Visit just about any neighborhood in the greater Chicago area and you’ll be sure to find at least one section of empty, unused space. Imagine filling this space not with concrete or cars, but with a garden, an urban oasis to feed and inspire its community caretakers.
This was the vision for Humboldt Park’s Monarch Community Garden, a collaboration between Norwegian American Hospital, Northwestern University’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, and Geoponica, a non-profit dedicated to community gardening. Tended to by local families and organizations, the garden is quickly becoming an important part of the area’s efforts to promote community involvement and combat prominent health issues like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
We spoke with Beth Dunlap, co-leader of the garden and Northwestern family medicine resident at Humboldt Park’s Norwegian American Hospital and Erie Family Health Center, to learn more..
What sparked your personal interest in this project?
I’m originally from Chicago, and while I was growing up my family was always pretty interested in gardening. Then I met my husband, who is from rural Iowa, and he had a really big garden when he was growing up as well. When we started a family and had our own two kids, still living in the city, we [were] involved in a couple of gardens on the Southside. We grew our own produce for several years in those gardens, and it was that experience of actually being gardeners in the city that I think sparked our interest in urban gardening. We felt like that experience was deeply important to our family, not just in terms of helping our kids eat their fruits and vegetables, [but also] giving us a much greater sense of community, a sense of ownership over the neighborhood where we lived. [We] had a sense of pride in a small corner of the city that we took care of and made beautiful.
When I started my family medicine residency, [I realized that] gardening actually goes along pretty nicely with what community-based family medicine and primary care is all about, which is looking not just at the individual patient, but also the health of the entire community. [It’s about] trying to prevent disease and make families and communities well to begin with.
Another part of the reason that we wanted to plant this garden was because we wanted to look at community gardening from a research perspective: how participation in an urban garden might actually change some of the health-related behaviors of the people who are participating in it. We’re in the pilot phase of that.
Why Humboldt Park?
Until I started residency last year at Northwestern, I hadn’t really been out to the Humboldt Park community all that much. But when I started the program last summer, I realized what a great place Humboldt Park [would be] to have a large community garden. There are a couple of reasons for that. Humboldt park has several strong community organizations already working in the area of urban agriculture, working to increase access to fresh produce and food security. But there was still a need for a large scale, allotment- style community garden.
Another reason is that Humboldt Park has some of the highest incidences of diabetes, obesity and hypertension anywhere in the city. The area has been very hard hit by some of these preventable, chronic diseases, which are linked closely to lifestyle—physical activity and diet.
How did you get started?
Back in December I spoke with José Sánchez, the new CEO of Norwegian Hospital, about the idea of [building] a new community garden in one of the vacant lots that the hospital owns. In January, my husband, who is co-leading the garden with me, and I presented the idea to the hospital board, and we got approval for the project from them. We spent the next several months getting everything in place that had to be in place before the garden could be built. The first truckloads of compost came the last weekend of April, and we built about two-thirds of the garden this spring. The rest will be built in the fall.
There are about eighty individual families who have plots of their own, and then there are about ten or so community organizations that are actively involved in the garden. A lot of [these] are focused on food security in the neighborhood, so they’re growing produce for food pantries, or they serve [the youth] in the area, so they’re getting kids into the garden. All of the families who have plots in the garden are community families, [and] about twenty of [them] are also participating in the pilot research study this summer.
Tell me more about the research component of the garden.
We are examining the potential health benefits of participating in urban community gardening. This summer we are doing a small pilot study looking mostly at dietary intake, physical activity and psychological health.
We recruited several of our families through community organizations, like the Diabetes Empowerment Center, which is also right up the street from the garden. And some of our gardeners recruited themselves—they were interested in the study and wanted to participate.
Because this is a pilot, we’re [concentrated] on testing out our assessment tools and our process. We’re also hoping to learn more about what a garden-based lifestyle intervention would actually look like. There really isn’t anything developed like this currently. The goal of the research is not only to see if participation in community gardening actually does benefit people’s health, but also to ultimately design a garden-based lifestyle intervention program that could be implemented in an at risk community. There’s a little bit of anecdotal evidence that suggests urban gardening does support healthy lifestyle—increasing physical activity, increasing fruit and vegetable intake. But it really hasn’t been well characterized.
What resources are available for the participants, especially those who are first-time gardeners?
We have a nice mix of people who are longtime gardeners and bring a ton of knowledge about gardening to the community [and] some people who have never grown a plant er. To help support that, we’re working with two master gardeners through the University of Illinois extension offices. They have drop-in hours that occur three times a week. Right now they’re out there helping people plant their crops, helping people learn how to water, how to conserve water, things like that. They’re also putting on more formal sessions throughout the summer that focus on a variety of topics like composting, square-foot gardening and organic standards for the garden.
I also tried to mix people up. When I knew that a certain family had a lot of gardening experience, I tried to place them next to a family that didn’t have as much experience. The idea is that a lot of the teaching is very informal and can come from just discussions with your plot neighbor.
We’re also holding several nutrition education sessions during the next few months, as well as several cooking sessions that will take place when we're a little closer to harvest. These will focus on how to cook with fresh produce at home.
And we’re working with Muevete, which is the physical activity programming primarily at the Diabetes Empowerment Center. They’re helping us promote physical activity in the garden. We’re organizing a bike ride and some other activities to increase awareness [about] why physical activity is important, connect people with neighborhood resources for safe physical activity, and try to form a community of people that can exercise together. And this is all outside of the physical activity that people are getting at the garden. A lot of people were very sore this spring when they were shoveling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of dirt.
What has the response been so far?
First-year gardens can have a lot of growing pains, but I think ours is beautiful. We’ve had a lot of help from local businesses that have donated time and materials. We’ve had a lot of really dedicated families that have been in the garden giving hours of their time. And the hospital has been extremely supportive of the project. I think it took a lot of faith for them to strongly support a new project like this. They're really trying to promote health and wellness in the greater Humboldt Park community, and this is one of the ways they’re doing it.
Also, I think there have been a lot of people who have lived next door to each other for ten years who had never met until they came into the garden. Our gardeners are already a really close group of people. We have an active Facebook page; we have an active bulletin board at the garden. Every time I go out there there’s something new in the garden that someone has fixed or someone has donated. So I think the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve also gotten a lot of support from community organizations that would like to use this garden as kind of an extension of the programming that they’re already trying to do – programs for kids especially. And that’s been really gratifying, to have this as a resource for a lot of these organizations.
Another funny thing about this is that so many people who know of the garden, or who are gardening now, have come up to me and said “You know, I’ve been thinking about this for a decade,” or “We’ve wanted to have a garden here for so many years and it just hasn’t ever happened.” So there were a lot of people out there who were looking at this beautiful piece of land for many years and thinking about how wonderful it would be to grow their tomatoes in it, and now they’re able to do so.
Do you have any advice for organizations looking to start urban gardens in their own communities?
First of all, my husband and I had never built a garden before. We’re gardeners, and we’re very familiar with community gardening itself, but in the end we weren’t the ones who were designing anything, buying compost, establishing the irrigation system, etc. So [to build this garden] we enlisted the help of experts. Basically, we talked to as many people as possible that had actually gone through the process.
It’s definitely something that requires a large group of dedicated individuals in order for it to work and work well. And there certainly are a lot of unforeseen issues that come up when you’re trying to do a large project like a community garden. But having flexibility and knowing the end result is going to be really wonderful for the community can take groups a long way.