Skip to content Skip to site navigation


The tent is too damn high: Camping comes to the city

Roughing it with Bivouac NYC
Thomas Stevenson
Roughing it with Bivouac NYC.

“It was a time to socialize and look at the stars,” says 24-year-old Ariel Abrahams, describing a recent camping trip. He talks about “the rush of the water from the creek, the chirping of birds,” and the trees standing close around him.

Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Susie Cagle
Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.

The hitch? Those natural sights and sounds were only in Abrahams’ imagination. His tent was actually pitched atop a Brooklyn warehouse.

The man behind this “camp out,” conceptual artist Thomas Stevenson, calls his collection of wood-framed, canvas tents Bivouac NYC. Bivouac, a word known better among mountaineers than urban denizens, is a French term for a temporary campsite. Participants -- up to 18 at a time -- sleep for a night or two under the stars, their shelters often tucked amid cone-topped water tanks, in the hopes of experiencing the Great Connect by disconnecting.

Now in its second summer, the urban camping project has caught on, enough so that Stevenson has been asked to bring it to Boston, London, and possibly California.

I know what you’re thinking: Camping, sure -- but in the city?

The appeal, aside from not having to “drop trou” in the woods, is the chance to experience urban environments in a new way, Stevenson says. “Even though you’re in the heart of a city, it’s quiet up on the roofs and suddenly people begin to understand what they might be able to do without.”

Stevenson launched Biouvac in the fall of 2011, only days after the Occupy movement emerged. For many people, the appearance of tents in Zuccotti Park, right in the heart of a city, was startling at first, he says. But their eyes adjusted, and Stevenson’s project began to look a little less outlandish -- even fun.

For the past several years, artists around the world have been designing innovative ways people might camp in inner cities, going so far as to reimagine the tent for more urban surrounds. They’re on one edge of a broader movement that is getting city residents back out into nature -- right in their own front yards (or right on their own rooftops, as the case may be).

Read more: Cities, Living


Architect Jeanne Gang threads nature into urban landscapes

Gang's Aqua tower mimics ripples on water.
© Studio Gang Architects
The Aqua tower mimics ripples on water.

In this hopeful era of returning the raw and wild to our cities, Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang is a force of nature.

Gang’s rapid rise on the city’s toughened glass-and-steel skyline began in 2010, with the 82-story high-rise Aqua, a white, rippling form referencing water’s gentle waves. Although the Windy City had been making advances in greening and the word "sustainability" was becoming part of the local lexicon, the structure -- the tallest built building designed by a woman -- altered the skyline in more ways than one.

Aqua suddenly stood graceful against a mostly glass-and-steel cityscape. The skyscraper was born here, after all. But that white, undulating structure seemed to open the possibility of letting the outdoors into the city, throwing open a window, letting a fresh breeze carve its way through the hardened urban canyons. And since Aqua went up, Gang has opened that window further, with numerous structures and park spaces in and around the city, and farther afield.

Jeanne Gang
Sally Ryan Photography
Jeanne Gang.

A native of rural Belvidere, Ill., Gang now has projects worldwide, including Solar Carve Tower, a tower above New York City’s High Line park, based on the relationship of the sun’s path and the building. She’s designed, among many things, structures of reused steel that resemble a tortoise shell and bird’s nests, and a roof on an outdoor theater that opens like flower petals to reveal the sky overhead. Supporting Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vision to make the Chicago River the city’s new recreational frontier, Gang has designed two new boathouses along its banks; both will open later this summer.

Read more: Cities


With bicycling on the rise, motorists get a new round of driver’s ed

Bowrey Boys, NYC Archives

At the turn of the 20th century, with the clickety-clack of hoof beats waning and the chug of the automobile fast approaching, bicycles ruled city streets. As the number of cars increased, etiquette on how to share the road began to emerge.

In some cities, “street sprinklers,” who tamped city streets with water to keep down the dust clouds kicked up by cars, left four to six feet along the curb dry so cyclists didn’t have to wheel through mud. They were the first bike lanes.

But city life wasn’t all informal bike lanes and smooth cycling, according to Chicago magazine:

During the midst of the bicycle craze, the [Chicago] Tribune could report that "woe follows the trail of the bicycle," with 100 accidents logged by police in the course of two summer months in 1897: 10 pedestrians run down by cyclists, three caused by clothing catching in the bike, and one poor soul who rode into the river.

