps it is testament to the freshness of the City Farm vision that the time for urban agriculture is ripe. “There’s opportunity for everything good here,” states Sadhu Johnston, assistant to the mayor for green initiatives. “The stuff Mobile City Farmstead wants to do is new, but we’re interested in the project and want to see what we can do to make it happen.”

Time to roll down the windows.

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