A group of Bhutanese refugees in South Philly cultivate a garden of Thai roselle, the fruit of which can be used to make a beverage. The Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild recently reported an “overwhelming demand” for beginner classes for beekeeping. And in Grays Ferry, seniors and youth tend an 80-year-old community garden.
Those are just a few examples of Philadelphia’s thriving urban farm and garden culture, featuring projects often started by African American residents, immigrants, and refugees. It’s a trend officials approve of and want to encourage. But many plots are on vacant land that owners might not have given permission to use, might be owned by the city, or might even be full of contaminated soil, a legacy of past industry.
So officials want to create a plan to coordinate, promote, and grow urban agriculture while ensuring it is practiced safely and within acceptable areas.
“This isn’t about regulations," said Christine Knapp, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability. "Rather, it’s more a matter of coordinating or supporting the appropriate ways these gardens and farms should exist and could exist and serve a role in the city.
“We want to have a deep community engagement process,” Knapp continued. “If you want to garden or farm, let us help you figure out how to do that in the long term. Do you want to buy the land? Do you want it tested? So it’s not an attempt to clamp down on the practice."
Jenny Greenberg, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, said her organization supports the city’s effort. Greenberg said community gardens and plots have already been lost to development.
Many of the city’s community gardens and farms were started on abandoned properties because neighbors sought to take control of the blight, Greenberg said. So they introduced communal green spaces that often last for years until the lots get sold at sheriff’s sales or redeveloped. The city might be able to help community groups buy the land or keep legal access to it, she said.
“I think it’s a great idea that the city is trying to take a comprehensive view on urban agriculture,” Greenberg said. “There is so much redevelopment taking place.”
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The Urban Agriculture Plan will start with a $125,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund. The city will then use the money to hire a consultant to research the issue, reach out to residents to find out what they want, and make recommendations.
“A lot of farms and gardens are started by just a few neighbors getting together,” Knapp said. “We don’t know who they all are, or what they are producing. We want to understand what some of the barriers are and provide support because these farms and gardens really do serve an important role.”
Zoning changes in 2012 made gardening and farming permissible activities on most land within the city. The law that created the Philadelphia Land Bank the following year cited urban agriculture as a priority.
As of 2016, the city knew of at least 470 gardens scattered across 600 parcels, according to the proposal for the plan. Almost half of the parcels are on publicly owned land. A third are on private land, which often was abandoned by owners who had stopped paying taxes.
Up to 150 plots are vulnerable to private or sheriff’s sales and could be lost to the gardeners, who don’t have the money to outbid developers, according to some estimates.
As the new proposal by the city notes, there is no existing direction, investment, or coordination of urban agriculture.
According to Land Bank data, there are 28,500 vacant lots within the city. And 14,800 properties with vacant or abandoned buildings on them. Residents sometimes begin cultivating lots after homes are razed. So, in all, the city has more than 43,000 potential lots that neighbors could turn into gardens or farms that may, or may not, fit in with a plan for use of the properties by a lien holder, developer, or the city.
The agriculture plan will help sort out which spaces are best suited for urban farms, and the least vulnerable to being sold. The city also might be able to identify which have contaminated soil, meaning crops would have to be grown in raised beds with fresh soil. The plan also could help gardeners connect with markets that share or sell produce. Currently, little is known about the overall scope of crops being grown.
Philadelphia Parks & Recreation would act as project manager of the plan, in coordination with the Office of Sustainability, Planning Commission, Department of Public Health, Department of Public Property, the Land Bank, and the Managing Director’s Office.