Embracing the Long Haul (or, your skin is in the game whether you recognize it or not)

Logan Square

Delivering organic waste to out Logan Square Soil Center (credit: Nance Klehm)

By Nance Klehm

I was hired by one of the many celebrities that got involved in the 2010 earthquake disaster relief in Haiti to work on an ecological sanitation plan for an encampment of 3,000 people. After I came back from Port-Au-Prince, I had many dreams of disaster relief being superimposed onto Chicago and specific visions about how my neighborhood of Little Village would be best re-organized as a more resilient true village. My imagination was fueled by how the Haitians were navigating their devastated landscape and communities.  In the midst of so much chaos of critical health issues, displacement, grief and violence, I watched a group of five men spend days in 100-degree heat sorting rubble according to size and restacking the ‘grades’ into useable piles. After a few days they moved their makeshift tents to camp around it, claiming their new ‘materials yard’. It remains as one of the most brilliant things I have seen people do. These Haitians were creating new economies with their natural capital – the waste around them. The Scavengers. And while I have always deeply understood my species’ reliance on soil for its food and materials, this small crew of people haunt me still and the witnessing of them blew a hole right through 20 years of thinking and I crunched some numbers.

If every square foot of Chicago’s land mass of just under 150,000 acres* was cultivated (assuming the land was clear of all built structures, people had moved to the suburbs so the entire 150,000 acres of the city was used for intensive farming, the soil was safe and fertile, there was adequate rainfall and there were no droughts, floods, insect plaques or diseases, there were working teams of people who were very proficient in the combined skill set of: growing-processing-storing-distributing, and everyone converted to strict vegetarianism), the landmass of Chicago would only be able to produce enough food to sustain 18% of its current population.


*Just in case you didn’t know…

43,560 sq feet/acre

1/8 mile x 1/8 mile = 1 block

1.6 blocks = 1 acre


I grew up rural on a 500-acre farm in northern Illinois and am a 5th generation horticulturalist. I have lived, grown, and foraged food and medicine in Chicago for 25 years, and I also currently steward 50 acres of conservation-based farmland in a sea of corn-oats-soy-dairy just west of Rockford, in the southernmost reaches of The Driftless area. Because of this background, I think both in ‘acres’ and ‘watersheds,’ and in ’neighborhoods’ and ‘blocks’. I speak both in ‘land’ and in ‘real estate’, reflecting my bicultural understanding of both the rural and the urban.


Digging out compost (credit: Nance Klehm)

As an animal and a citizen, I am in an intimate and participatory relationship with my habitat and am building the strength and health of the back and forth between it and myself. I understand where I live as my ‘habitat’. In theory, then, the ‘context’ I inhabit should support me in all my biological and cultural needs.  One of the ways I ensure this is by engaging waste streams, which I see as underappreciated by most humans, and which are the source of ‘wealth’ in the most practical and true meaning of that word.

Because everything comes into this world hungry and everything flows towards soil.


In 2005, Chicago’s Department of Environment officially declared all city soil unsafe for food production. Testing for nutrient load and various forms of contamination of specific sites is very costly, and safe, healthy soil is now the most expensive line item of any urban growing operation from backyard to community garden to urban farm. Compost laws in Illinois are stringent about what can be composted and in what amount and where. Relaxing these laws has been the current push and recently Chicago passed its first Compost Ordinance. After a handful of us worked on it for almost four years, this is mostly a good thing, making composting of organic wastes at community gardens, urban food production sites and backyards finally legal, but steep ticketing is also part of the package if the inspectors don’t like how we are doing it.

garfield park

New Soil Center construction in Garfield Park (credit: Nance Klehm)

I run a project called: The Ground Rules. The Ground Rules is a community action and research project in Chicago that proposes a timely and highly visible model to re-imagine the waste streams and biological infrastructures of a city. Process-focused and committed to observation, learning, and productivity, The Ground Rules is a living experiment in rediscovering the wealth we already possess as communities – and in coaxing its re-emergence into new being.


1) Run a fee-based organic waste collection service for institutions, organizations, restaurants and other food purveyors.

2) Create top-notch, quality compost to be shared with our garden partners for their food production and our bioremediation projects.

3) Train and educate citizens in:

– building compost systems and composting practices that meet their gardening needs as well as meet City code.

– soil biology-soil structure-soil chemistry

– intermediate and advanced compost technologies

– community bioremediation

We are currently working on 4 soon to be 6 sites in the city of Chicago. Humboldt Park, Logan Square, North Lawndale, Garfield Park, Bridgeport and Ravenswood.

Compost bin

Compost bin profile – cover material and finished compost with worms! (credit: Nance Klehm)


So what is Community Bioremediation?

Bioremediation uses living organisms to safely break down, bind or remove harmful substances from soil, water and manmade structures. Bioremediation looks at the whole system, including the living soil communities, and aims to restore optimum health conditions to people and communities.

Community Bioremediation uses four tools:

– Microbial Remediation

– Mycoremediation

– Phytoremediation

– Community Organizing + Training

king oysters

Cultivating mushrooms for oil remediation (credit: Nance Klehm) 

Community Bioremediation is necessarily low cost, accessible, participatory and highly effective over time.

Microbial remediation uses bacteria as its tool. Microbial remediation is largely done with compost and compost teas, both of which should contain hundreds of species of bacteria, and, as is nature’s game, a large diversity of bacteria wins. In healthy soil, bacteria metabolize nutrients and make them more absorbable by plants, a process known as bioavailability.

Mycoremediation uses fungi as its tool. Fungi are readily found in cooler compost piles, mulch and leaf debris piles, or soils that haven’t been disturbed for some time. They network nutrients through the soil through their long carbon threads which also hold water and air, making for a spongy layer. Lignins, complex proteins in wood, are some of their favorite food. Mycoremediation uses fungi to accumulate and metabolize contaminants.

Phytoremediation uses plants to accumulate and then extract heavy metals from the soil. They are localized in the sense that they are located by and locate themselves on their roots. Their roots send signals to the soil in the form of sugars to attract the nutrients carried by bacteria and other microorganisms which, in turn, feed them.

Now for the fourth tool, Community Organizing + Training, otherwise known as ‘The Social’. As is no surprise, working with other citizens is the biggest challenge. Bioremediation begins with changing our perceptions and behavior towards ourselves, each other and our environment. It begins with reawakening our connection and accepting our dependence on the ground on which we stand. Community bioremediation calls us to embed skills and necessary infrastructure in our communities through taking the initiative ourselves, together. We need to have dedication over time. This is for the long haul. Which is why we need to conduct earnest and responsible experiments towards this goal of healthy and fertile neighborhoods, because they are our Habitats.


Seeding Little Blue Stem (Schizachrium scoparium), a phytoremediator (credit: Nance Klehm)


Placemaking could start with digging a hole, maybe an ambitious hole behind your apartment building – not to plant a tree or bury your dead cat, which are both placemaking activities, but for the digging itself. Dig it. Dig a hole so you can access what’s under this horizontal plane that we walk and drive over, that this city calls ‘real estate’, and leave this hole open for deeper inspiration, for untapped potential and to allow others to question this other level of public sphere.


Wheat is a phytoremediator of cadmium and lead (credit: Nance Klehm)

And I say all of this to remind you that: YOU ARE HERE.

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