Sometimes, even a garden needs a lawyer

As res­id­ents con­tin­ue to turn va­cant lots in­to valu­able com­munity gar­dens, the Garden Justice Leg­al Ini­ti­at­ive is look­ing to pro­tect those spaces in court.

In Phil­adelphia, com­munity gar­dens are of­ten rooted on shaky ground.

When neigh­bors and com­munit­ies come to­geth­er to clean va­cant, aban­doned lots — which have of­ten sat un­used for many years — and cre­ate gar­dens where they can grow pro­duce, the ef­fort is of­ten seen as a way to re­claim for­got­ten pock­ets of the city.

But, as many com­munity garden­ers have found out, if an urb­an garden is planted on land that doesn’t be­long to the garden­ers, the com­munity space can be taken back or sold by own­ers who might have not ten­ded the land in dec­ades.

And, too of­ten, these com­munity garden­ers have little say in the mat­ter.

It can be a crush­ing blow to those who might have spent years tend­ing to the land — cre­at­ing not only pro­duce for an urb­an pop­u­la­tion, but also a safer al­tern­at­ive to va­cant, trash filled lots that are mag­nets for crim­in­al activ­ity.

But such guer­rilla garden­ers now have a fresh tool in their shed, thanks to the Pub­lic In­terest Law Cen­ter of Phil­adelphia’s new Garden Justice Leg­al Ini­ti­at­ive.

Headed up by Amy Laura Cahn, a long­time com­munity or­gan­izer and law­yer, the pro­gram provides pro bono leg­al ser­vices as well as re­search and sup­port to pro­tect urb­an gar­dens.

“Most gar­dens aren’t just for the garden­er or the garden­er’s fam­ily,” said the 38-year-old Cahn in an Oct. 21 in­ter­view. “They serve a whole sphere of people in the com­munity.”

While the pro­gram is in its in­fancy — it was launched just three weeks ago — Cahn said she hopes the pro­gram will help fill a need for this kind of ser­vice.

Cur­rently, she’s work­ing to cata­log and re­search com­munity gar­dens throughout Fishtown, Kens­ing­ton, Port Rich­mond and oth­er areas of North Phil­adelphia to find out not only where com­munity gar­dens are, but what is­sues they face.

“These are strong com­munity re­sources,” she said. “Com­munit­ies need to have a voice in where their food comes from.”

She said ad­vocacy is needed to pro­tect these urb­an re­sources be­cause gar­dens al­low neigh­bors to care for their com­munity, es­pe­cially in places where spec­u­lat­ors or ab­sent­ee land­lords leave lots va­cant for years.

Such spaces can quickly be­come fre­quently used for pros­ti­tu­tion or drug use.

“They are tak­ing space that could be used for [crim­in­al activ­ity] and put­ting the land in­to use for the com­munity,” she said. “It’s all about com­munity own­er­ship of that pub­lic space.”

In Kens­ing­ton, Cahn said, she’s work­ing with a res­id­ent who has ten­ded a com­munity garden for 32 years.

The com­munity has nev­er gained per­mis­sion to use the land from the private own­er, and Cahn didn’t want to share the loc­a­tion for fear of get­ting the garden­er in trouble.

She’s work­ing to help provide se­cur­ity for garden­ers in these situ­ations. But se­cur­ity for the com­munity garden­er can be tricky, she said, be­cause every garden has vari­ous zon­ing, own­er­ship, em­ploy­ment and li­ab­il­ity is­sues.

But, in a city with more than 40,000 va­cant lots, Cahn said, com­munity gar­dens cre­ate such value for loc­al res­id­ents that they need to be saved.

Just how that gets done is com­plic­ated, too.

Since every com­munity garden has its own is­sues, Cahn said, her of­fice is try­ing to cre­ate a “menu of an­swers” to help sup­port garden­ers.

She wants to of­fer a sort of “hol­ist­ic” ap­proach to prob­lems and find solu­tions. 

“On one hand, we need to change city policy… [the city needs to] real­ize that the com­munity gar­dens cre­ate value for the city,” said Cahn. “We also need look at who’s a safe bet? How much do they need to do to be con­sidered a com­munity re­source? … I don’t think any­one really knows these an­swers yet.”

One tool they have, she said, is a new state land bank law — sponsored by state Rep. John Taylor (R-177th dist.) — that tar­gets blighted prop­er­ties by al­low­ing the loc­al mu­ni­cip­al gov­ern­ment to es­tab­lish land bank au­thor­it­ies with the power to raze, re­devel­op and re­sell blighted, aban­doned and tax-de­lin­quent prop­er­ties.

Cahn said that since noth­ing has yet been es­tab­lished as a land bank, she’s not cer­tain how the law might help save com­munity gar­dens.

“It can des­ig­nate land for that use,” she said. “But, the ques­tion is, who con­trols the land trust?”

She said if used cor­rectly, the law could be a strong tool for loc­al urb­an garden­ers.

At this point, Cahn said, there’s a lot of re­search she’s still do­ing.

“There are a lot of mov­ing parts,” she said.

To whittle down the is­sues, Cahn said she’s look­ing at cit­ies like Seattle, Wash. and Chica­go, Ill., where urb­an garden­ing has been suc­cess­ful.

“I’m work­ing with law stu­dents to look at what works in oth­er cit­ies,” she said. “We are look­ing at places that make urb­an farm­ing and garden­ing a pri­or­ity.”

For starters, she said, she’s look­ing at the city-owned lots that make up roughly one quarter of the city’s 40,000 va­cant prop­er­ties as places where com­munity garden­ers might be able to lease land and keep urb­an gar­dens from be­ing des­troyed.

Over­all, she said, the Garden Justice Leg­al Ini­ti­at­ive is in­ten­ded to pro­tect com­munity garden­ers. If the pro­gram works the way she hopes — her staff has a two-year grant to run the pro­ject — pro­tec­tion for gar­dens wouldn’t just be a one-time thing.

The pro­gram could help shape le­gis­la­tion and help com­munit­ies make their neigh­bor­hoods clean­er, green­er and more fruit­ful.

“It’s about work­ing with people to help change the sys­tem in a cli­mate where there is the abil­ity to do so,” she said.••

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­ 

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