Community Gardens

2009/07/24

Those of you who frequent this blog (yeah, all four of you) will probably note that I’ve added a new category for my posts. It may also seem a bit incongruous that my first post for this new category has to do with a garden; fear not, this is not a sign of my impending mental collapse. Please allow me to explain prior to assuming that my mind has completely deteriorated into a pile of unstructured organic goo.

While my official training is focused on building design, my design interests also (sometimes) expand into the ways in which we organize buildings, i.e. our cities – hence, my affinity for places like Chicago (where I currently reside). That being said, as much as I like buildings, sometimes, our neighborhoods are improved as much by the lack of buildings as they are by the buildings themselves. This is especially noticeable to me when I look around and see, well, crap – i.e. poorly designed buildings. This, of course, does not mean that I prefer an abandoned, vacant lot to a building, but were said lot to be used in other ways, well. One of the more creative uses I have seen for what would otherwise be vacant lots is a community garden. There has actually been a bit of a surge in such developments over the past few years in Chicago, but with the current state of the economy (and its strong ties to the collapse of the residential real estate market), it is quite possible that this such use may become more common, especially considering that vacant lots that might otherwise be used for speculative residential development will likely go unused.

Of course, there are also aesthetic considerations involved; granted, these are highly subjective, but then again, so are most of my criticisms of traditional architectural aesthetics. While I do appreciate the built environment, as mentioned, sometimes, it is also nice to have some relief from all the buildings. One of the interesting features I noticed while “studying” abroad in Rome is how the various open spaces within the cities provided many opportunities for viewing the city in ways that might not otherwise be available, were the various piazzas not there. And, of course, one can hardly argue with the aesthetic appeal of flowers and such. Or, so I’m told.

DSCN8428A

The above photo is of the Chicago Avenue Community Garden; [1] it appears to occupy roughly 1/3rd of a typical Chicago block. For reference, here is some information regarding the city blocks in Chicago, so you can get a sense of the kind of area some of these gardens work with. The average block measures approximately 660 ft. x 330 ft., measured from the centerlines of the streets surrounding the block. On average, the neighborhood streets are roughly 50′ wide, with 10′ sidewalks on either side of the street; what this means is that the overall dimensions from street centerlines are reduced by 35′ on all sides, resulting in a usable block measuring 585 ft. x 260 ft. Accounting for the two mid-block alleys that are each 10′ wide (at the two centerlines of the block), this yields an unoccupied area of 575 ft. x 250 ft; this area is then subdivided into individual lots measuring 25 ft wide by 125 ft deep (for a total of 46 lots per block). Obviously, this is not particularly pertinent information if the garden occupies the entire block, as the alleys and lot subdivisions probably are not required in such a setup; given the desire to develop vacant lots for other purposes than gardening, it is possible that some gardens may be as small as a single lot, or a handful of lots, or half a block, depending on the neighborhood. It should be noted that even a single lot yields a usable area of up to 3,125 sq. ft. [2] If a garden could take up a full block, then the total usable area would be around 149,500 sq. ft. (this includes space taken up by the alleys), or 3.43 acres; given that the Chicago Avenue Community Garden appears to occupy roughly 1/3rd of this area, that still yields a usable area of roughly 1 acre. [3][4]

Of course, the Chicago Avenue Community Garden is a somewhat atypical case, given that most of the city has already been developed. Even so, it is not uncommon for developed neighborhoods to have a handful of vacant lots at any given time. Considering that the majority of the city contains buildings that are only 3 to 4 stories in height, even a single lot garden would receive a decent amount of natural light during the day, especially if it has a favorable situation with regards to solar exposure. And, as previously stated, even a single vacant lot can provide roughly 3,000 sq. ft. of usable area – no mean tract of land in such a highly developed city such as this. It would certainly be nice to see some such vacant lots developed in such a manner, as opposed to the unrestrained residential construction that has, to date, been more of the norm.

None of this is to say that I have any particular affinity for environmental concerns, either; as I have probably stated previously, I simply do not care much for such matters. Given the choice between using resources for human survival vs. leaving said resources untouched due to an arbitrary “moral” stance, I would always choose the former. This is not to say that such resource use cannot also be efficient; just because we need to use a particular resource does not mean we should have free license to use it in a wasteful manner, if for no other reason than that such habits do not make the best use of said resources. In the case of vacant lots, it would certainly be better if such lots were utilized in some fashion, rather than being left empty and abandoned. And again, a garden sure does look better than a lot full of weeds, trash, and rat nests, right? See below for another view of the Chicago Avenue Community Garden.

DSCN8426A

Enjoy.

Notes:

[1]: See here for Chicago Avenue Community Garden official website.

[2]: Consider, for reference, that the average one bedroom apartment typically encompasses around 700 to 900 sq. ft. (depending on the building, city, etc.) – incidentally, this is also a useful baseline comparison for the recent (and now collapsed) housing boom, wherein houses encompassing upwards of three or four thousand square feet were common (or even larger, depending on the location).

[3]: Note that a stereotypical suburban lot encompasses approximately 1 acre of land. An interesting comparison may be noted between a typical Chicago 3-flat and a suburban house. The former are often approximately 25 feet wide by 75 feet deep (code considerations make this area somewhat smaller, but I’m using round numbers for simplicity), yielding an aggregate area of 5,625 sq. ft. (25′ x 75′ = 1,875 sq. ft. per floor; 1,875 sq. ft. per floor x 3 floors = 5,625 sq. ft.); this is roughly equivalent to a large suburban house. Thus, a typical Chicago block encompassing 3.43 acres can contain up to 46 such houses, as compared to only three suburban houses in the same amount of land.

[4]: Of course, the actual usable area will be somewhat less, since the garden will also need circulation spaces, storage spaces, etc.

[*]: Please excuse the less than stellar photographs this time around; I shot these earlier today, since I happened to be in the area, though the sunlight wasn’t quite as good as I would have preferred. Still, I think you can get the idea, nonetheless.

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