Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

December 1, 2022

At Phoenix Farms, UChicago Students Enliven the Urban Environment

by Adam Light

If there’s one thing that differentiates Phoenix Farms from other clubs at UChicago, it’s how much club members do with their hands. Whether it be planting, feeding bees, or just carrying boxes around, there is an aspect of fun physical labor that is present in most club activities. Of course, that’s not the only thing that makes Phoenix Farms stand out – they have several connections with the broader South Side community, and in navigating the challenges of urban farming, teach members a lot about sustainability and the process of growing food. 

Phoenix Farms’ typical activities consist of several urban agricultural projects: they have a garden plot behind the Smart Museum where they grow vegetables like chard and cucumbers, beehives at the First Presbyterian Church in Woodlawn, and they grow oyster mushrooms using discarded grounds from campus coffee shops. Club members choose which projects they want to be involved with and which plants will be grown in the garden plot. Since a diverse set of skills is required in gardening and beekeeping, participants must share expertise and build their knowledge together. 

Club leaders highlight the increased awareness of nature in an urban environment that comes with joining Phoenix Farms. Head farmer Phoebe Holz describes the club as a “community of people who are able to engage with the outdoors and urban gardening on campus,” while co-president Zoey Papka mentions the responsibility club members take on in trying to keep plants and bees alive, and notes that the club “differentiates how to use your brain” during the academic year.

Another important facet of the work that Phoenix Farms does is its growing involvement with the neighborhoods around campus. Members of the Hyde Park community are welcome at gardening events, and are sometimes the most enthusiastic participants. Community involvement is even more significant with Phoenix Farms’ beekeeping: The club’s beehives are located on the premises of Woodlawn’s First Presbyterian Church. Congregants of the church have joined hive inspections, and led a blessing of the bees. In addition, the club plans to offer lessons about beekeeping to students at the University of Chicago Charter School in Woodlawn this winter. Phoenix Farms activities also provide support to a not-for-profit founded by former club members that is creating a food forest in Woodlawn.

As a club with hands-on involvement with nature and stewardship over living things, Phoenix Farms is not typical among UChicago RSOs. However, club members make clear their enthusiasm for the projects they do, the community they’re in, and the labor the club asks of them. For those interested in learning more, Phoenix Farms meetings are held in Harper 130 at 7:30 PM every Thursday.