Google Earth has already been helpful in such endeavors as monitoring the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and determining the location of landmines. Now, advocates of urban agriculture are using the technology to help identify and catalog food-producing areas in Chicago. Previous attempts at recording the plots of land at ground level were often difficult and inaccurate. When Sarah Taylor Lovell’s lab from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at first tried to verify over 1,200 community garden projects, they found that only 13 per cent were places that actually grew food. After intrepid student John Taylor spent nearly 400 hours pouring over Google Earth in 2010, he discovered 4,648 production sites covering 65 acres. Personal visits to the sites confirmed that 86 per cent were viable horticultural hotspots.

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Taylor’s data from 2010 was recently published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. His information is also helping Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project (CUAMP) sponsored by Advocates for Urban Agriculture to find, monitor, and represent community gardens and private food producers. Guided by Taylor’s map, the CUAMP will start the pilot phase of their project within the next couple of weeks. They hope to eventually calculate the total harvest of all of the plots. With this information, they will be able to better connect farmers and local suppliers, farm stands with markets and restaurants, and community members with one another. Establishing these relationships may also be one of the few ways that urban areas can combat food deserts and introduce the only available supplies of fresh produce.

“It’s all part of one big thing … increasing local food production,” Billy Burdett of Advocates for Urban Agriculture told NPR. Urban agriculture “in a lot of cases is the best and even only option for folks to have access to healthy, locally grown food.”

A 2012 review of Google earth data saw a 50 percent jump in the number of Chicago community gardens from the last examination, a development that will surely keep the researchers busy for some time to come.

+ Advocates for Urban Agriculture