Niles shows ’em how it’s done

Published 11:01 pm Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Daily Star photo/AARON MUELLER Niles’ community gardens have been presented as a model for of urban agriculture.

Community gardens have been popping up all over the city of Niles, and they are drawing the attention of more than just area residents.
Chicago-area suburbs are now looking to Niles as a model of urban agriculture.
City Councilman Dan VandenHeede, who sits on the community gardens board, spoke to representatives from 75 regional municipalities about the Niles community gardens project at an urban agriculture conference in Chicago last month.
“We’ve definitely been put on the map,” he said.
The community garden project, spearheaded by Berrien Township resident Mark VanTil, has grown from three gardens when it began last year to eight this year, including one at the Berrien County Juvenile Detention Center in Berrien Center.
The project began with 14 volunteers when it launched, and now there are more than 100 involved in planting and tending the vegetables, fruits and flowers.
VandenHeede focused on sustainability in his presentation at the workshop, which was sponsored by the Center of Excellence in the Elimination of Disparities and the University Illinois Chicago.
“It’s a way to put to use vacant land in urban areas,” VandenHeede said. “Even in Niles we’ve taken over land that wasn’t being used.”
The gardens are “pretty much self-sustaining” and don’t use chemical fertilizers, VandenHeede said. Another environmental benefit is reducing the transportation time for food.
“You don’t even have to transport the food. It’s all grown locally,” he said.
VandenHeede said the reason the community gardens have exploded is simple.
“It’s in the name. It brings a sense of community to those places,” he said. “You’re interacting with your neighbors.”
VanTil says every member of the community garden project brings “their own unique gifts” to make everything work.
The community gardens program also offers classes in healthy eating, canning and gardening.
The urban agriculture conference also focused on community commercial kitchens — something that is in the works in downtown Niles.
“We’re definitely on the cutting edge,” VandenHeede said.
The one concept in which Niles is not leading the way? Many cities are beginning to allow chickens in urban areas. Niles’ current livestock ordinance requires farm animals to be at least 100 feet from adjoining property lines.
Last year VandenHeede proposed changing the city’s ordinance, allowing residents to have up to four chickens within 15 feet from adjoining property lines. But public outcry against the idea caused VandenHeede to give up on the effort.
He still believes it would fit in perfectly with the urban agriculture effort of the city.
“I would still like to see it one day,” he said.
For more information about Niles Community Gardens, visit its Facebook page by searching for Niles Community Gardens.