How local communities are turning vacant lots into thriving urban farms

 
 Cities are making it easier for urban farmers to take over empty lots because it's good for communities.

Cities are making it easier for urban farmers to take over empty lots because it's good for communities.

In the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, locals stroll through Greensgrow Farms. A couple picks up baby spinach and collard greens grown on site, while a few teenagers greet Milkshake, the farm’s resident pet pig. Neighbors ask each other for recipe ideas as they reach for bundles of fresh herbs. Looking in on this lively urban farm, it is hard to believe that just over 20 years ago this space was nothing more than a vacant lot in a forgotten space.

It costs about $1 to acquire the vacant lot next door, plus closing fees. Says Major Michael Nutter, “We would have liked to have had this about a decade ago.”

The chances that more urban farms will grow in the city’s empty lots improved dramatically with the recent launch of the Philadelphia Land Bank, which makes it much easier for the city to transfer its 8,700 vacant lots into private ownership. How easy? It costs about $1 to acquire the vacant lot next door, plus closing fees. Says Mayor Michael Nutter, “We would have liked to have had this about a decade ago.”

Vacant lots, which account for roughly 16.7 percent of large US cities’ land area, have long been perceived as eyesores. Many are unkempt, empty hunks of land between buildings that all too often become sites choked with litter, contaminated by asbestos, lead, and arsenic, and breeding grounds for disease-carrying vermin. But more cities are seeing in vacant lots an opportunity to revive neighborhoods, too.  

In Baltimore, the state is investing in turning vacant lots into temporary meadows to “restore some biodiversity and reduce polluted runoff.” In California, landowners who agree to letting residents use the land as a farm or garden for five years are rewarded with tax breaks. And Chicago just started a program called Large Lots similar to the one in Philadelphia. There, a vacant lot also costs a dollar residents and people who live next door get priority. Owners pay property taxes and agree to maintain their lot in accordance with the city's maintenance code. The goal is to transform the city's more than 3,200 empty lots into useful spaces. So far almost half have been sold. 

 The city of Baltimore is enabling residents to turn abandoned lots into wildflower meadows to help restore diversity, reduce litter, and curb the amount of pollution running into the Chesapeake Bay.

The city of Baltimore is enabling residents to turn abandoned lots into wildflower meadows to help restore diversity, reduce litter, and curb the amount of pollution running into the Chesapeake Bay.

support for would-be urban farmers

While acquiring a vacant lot may be getting easier in places, converting a trash-strewn pocket of land into something fertile and green continues to be hard. Soil in vacant lots tend to be drained of nutrients and laced with toxins. And farming the land itself is difficult. Plants die, equipment breaks, farm animals get sick or are deemed a nuisance by neighbors. Plus, not everyone supports the push for green space; battles erupt all the time between urban farmers and developers.  

Fortunately would-be urban farmers aren’t alone. Organizations dedicated to teaching safe urban farming practices are available in most major cities. They can learn about zoning codes and business basics, food safety and pest management. Examples include Detroit Future City which offers step-by-step instructions for turning vacant lots into green spaces. New York City-based 596 Acres works with urban farmers and the city to prioritize urban agriculture. In California, the University of California has a compilation of resources for those looking to get started in vacant lot restoration.

If done right, the pay off can be huge. Urban farms can help offset air pollution, absorb C02, bolster local bee populations, and prevent toxic-run off into rivers and streams. At the very least, they can also create spaces for communities and help unify neighborhoods checkered with vacant lots, and more. 

In Oakland, California, a food justice nonprofit called Planting Justice hires ex-convicts to work its urban farm, providing a wage, health benefits, and a reason to get up in the morning. "In East Oakland, what's fashionable are the hustlers, says Bilal Coleman, who went to prison at 17 and was released 20 years later. "Now my hustle is the garden."

Takeaway: Want to take over a vacant lot or get involved in existing urban farms?  Research your local options - you might be surprised by your number of options. You can find urban farms that are already established here.