May 4, 2009
Originally published in Small Is the New Big

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

A City Farm worker sows the seeds of Ken Dunn's efforts. The proposed Mobile City Farmstead would allow the farms to adjust to their city's evolving economic and social landscapes with ease.
A City Farm worker sows the seeds of Ken Dunn's efforts. The proposed Mobile City Farmstead would allow the farms to adjust to their city's evolving economic and social landscapes with ease.
1 / 3
The structures on the farmstead are to consist of cheap, salvaged, degradable, and transportable materials—like shipping containers, chain link fence, canvas, and straw bales. The buildings will provide storage for tools and produce, sheltered workspace,
The structures on the farmstead are to consist of cheap, salvaged, degradable, and transportable materials—like shipping containers, chain link fence, canvas, and straw bales. The buildings will provide storage for tools and produce, sheltered workspace, an office, a restroom, temporary housing for one employee, and even a small farm stand.
2 / 3
Thanks to a nifty mobile modular storage/office/educational space, City Farm's pioneering urban-agriculture project can move in style. "It's guerrilla farming—you're in, you farm, and you're outta there."
Thanks to a nifty mobile modular storage/office/educational space, City Farm's pioneering urban-agriculture project can move in style. "It's guerrilla farming—you're in, you farm, and you're outta there."
3 / 3
A City Farm worker sows the seeds of Ken Dunn's efforts. The proposed Mobile City Farmstead would allow the farms to adjust to their city's evolving economic and social landscapes with ease.
A City Farm worker sows the seeds of Ken Dunn's efforts. The proposed Mobile City Farmstead would allow the farms to adjust to their city's evolving economic and social landscapes with ease.

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.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

two of a kind padua italy matching family homes facade green roof doors color
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to interiors , we visited homes from Haiti to italy. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
April 30, 2016
houseofweek
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 30, 2016
W House living room
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 29, 2016
Vineyard house illuminated at night
Rammed-earth construction fuses this Portuguese house to the environment.
April 29, 2016
vintage Scandinavian furniture Kathryn Tyler
In southwest England, interior designer Kathryn Tyler built her home around her ever-expanding furniture collection.
April 29, 2016
steel facade home Seattle
On the sandy shores of Fauntleroy Cove in Seattle, renowned firm Olson Kundig Architects crafts a subtle home with striking steel accents.
April 29, 2016
seperate piece renovated guesthouse eames storage unit cork floor tiles living room
An architect and an interior designer put the tools to the test for this impressive renovation.
April 29, 2016
Ceramics by WrenLab
Manhattan doesn’t get to have all the fun during NYCxDesign. Brooklyn is set for the return of BKLYN DESIGNS at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint from May 6-8, 2016. Here are just a few exhibitors we are excited to see this year.
April 29, 2016
n0a6974 dxo
Architect Diego Revollo refreshes an apartment with a standout kitchen.
April 29, 2016
img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
gramercy 1 ar53319
A family doesn’t have to travel far for a private oasis away from the busy city.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016
dialogue house
At the base of Echo Mountain in Phoenix, a geometric home by Wendell Burnette opens up to the surrounding desert landscape.
April 26, 2016
street smarts kitchen full view
A creative couple transforms an old Toronto storefront in Dundas West into a home and studio.
April 26, 2016
hald strand
This architect thinks of everything for his summer escape, pizza oven included.
April 26, 2016
gans turin residence living room
Thanks to a contemporary interior that she’s been updating for a decade, modern architect Abigail Turin has learned to love her traditional 1925 San Francisco home.
April 25, 2016
131
Johannesburg-based design studio Counterspace was founded in 2014 by young architecture graduates Sumayya Vally, Sarah de Villiers, and Amina Kaskar. Their projects are collaborative, research-led investigations into possible futures and ideas of otherness in Johannesburg.
April 25, 2016
through living room
A second-story addition and a new indoor-outdoor focus revive a nondescript house in L.A.
April 25, 2016
Modern living room with Flexform sofa and Jens Fager candelabra
An Antwerp home blurs the boundaries between art and design.
April 25, 2016
hillside haven  1
This backyard is its own modern retreat in the Berkeley Hills.
April 25, 2016