“Woe follows the trail of the bicycle.” Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz would heartily agree. While our current national love affair with hulking SUVs and tendency toward road rage present new challenges for bicyclists, as biking booms, history seems to be repeating itself, even as it pedals by on two wheels.

Luckily, a plethora of efforts aiming to keep the bicycling and car worlds from literally colliding are springing up in cities across the U.S. and Europe: bike lanes and paths, traffic-slowing devices, sharrows, and safety warnings written on crosswalks, to name a few.

One of the biggest challenges has nothing to do with infrastructure, however, and everything to do with the way we behave when we’re behind the wheel. Put another way, drivers need some education on how to coexist with all these bicyclists.

Read more: Cities, Living


Breaking the grass ceiling: On U.S. farms, women are taking the reins

For 56-year-old Tammy Burnell, who lost everything she owned in the 2008 Iowa floods, it’s the freedom to stand in the verdant fields of Burnell Farms in Royston, Ga., and call out to the heavens -- and know no one can hear her.

Hannah Breckbill, 25, walked from a career as a mathematician and settled in Elgin, Minn., planting Humble Hands Harvest “to work in something real and be the change I want to see happen in this world.”

Forty-one-year-old Pilar Rebar quit her job as a pesticide applicator when she realized she had been told lies about the chemicals she was spraying on crops. Vowing to only grow “clean and healthy food,” she started up Sunnyside Organic Seedlings in Richmond, Calif.

Meet three of America’s female farmers, the most rapidly growing segment of the nation’s changing agricultural landscape. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported last month that the number of woman-operated farms more than doubled between 1982 and 2007. Add primary and secondary operators, and there are nearly 1 million women in farming, accounting for 30 percent of U.S. farmers.

So hot is ag life that novels about farming are replacing chick lit, offering an unexpected twist to the notion of dirty romance.

Click for a slideshow of female farmers around the U.S.
Click for a slideshow of female farmers around the U.S.



Farmers fatales: Here are the women who grow your food [SLIDESHOW]

When somebody says "farmer," do you automatically think "fella"? Well, think again. Almost one in three U.S. farmers is female -- and that number is rising. "My belief is that the 2012 Agricultural Census will show robust growth in the number of women owning farms,” says Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "There aren't the same type of gender barriers there once were. I'm heartened by it. More women are at the helm." Read more about the women taking charge on U.S. farms.

Read more: Uncategorized


Local food — put a sticker on it!


The Windy City is about to roll out a new local food label designed to support the city’s burgeoning urban farming movement. "Chicago Grown" will soon appear on signs around the city and on stickers on fruit, veggies, herbs, and honey, and eventually on processed items in which they’re included, such as salsa, jams, and even kombucha.

Backers believe Chicago Grown will be the first label issued by a major city specifically to promote its urban ag culture. "We really want the label to both increase demand for foods grown through urban agriculture and celebrate that so many people are growing food within Chicago," says Megan Klein with the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council (CFPAC), who is spearheading the effort with input from growers around the city. "We want people to be able to identify who is growing the food around them and to let them know where they can get it."

Chicago Grown and efforts like it are a natural next step for the “buy local” campaigns started in the ’90s. The early movement helped usher in the era of farmers markets, launch community supported agriculture operations (CSAs), and convince the nation’s gonzo chain grocery stores to stock their shelves with “local” products -- but the definition of “local” varies. Now, a flurry of branding and rebranding efforts around the country is giving the eating public an easy way to tell exactly where its food comes from and who grew it.

These local branding efforts are “reweaving a community tapestry undone by industrial America,” says Phil Korman, executive director of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture (CISA), which in 1999 founded the groundbreaking “Local Hero” marketing campaign, with the trademarked “Be A Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” label. “We are giving back respect to farmers and changing the culture of where we are as people.”


Fresh tracks: Chicago’s new ‘sky park’ turns abandoned rails into green spaces

Click to embiggen.
The Trust for Public Land / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.
Proposed design for the Bloomingdale Trail. Click to embiggen.

Anyone who's visited Chicago can see it was once a hub for rail industry: Abandoned tracks criss-cross The City of Big Shoulders like scars on a brawny boxer. Converting this brutal urban landscape into swaths of green might seem like a stretch, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged to create 800 new parks, recreation sites, and green spaces throughout the city over the next five years. The centerpiece of that effort includes two of the nation’s most ambitious urban parks: the Bloomingdale Trail and the Burnham Wildlife Corridor.

