The bursting of the housing bubble wreaked havoc on cities across the United States causing widespread blight in once-thriving community economies. Foreclosed, abandoned and condemned homes continue to pockmark neighborhoods and communities, adding to the vacant lots of populous but affected cities like Philadelphia. The Mayor’s Office of Philadelphia approximates that there are nearly 40,000 vacant lots throughout the city of brotherly love, about 74% of which are privately owned, making them virtually inaccessible to rehabilitation. But the city has a strong drive to amend these conditions. With organizations like DesignPhiladelphia’s “Not a Vacant Lot” and the city’s Redevelopment Authority, some of this land is being put to good use.
753 of these parcels are currently being used as community gardens or farms across Philly. The conservative estimate, which accounts for 350 farms, comes from the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, according to an article in Next American City by Emma Fried-Cassorla. Urban farming is a practice that promotes health and community well-being across the board. It empowers communities with self-sufficiency and provides fresh food access to all income levels., all while ameliorating the impact that vacant lots have on community growth and development.
In an effort to bring the city closer to its goals for healthy communities and sustainable city planning Philadelphia rolled out a new Zoning Code in 2012 after a four-year process of updates and revisions to the outdated 50 year-old code on the books. The new code now recognizes urban agriculture as a legitimate land use designation. After tackling a few hiccups along the way, namely Bill 120917, that restricted gardening and farming in certain districts, the new code promises to protect and promote urban farming in its various forms whether they are animal husbandry, community gardening or market farming. The code also makes leaps in protecting communities adjacent to farms and making cultivators and farmers responsible for any disturbances to the neighborhood.
As with every zoning code, restrictions do exist and may make things more difficult for existing farms that must now comply with the new laws. But there are many advantages to gaining this kind of legitimacy in the eyes of the city. Vacant land puts an indelible strain on an urban economy and stifles economic and social growth, particularly in affected neighborhoods. The new code creates an incentive for people to legally operate privately owned land. While the residents of Philly now have government support to make use of its vacant land, New York, has taken up a different process. Organizations like 596 Acres help turn city-owned vacant lots into thriving community based organizations that vary in use and context. The organization mentors community groups, neighbors and anyone willing to bring use to the otherwise fenced off voids in the city fabric and provides the resources needed to gain approvals from the city to use the land. A program like 596 Acres helps inspire community interventions in neighborhoods in crisis, making unused land publicly available.
The dialogue concerning vacant land has been a long one. The Architectural League along with the NYC Department of Preservation and Housing tried to tackle this same issue in 1987. Between the 50s and 70s, New York City faced a declining population that followed a financial crisis, high crime rates and overall disorder. The city bought up thousands of properties during this period filled with abandoned, unused, and dilapidated buildings as well as vacant lots. The survey of 1987 sifted through this inventory of land to find those most lucrative for development and investment and then invited architects to speculate on the uses for these properties. Vacant Lots, presented by Urban Omnibus revealed some innovative and exciting prospects of urban development for the properties and traces solutions for reintroducing housing stock into the market, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Still, the overall consequence of this endeavor did not foster as creative solutions as the architects’ own speculations and those same lots remain as empty as they were thirty years ago.
This exercise seems to go in cycles, with every generation generating new conceptions about how the utility of vacant spaces can enrich communities. Every community has its own needs and interests. 596 Acres shows us how these communities can band together to produce worthwhile strategies of neighborhood engagement, while Philadelphia shows how persistence in the direction of urban agriculture can convince a city government to rewrite the laws governing its planning. Vacant land is a perpetual problem in cities across the country, but it turns out that working locally can help address and resolve them. There is more to be learned from Philly as its new zoning code takes broader affect but the consequences remain promising.