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How Grounded in Philly is Making Vacant Lots Accessible to the Public

February 16, 2015 Category: Method



There are around 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia. From tax-delinquent properties to abandoned overgrown spaces, these lots not only cost the City of Philadelphia and its residents money but they also serve as an eyesore in otherwise vibrant communities.

The Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI) of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia is helping residents gain access to information needed to transform ordinary vacant lots into functional outdoor spaces.

In 2012, GJLI partnered with 596 Acres, a Brooklyn-based organization that builds online organizing platforms for land access advocates. Together they created Grounded in Philly, an online interactive mapping tool that identifies vacant parcels of land scattered throughout the city.

When a parcel has been identified as vacant, it is put on the Grounded in Philly map. Users can click on color-coded icons to see if a parcel is public, private, or in use. They can also see square footage, council district data, a street view of the parcel and zoning district information.

“The tool really kind of mirrors the work we already do on the ground,” said Amy Laura Cahn, director of GJLI.

GJLI combines legal services, community organizing and policy advocacy and education to support people engaged in community gardening and farming.

While Philadelphia has an active open data culture, many city agencies that produce data do not collaborate with additional sources. As a result, the public does not have comprehensive data about a particular parcel.

“Grounded in Philly was this opportunity to fill a gap in the open data world,” Cahn said.

By aggregating data from sources such as the City’s Records Department and vacancy licenses and violations from Licenses and Inspections, Grounded in Philly provides one comprehensive public list of vacant land.

From Vacant to Occupied

Finding a vacant parcel is just the beginning. The actual land acquisition process can be confusing and daunting.

From our Partners

“The process is different depending on what the individual’s goal is,” said Kirtrina Baxter, community liaison for GJLI. “Some folks might see a lot and be interested in doing something but not have a sense of how to create a community garden.”

In addition to the interactive mapping tool, Grounded in Philly provides an online legal toolkit which includes pathways to legal land access.

Privately owned land might be acquired through the property owner, through sheriff’s sale, or under the Commonwealth’s newly amended conservatorship law.  Philadelphia’s new land bank will also be able to acquire privately owned parcels to put back out for productive reuse. For publicly owned parcels, the City has five public entities, each with historically different policies and different land acquisition processes.

In addition to information access, the upcoming Philadelphia Land Bank should reduce barriers to public land access. A land bank is a public authority dedicated to efficiently handle acquisition, maintenance and the sale of vacant properties.

In December 2013, Mayor Nutter signed into law a bill to create a Land Bank. The passage of the land bank bill has spurred interagency coordination and will be consolidating ownership of publicly-owned parcels.

“Grounded in Philly was this opportunity to fill a gap in the open data world,” Cahn said.

The Land Bank is now working to implement the ambitious strategic plan and policies created by the bill at the end of last year.

“We’re always trying to figure out different ways to make that information accessible,” Cahn said.

GJLI offers a workshop entitled “Vacant Land 201” to explain the various land acquisition processes for interested community members. The next scheduled workshop will be held at 5:30pm on March 10 at the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, 1901 North Front Street.

GJLI is currently working on Phase Two: Grounded in Philly 2.0, an upgrade that will improve the website’s design and functionality. A relaunch of the tool is expected within the coming months.

Healthy Food Green Spaces

Healthy Foods Green Spaces (HFGS) is a constituent-led coalition that collaboratively magnifies the voice of urban agriculture, garden and open space advocates across the city. HFGS and Grounded in Philly launched at the same time, and the Garden Justice Legal Initiative is a member of the coalition.

“I’m going to make that a lot more interactive so that more folks who are part of the coalition and people what want to be a part of it can get more resources outside of the meetings,” Baxter said.

The coalition meets monthly to discuss threatened gardens in the city and land bank updates. They also share strategies to inform policy that impacts urban agriculture, gardening and land access. Members of the coalition include Weavers Way Co-op, Mill Creek Farm and the Norris Square Neighborhood Project.

In addition to increased awareness of Grounded in Philly and HFGS coalition efforts, Cahn hopes to make connections across multiple generations of land owners.

Organizations such as Teens for Good, Urban Tree Connection and the Norris Square Neighborhood Project offer gardening and greening educational programs and opportunities for youth in Philadelphia.

“A lot of folks have been thinking about how we can support generational transition in the spaces that exist and what are the opportunities for building relationships between a set of really phenomenal and brilliant elders and a set of really brilliant and phenomenal young people,” Cahn said.

Images via Garden Justice Legal Initiative


Norris Square Neighborhood Project

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