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Philadelphia Embraces Urban Ag Through Land Tenure and Revised Zoning Ordinance

April 25, 2014 |

fpac_logo12Philadelphia has hundreds of community gardens, many with long histories that extend back 30 years or more.

“Overall, Philadelphia has accepted urban agriculture,” says Amy Laura Cahn, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. Cahn works with existing community gardening projects to help preserve their legacy.

In fact, Philadelphia has very few private, for-profit, farming enterprises, according to Cahn, and farmer demographics in Philadelphia are diverse.

“There are many African-American leaders, a sizable refugee community, and the city has a diverse smattering of young gardeners, too,” says Cahn.

According to Cahn, the city has allowed people to operate community gardens on city-owned vacant land because the gardens are so deeply rooted in Philadelphia’s communities. But over the years the city’s policies have changed. This has meant that many community gardens in Philadelphia are vulnerable to being moved off land when  “something better” such as a business, comes along.

As a result, various land holding agencies have created policies to transfer land to gardeners, and the city’s parks department has begun to help local gardens get a workable urban agriculture program going on city parkland.

In June 2012, the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council and other stakeholders began engaging with land holding agencies to change the city’s land disposition polices to favor urban farms. Once the new land disposition policies are implemented, they will allow multiple land holding agencies to use the same system, which will hopefully lead to a more streamlined process for gardeners and create greater opportunities for land tenure.

Opportunities for five-year community garden leases, a possibly longer tenure for market farms (on a case-by-case basis), and a pathway to permanence for more established gardens are all possible, Cahn says.

“The Department of Parks and Recreations has become the lead city agency on urban agriculture for Philadelphia, and also set a precedent for inclusion of urban agriculture in Philadelphia’s new Land Bank Law,” says Cahn.

The Philadelphia Land Bank Bill provides a transparent, streamlined and equitable process that allows the city to manage more than 40,000 vacant properties, and supports a range of development and community-driven productive uses,

“The Land Bank will make it easier for urban farmers and gardeners to use those vacant lots for growing,” says Cahn.

A revised zoning code has allowed Philly’s sustainable, urban agriculture to thrive by allowing urban food production and encouraging water conservation, renewable energy, and energy conservation. Also, the city’s zoning code now recognizes urban agriculture as its own use category and allows urban ag in most residential and commercial districts.

The city also is working on making it easier for farmers to get permits for building hoop houses, and is trying to amend storm water billing. Currently, billing for storm water management depends on how many parcels the farm includes, and billing is becoming a larger burden for bigger farms, says Cahn.

There are a few barriers that Philadelphia farmers still have to surpass. The city needs to clearly define what land it will make available, and has to decide how it will monitor environmental risks, says Cahn.

But as those details are ironed out, FPAC and partners across the city continue to facilitate the development of responsible policies that improve the public’s access to nutritionally sound and affordable food that is grown locally through environmentally sustainable practices.

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