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Urban home gardens in the Global North: A mixed methods study of ethnic and migrant home gardens in Chicago, IL

  • John R. Taylor (a1) and Sarah Taylor Lovell (a2)

In the United States, interest in urban farms and community gardens is flourishing, yet the urban home food garden (UHFG) and its contributions to urban systems have been overlooked and understudied. To begin to address this gap, we are conducting a mixed methods study of African American, Chinese-origin and Mexican-origin households with home gardens in Chicago, IL. Study methods include in-depth interviews, participant observation, ethnobotanical surveys and analysis of the chemical and physical properties of garden soils. As of this writing, findings indicate that home gardening has an array of beneficial effects, contributing to household food budgets and community food systems, the reproduction of cultural identity and urban biodiversity. The majority of informants in the study were internal or international migrants. For these individuals, gardening, culture-specific food plant assemblages and the foodways they support represent a continuation of cultural practices and traditional agroecological knowledge associated with their place of origin. The gardens of some migrant households also harbor urban agrobiodiversity with roots in the Global South. At the same time, gardens may have less salubrious effects on urban systems and populations. A lack of knowledge of safe gardening practices may expose vulnerable populations to environmental hazards such as soil contaminants. Gardeners in this study reported using synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, sometimes indiscriminately, and the repeated application of synthetic fertilizers and compost may contribute to the nutrient loading of urban stormwater runoff. These effects may be moderated by the relatively low bulk density and high porosity of garden soils due to tillage and the application of organic matter, which can be expected to enhance stormwater infiltration. While the UHFG's potential contributions to urban systems are significant, outreach and research are needed to help gardeners grow food safely and sustainably in ways that contribute to overall ecosystem health.

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