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 firstname.lastname@example.org