Come early summer, work begins on the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7-mile, elevated “sky park” that will replace an abandoned industrial rail line in northwest Chicago. Like a super-sized version of Paris’ Promenade-Plantee or New York’s High Line (which stretches a mere 1.4 miles), the $92 million Bloomingdale Trail will link to five ground-level parks, serve as a main transportation route for bicyclists and pedestrians, and function as an extended backyard for locals.

Then, in August, the Chicago Park District will put out a historic call for volunteers to help plant a staggering 125,000 trees and shrubs in one day for the new Burnham Wildlife Corridor, offering sanctuary for some of the 5 million birds that follow the lakeshore into the city during migration seasons -- and often meet their ends when they collide with glass skyscrapers. The smudge of land, now choked with invasive species, is located on the city’s South Side, hemmed in by rail on one side and bustling Lake Shore Drive on the other.

One park is for the legged populace, another for the winged. But both reflect a recent awakening, in Chicago and elsewhere, of a desire to make more room for nature in cities. In some ways, planners say, greening these ghosts of industry past will make restitution for that rugged history.

Read more: Cities, Living


Community thrives along a nearly forgotten slice of an urban river

The Bullfrogs.
The Bullfrogs.

On the equinox, March 20, a mostly forgotten sliver of a city neighborhood, where Goldeneyes and Coots fly low and fast along the river, the stalks of last season’s brush still steeped in snow, hummed with the celebration of the season’s unfolding.

They gathered along the water’s banks, cutting back old growth, repairing paths and railings fashioned from tree branches. And when the day’s labor was done, the local chorus, calling themselves the Bullfrogs, sang songs bidding farewell to winter with a rousing cheer to spring.

This is life among the Riverbank Neighbors, ages 0 to 90, so named because of their close proximity to the once-shunned North Branch of the Chicago River and the life they’ve built around it. In one breath, they are both a throwback and the future, recalling a time when community thrived, often centered around the local landscape. Their recapture of life writ small and meaningful makes the art of porch sitting seem regal, a wooden step, a throne.

Read more: Cities, Living


Chicago tackles the next big challenge in urban ag: Growing farmers

Growing Power

A new, seven-acre urban “accelerator farm” taking root on Chicago’s south side will soon grow one of the Windy City’s most-needed crops: farmers.

Called South Chicago Farm, it will be the seeding ground for Farmers for Chicago, a recruiting program announced today by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Growing Power, the Milwaukee-based urban farming organization founded by MacArthur Award-winning urban ag luminary Will Allen. The three-year, tuition-based farm becomes part of the city’s new “incubator network” through which the city is making land available for farmer training. Emanuel, who unveils the network plan today, says getting farmers on the land is the next big step toward building a strong, local agriculture system.

The farm site, located across the street from a former steel plant, includes walking trails and an adjacent plot that will hold community gardens for 100 local families overseen by Growing Power.

Erika Allen, Chicago and national projects director for Growing Power (and Will Allen’s daughter), says that while the city is making huge advances in developing urban agriculture, there simply aren’t enough farmers to grow the food that Chicago needs. Detroit, Cleveland, New York, and other cities that are working to build local food systems are also feeling the farmer drought.

Read more: Cities, Food


Curtain kale: Farmers get jiggy with it to support local CSAs

They sing, they dance, they grow what's for supper
Lori Rotenberk
They sing, they dance, they grow what's for supper.

Here on this small stage in a shanty of a bar called the Hideout in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, where Jack White once shook the night in flame-red pants, the Band of Farmers is about to strut its stuff. And we’re not talking produce.

Clad in everything from overalls to mustard yellow rain suits, a procession of characters mounts the stage, plucking guitars, strumming mandolins, and twirling pitchforks. There’s even a reading by a “beet poet.” They work the crowd into hoots of “yeehaw!” Some in the audience wave jars of apple butter in one hand, craft brews in the other. From the stage a voice bellows, “God, this is an episode out of Portlandia!”

Welcome to the first annual Farmer’s Talent Show, a hodgepodge of acts by nine Chicago-area organic producers. They created the show as a way to market community-supported agriculture operations, or CSAs. CSA farmers sell seasonal “shares” of their products, often before planting season. The early infusion of revenue gives them funds to buy items such as tools, seeds, and other equipment for the coming season. Customers, in return, receive weekly or bimonthly boxes of freshly harvested produce that are delivered to drop-off places or right to their doorsteps.