How Ward Ambassadors are Helping to Grow
Urban Agriculture in Chicago
Photo credits: Ed Menacho
It might surprise Chicago residents to learn there are more than 850 urban farms and community gardens, with at least one in every ward. It’s also possible that a local alderman or alderwoman has no idea what type of urban agriculture exists in their own community, which can range from a small residential garden to commercial urban farms. To help educate members of the city council and proactively support growing interest in urban agriculture, Advocates for Urban Agriculture (auaChicago.org) launched its Ward Ambassador program in 2016.
Our city council members deal with many issues and concerns, but urban agriculture often isn’t something they know much about, says Nick Lucas, program manager for Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA). As generalists, they tend to know a little bit about everything but it’s hard to stay abreast on what’s happening around urban farms, or composting or urban livestock. Ward ambassadors bridge the gap and serve as a trusted source for an alderperson to turn to for information.
The catalyst for the Ward Ambassador program came in 2007 when the city of Chicago almost banned backyard chickens. Lucas says that at the time, a member of the committee voting on the proposed ordinance had a child at a school where one of the teachers was a chicken keeper. Hers was one of the voices the committeeman turned to in order to learn more. Thanks to trusted, preexisting relationships like theirs, the advocacy effort was successful, and the chicken coops were spared.
Urban agriculture enthusiasts quickly realized they needed to be more proactive in their approach so they wouldn’t be faced with a similar threat in the future. “Two things really came out of that experience,” says Lucas. “One was the need to be proactive with relationship building, and the second was the importance of being a little more forward-facing so that we’re not in a reactive mode when something comes up.”
He advises, “We want to put a local face to urban agriculture. It’s about making sure each of the city’s 50 wards has a knowledgeable representative who can educate elected leaders about urban agriculture, as well as long-term coalition building, in case they need to be mobilized in the event a specific bill is being considered or there is an issue to be addressed.”
Currently, 60 percent of the wards have a ward ambassador tasked with reaching out to their alderperson twice a year: once in the spring and once in the fall, to coincide with planting and harvesting season. “We’re striving for at least two ward ambassadors per ward, but our dream is for all 2.8 million Chicagoans to become ward ambassadors eventually,” notes Lucas.
For those that want to learn more about how to incorporate urban agriculture in their community, Lucas points them to AUA’s free resource guide available on their website (auaChicago.org), which includes everything from city ordinances to compost best practices. People that have an urban garden can add it to the Chicago Urban Agriculture Map. There is strength in numbers, and when elected leaders realize how many of their constituents are actively keeping some sort of garden, they are more likely to take the time to learn how urban agriculture is positively affecting their wards.
To learn more about becoming a ward ambassador, a free online toolkit online contains more details. For those that want to learn the name of their ward ambassador, Lucas recommends emailing [email protected].
Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based freelance writer who always includes something new to grow in her garden every spring. This year she’s added okra, cauliflower and a cashew plant to her seven tomato plants, six cucumber plants, squash and onions. To learn what she ends up harvesting, sign up for hermonthly email at MegyKarydes.com.