On World Food Day, which is themed “Family Farming: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth” this year, we’re exploring how the reuse of vacant properties can be a critical component of achieving food security and justice.
In order to successfully eliminate entrenched, systemic blight communities must support a wide array of reuse strategies, and urban agriculture is an important piece of this puzzle — in addition to returning vacant land to productive use, it can increase access to nutritious food in food deserts and stimulate local economic activity. The legal landscape for urban farming, however, is often murky. Zoning codes can make it difficult for people who want to start urban agriculture enterprises to do so legally.
In Philadelphia, the Public Interest Law Center launched the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI) in 2011 in response to this challenge. The initiative provides legal aid to communities across the city to support food access through urban agriculture.
We checked in with Amy Laura Cahn, director of the GJLI, and Kirtrina Baxter, community organizer at GJLI, to learn about their work in recognition of World Food Day. Here’s what they had to say:
1) Why are food justice and vacant property revitalization important issues to you? How do you think they are related?
Kirtrina Baxter (KB): Food justice is important for a lot of reasons; the disparities in the food system, land dissemination, food-related illness, neighborhood health, community vision, and self-reliance all play a large part in food justice. As well, there is the larger issue of environmental health and preservation. These issues are interlinked because community health, poverty and environmental longevity concern us all.
Amy Laura Cahn (ALC): Philadelphia’s gardens and farms have sprouted up all over the city–as a way to repurpose vacant and abandoned spaces, create food access, preserve cultural traditions, improve neighborhood health, and, in many cases, to connect young people to food. But it is likely to be certain communities that are most likely to be contending with multiple, cumulative issues. Most of our hundreds of gardens are in communities of color and low-income, immigrant, and refugee communities, because that is where our publicly and privately owned abandoned spaces are located. Many of Philadelphia’s gardens date back 20, 30, or 40 years.
These spaces represent neighborhood self determination—residents getting together to respond to historic disinvestment. At the same time, the vast majority of gardens do not have legal access to the land—for all the reasons you’d think. The city has not had a coherent system to gain legal access. The process of addressing privately owned tax-delinquent land is a quagmire. And the very folks who are taking action to create safe and vibrant community-driven spaces are often disenfranchised from our legal and political systems.
2) Can you describe the mission of the Garden Justice Legal Initiative? What was the thinking behind its creation?
KB & ALC: The Law Center launched the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI) in 2011 to provide pro bono legal, policy, organizing, and education support for Philadelphia’s community gardens and market farmers. Through GJLI, we engage with community residents, develop partnerships with nonprofit and community-based organizations, and foster relationships between community gardeners and municipal authorities to help foster a movement in Philadelphia to support food access and equitable vacant land policies. We aim to give communities greater control over the future of their neighborhoods.
We work with residents and community groups to preserve and create new spaces and to change the system as a whole. With the passage of the new land bank legislation, we see a huge opportunity to preserve gardens and foster new ones, but only if the people doing that work have a voice in creating the process itself and the information they need to access the system when it is up and running. So, we have been very active in advocating for a land bank that is transparent, equitable, and accountable and ensuring that gardeners and farmers have a voice in the land bank’s strategic plan and policies.
3) What are the most common legal issues the people and communities you work with face?
KB & ALC: The urban agriculture issue that many municipalities around the country are dealing with is that of zoning—ensuring that people can legally grow and sell food in the city. Philadelphia has a very progressive zoning code that went into effect in August of 2012. As part of our first total overhaul of the code in 50 years, our zoning commission created a model framework that allows community gardening almost everywhere in the city and market farming, including farm stands, in most areas. Philadelphia’s barrier is obtaining legal access to the land itself.
Another big issue is entity formation—creating nonprofits or different forms of for-profit corporations or hybrids. We have some great partners that are supporting gardens and farms on these issues.
4) Can you explain the thinking behind Grounded in Philly (a website that provides info on Philly’s vacant land)? How has the website been used?
KB & ALC: Grounded in Philly does a few key things.
- First, it aggregates information about vacant land from several different city databases. Although our land bank strategic planning process is moving the vacant land data forward, when Grounded launched there was no comprehensive list of vacant land. So we created one and mapped it.
- Second, we provide information about each of the identified vacant parcels so that residents have what they need to get engaged with the parcel: information on the land owner; opportunities to acquire, lease, or license; L&I violations; zoning district; city council district; link to city council contact information, etc.
- Third, like the other “Living Lots” websites in NYC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, we provide a platform to organize around a particular parcel. A resident can post and identify herself as an “organizer” and provide her contact information for others to get involved.
- Fourth, we share information about pathways to get legal access to land. For example, what do you do if a lot is being actively offered for sale by one of Philadelphia’s land holding agencies? How do you get a lot listed for sheriff’s sale? Can you obtain the land by adverse possession? What does that even mean? Questions like that. It is important for us that people have the information they need both to create new spaces and to preserve our legacy of generations-old gardens.
- Finally, we are constantly updating our understanding about where gardens, farms, and other community-driven open spaces are located throughout the city. We map this on top of the vacant land data to create a visual demonstration of the depth and breadth of community action and engagement across the city.
How has it been used? In a number of ways. We share a lot of information that is hard to find elsewhere about getting legal access to land and we are updating that information as the legal and political landscape shifts. People also share information about how they are using different lots around the city. They let us know where older gardens exist about which we were not aware or spaces that are brand new, but they also let us know what parcels have been developed or where the city’s data may be out-of-date or incorrect. We have had conversations about how this crowd-sourced data could be filtered back to the city, but don’t have a way to do that, yet. I also know people at community-based organizations, like community development organizations, who keep the site open in their browser so they can search particular lots as questions come up about them. We also use Grounded as an organizing tool. Getting the word out about the land bank legislation has been one example of that.
5) Could you share a highlight or success story from your work?
KB & ALC: I mentioned our excellent new zoning code, but, when it was first implemented, one of our city council members introduced legislation to amend the code and curtail many of the provisions aimed at sustainability. Gardens and farms were one target of the amendment. The amendment would have made gardening and farming in commercial mixed use zones, which encompasses about one third of our commercial land. We figured out from our data that this would have jeopardized about 20 percent of Philadelphia’s gardens.
Now, before this came up, I’d heard that “urban agriculture” was not a constituency. When the amendment was introduced, we proved this wrong. We worked with some incredible allies—the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Weavers Way Coop, Overbrook Environmental Education Center, the African American United Fund, East Park Revitalization Alliance, to name a few—and created the Campaign for Healthier Food and Greener Spaces. Through this campaign, we organized to defeat the amendment and, ultimately, to create a coalition that serves as a constituent-led voice for farms, gardens, and green spaces.