The Chicago Garden Wildlife Project: Blooming Where We Stand

May 4, 2024

The work the Urban Wildlife Institute does to monitor and understand rats—like surveying residents and looking for signs of rodents in Chicago alleyways—may not sound as exciting as observing chimpanzees in the Congo, but it’s just as important. Maybe it’s even more so for the city residents who live with these rodents daily. But the Chicago Rat Project has given rise to another community project with a different kind of potential to beautify and benefit neighborhoods: the Chicago Garden Wildlife Project.

“Lots of different animals make their homes in community gardens,” says UWI Assistant Director Maureen Murray. “Some we want and are beneficial, like pollinators and birds. Some, like rats or rabbits, are not so beneficial. With this project, we are trying to build capacity to support the animals people do want and prevent the animals they don’t want.”

Community gardens are desirable neighborhood features that can be considered important to the process of maximizing human health, animal health, and city health, making it a part of the UWI’s One Health initiatives. “A lot of One Health projects are about informing people of the risks, like encountering rats,” Murray explains. “But gardens are more solution-oriented. It’s a positive thing we are trying to enhance, rather than a risk we are trying to alleviate.”

community garden uwi

These gardens are urban green spaces that attract wildlife, mitigate urban heat, improve air quality, and manage storm water. On a more individual level, they also offer fresh produce, a space for recreation, and a place where people can feel peaceful and enjoy engaging with nature. They can improve people’s well-being.

The Chicago Garden Wildlife Project helps to enhance the advantages of gardens through data-based information using several strategies. UWI staff do surveys and interviews with garden leaders to understand their experiences with pests and other wildlife and learn how they feel about those experiences. Staff members also visit and monitor gardens to discover what kinds of features and characteristics of the gardens and the nearby area might be attracting or repelling local animals. They help gardens develop and implement biodiversity goals, and they also hold workshops to help Chicago gardeners meet their goals.

One element that’s a major focus of this work is community-building. This project is still in its early stages, as it started in May of 2023, and a lot of the work this first year has been connecting with gardeners and finding out more about the challenges they face. Today, more than 20 gardens on the city’s North, South, and West sides have partnered with Lincoln Park Zoo, with others interested in working to promote both human and animal behaviors that help these neighborhood plots thrive.

“A lot of the past year has been trust-building,” UWI’s One Health Research Coordinator Andrea Flores explains. She noted that the zoo planned a summer roundtable event to find out more about the subject. UWI staffers also distributed information to leaders, and offered two workshops at the end of the year to provide resources and information to people who wanted to know more about how they can protect their gardens from rats.

So, what has the project learned from interviews that have been done to date? Well, to start, every garden is unique in terms of the role it plays in the neighborhood. In many cases, it’s a place near home where people can see animals like butterflies and birds. People value their community gardens and consider it important to attract the right kind of wildlife.

“There are no gardens without pollinators. If they didn’t have any animals, it wouldn’t be the same space,” Murray says of what garden leaders told them. “But other animals, like insect pests, rats, and rabbits, can be very challenging. Rats make people deeply uncomfortable. People don’t like seeing them and may fear them, and they wonder if they can donate food to food pantries if they have rats—it undermines what they are trying to do with the garden.”

As the Chicago Garden Wildlife Project looks toward its second summer, UWI is looking to build more activity—more collaboration with communities, more thoughtful events that address community concerns, and new outreach to people through other languages to get a more diverse data set.

And it’s April already, which means the community gardens project is gearing up for a new growing season. Community gardens are hosting kickoff events and hosting collective workdays and cleaning up beds for the winter. Flores has already been in contact with gardeners who have committed to partnering with the zoo and talked to them about their biodiversity goals, and she is going to their open houses and visiting the gardens to hopefully monitor, heat-test, and soil-test their gardens. A harvest swap event is in the planning stages as well. The future looks bright!

Interested in participating in Lincoln Park Zoo’s Chicago Garden Wildlife Project? Contact Andrea Flores at

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