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How Google Earth Revealed Chicago's Hidden Farms

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Cities have plenty of reasons to care about how much food is being produced within their limits - especially now that community and guerrilla gardeners are taking over vacant urban lots across the country. But most cities can only guess at where exactly crops are growing.

And in Chicago, researchers have found that looks - from ground level, anyway - can be very deceiving when it comes to food production.

For years, various local groups in Chicago made lists of community gardens, where they assumed most of the food grown within city limits was coming from. But when researchers from crop scientist Sarah Taylor Lovell's lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign started looking closely at those lists, they found they were surprisingly inaccurate.

"We kept visiting these gardens and found that they either didn't exist or were primarily ornamental gardens," says graduate student John Taylor.

Taylor tried to verify a list of 1,200 community garden projects, compiled from various sources, and found that only 13 percent were sites that grew food. He then turned to Google Earth, spending 400 hours over a period of eight months poring over satellite imagery of the city from 2010. The results of his search were recently published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.

Taylor found 4,648 sites with signs of food production - like rows of plants - covering more than 65 acres in total. Visits to a selection of those sites confirmed that 86 percent were actual places of food production.


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