Written by Tali Smookler, Repair the World Fellow-Philadelphia
A major opportunity for urban garden growth lies in the estimated 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia. This has the area equivalent of 2,700 football fields. They attract crime, and make it harder to create healthier neighborhoods. Financially, vacant lots are costly, with the city spending $20 million on maintenance alone. Furthermore, the lots decrease home equity by $3.6 billion, while the city is owed $70 million in delinquent taxes from the lots. And yet, these spaces have the potential to instead be a community asset, such as community gardens that also creates much needed access to fresh, healthy food.
To try and solve this issue, many groups in Philadelphia have come together to advocate for solutions. Recently, the focus has been around the Land Bank Bill which would make the process of converting vacant lots into community assets significantly easier. A land bank is a public authority created to efficiently handle the acquisition, maintenance, and sale of vacant properties, thus making it easier to use these lots as a community asset. In Philadelphia for example,10,000 of the lots are owned by four agencies, and each has its own, complicated sales process, and therefore sell less than 1% of these lands a year.
Land banks make it easier and cheaper for community member, nonprofits, and investors to buy these lots and convert them into an asset, instead of a blight on neighborhoods. More than 75 local governments have adopted Land Banks as a best practice. And now, Philadelphia will be joining their ranks.
That’s right; a few weeks ago, City Council voted unanimously in favor of adopting the Land Bank Bill, making Philadelphia the biggest American city to establish a municipal land bank. This comes after at least five years worth of advocating efforts by community groups. Two prominent groups that have worked towards the passage of this bill are the Philly Land Bank Alliance, and the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land, both of which comprise of a coalition of faith, labor, and community partners working together to get this bill passed.
“Philadelphians who have been plagued by vacant properties in their neighborhoods will soon have a powerful tool in the Philadelphia Land Bank,” said Rick Sauer, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Association for Community Development, and a member of the Philly Land Bank Alliance. “The Land Bank will make it easier and quicker for individuals, community groups, small businesses, community development corporations and market rate developers to turn vacant, blighted properties into vibrant, usable spaces.”(1)
Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, sponsor of the bill, has been working towards this for years. "I'm very happy that Philadelphia has made history today by creating the largest land bank in the country,” she said. (2)
While this is a huge victory which merits celebration, there is still work to be done. The city must develop policies and procedure, create a budget, and develop a strategic plan, for a start. It will also take time to educate communities about this new resource that they will hopefully use for their own benefit. In the words of Amy Laura Cahn, Director of the Public Law Center of Philadelphia’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative, “I think we were able to accomplish something big. It ended with some really good questions….Our work is really just beginning.” (3)