Each year, the American Planning Association holds its annual conference in a different city. Having heard of the work of several urban farming groups in Chicago and nearby Milwaukee, I perused the conference program in the hope that it would include sessions in local food production and distribution. Finding no less than 5 such sessions, I put up my hard earned dollars to visit the windy city. Chicago lived up to its reputation. When I arrived, the late morning temperatures last Saturday were in the low 40’s and the wind made it feel like the 20s.
Despite the weather, downtown Chicago is a planner’s dream. It is attractive, functional, inspirational, and it retains its cultural heritage. At the turn of the 20th century, famed Chicago planner Daniel Burnham said “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” His work in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition inspired the City Beautiful Movement. And beautiful high rises bearing his name still dot the famous towntown “loop”.
On our first night there, my wife and I sought out one of Burnham’s ornate buildings to find
a restaurant called the Attwood Cafe which proudly serves locally-source food. The meal and setting were worth the long cold walk from our hotel.
During the session entitled Urban Agriculture and Community Development/ Revitalization, Orrin Williams of the Center for Urban Transformation spoke of the possibility that 50% of the metropolitan region’s food could come from food sources in the seven counties surrounding Chicago. That, too, is a bold vision worth pursuing. Recently, Chicago press announced the opening of the largest indoor vertical farm (see image below) in Chicago. No ‘small plans’ indeed!
In the various sessions, planners pointed out the necessity of working toward increased food self-sufficiency within regions. With aquifers declining, energy costs increasing, major droughts persisting, and a predicted world population of 9 billion, experts are wondering where the food will come from. Planners mentioned food shortages in major cities just after 9/11, when rail and truck transportation stopped for just a short while.
I attended sessions such as Building Local Capacity to Promote Food Access, Urban Agriculture and Community Development/Revitalization, Planning for Local Food Production, and Food Logistics and Transportation. These topics may be covered in more detail over the next few weeks.
Beyond all the practical reasons for towns and cities to promote food security, I found broad enthusiasm in Chicago for the local food movement. The conference reinforced my belief that the local food movement is growing because people see this as one concrete way to show their love of the earth and their communities, while at the same time eating more flavorful food. Food that did not sit on a truck or a boat for days or weeks and then get artificially ripened before it reaches the store.