Philadelphia does Yardsharing: Part 4
Grounded in Philly
In 2011, Amy Laura Cahn started working with the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI) to provide legal support to community farmers. While she was at meetings, she repeatedly heard complaints about legally accessing land in Philadelphia. The city tacitly accepts that people garden on vacant land, but it has not committed to any legal programs to help people attain the land, and at most they can get year-long licenses. Gardeners wanted a feeling of security. Amy began to collaborate with Paula Segal from 596 Acres, a program in New York City that collected data on land use and put it in a map for New Yorkers to use. Working with 596 Acres and funding from Merck Family Fund, the Garden Justice Legal Initiative developed Grounded in Philly in 2012.
In our conversation, Amy Cahn emphasized that availability of land data in Philadelphia is very different than in New York City. In New York City, there is one comprehensive, mapped data set. Philly, on the other hand, has several, scattered data sets. The great part about Philadelphia’s land data is its transparency to the public, but the different sources do not always match up. Eric Brelsford, Grounded in Philly’s developer, wrote a code to aggregate the data in an interactive map. Initially, the application consisted of two pieces of information: one to show people what land is vacant and the other to locate where gardening is happening. As Grounded in Philly advanced, they realized that there were more needs they could meet by providing further information. For each plot of land on the map, they added information such as the availability for sale or license and status of the tax debt. Never before was all of this knowledge available in one place. They also started asking people on the ground to check on the lots and make sure their status on the website matched their actual current use.
Currently, Grounded in Philly (GIP) provides resources to help gardeners legally obtain land in Philadelphia’s climate of inconstant rules. Members of GIP advise gardeners through a variety of mediums: online, over the phone, and even in person.
Grounded in Philly was conceived relatively recently (2012), and is rapidly changing to fit needs. The website has a lot of information, so the team is making the design more user-friendly. This new design would highlight the core functions of locating current garden sites and available vacant lots. The team is also adding some nuanced functions that will make the site more effective and integrated. For example, they hope to pull in data about sheriff sales, who owns each vacant lot, and (more ambitiously) they hope to find locations of underutilized public land, or city-owned land that the government might make available for urban agriculture.
Grounded in Philly has been working through many roadblocks. Although Merck has helped fund them, budgeting is always tight. They don’t have in-house tech abilities. Even in Philadelphia, not all of the data sources are available in a digital format, and thus require more work to retrieve. Philadelphia’s open-data policies have made coding the website easier, but each new administration comes with its own difficulties and opportunities. GIP has worked with the city to improve zoning codes, but often implementation takes a long time. For instance, according to city codes, people should theoretically be able to get 5-year leases on a case-by-case basis, but that’s just not happening.
In the future, Amy sees GIP integrating even more data to help gardeners find land. So far, they’ve focused on a lot of ownership and tax information (see a list of their sources here) but not factors relating to whether the vacant land is a good site for gardening, such as soil quality or contamination levels. She wants to continue developing “Healthy Food Green Spaces,” a coalition of urban gardening related programs in Philadelphia. In a perfect world, GIP would also provide more direct services to people–a website only does so much to inspire participation.
Grounded in Philly is the website for the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI). GJLI was started by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP). PILCOP’s mission is to use “high-impact legal strategies to improve the well-being and life prospects of the Philadelphia region’s most vulnerable populations by ensuring that they have access to the resources and services that all of us need to lead our lives.” GJLI has a traditional non-profit structure. There is a board led by an executive director. Amy directs the justice initiative project and reports to the executive director. At the same time, GJLI uses a community based law model, which means that its policy work is responsive to community needs and encourages community members to take initiative. The organization also maintains partnerships with other nonprofits and the city government.
I contacted Grounded in Philly by visiting the contact page (groundedinphilly.org/contact) and filling out the form with my questions, name and email. Amy replied to me by email, and then readily agreed to a phone interview. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Grounded in Philly is located in the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia in 1709 Ben Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103. The office’s telephone number is 267-546-1306 (probably).