Keeping the Community in Community Gardening: Aqui Estamos y no nos Vamos

By Michael Nairn

On June 14, 2006, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Antidevelopment Protesters Are Arrested at Farm Site in Los Angeles.” Featuring the arrest of actress, Daryl Hannah, the article describes the eviction of 350 families, “mostly Latino squatters” from the 14-acre South Central Farm, the largest community garden in the country. They had been cultivating corn, squash, tomatoes and cactus since the Rodney King riots in 1992 on formerly vacant land in a “blighted” area of the city. The farm, slated to become a warehouse, had a convoluted ownership history. Most recently the city of Los Angeles had sold it to the current developer in a transaction that many considered far under fair market value.

The author chose not to entitle his article, “Protesters Strive to Preserve Fourteen Years of Backbreaking Work in Reclaiming Vacant Land” or “Local Residents Strive to Preserve Social Capital: Fourteen Years of Community Building Gives Way to a Warehouse.” He does, however unintentionally, bring attention to the two biggest problems facing community gardens today: the lack of outright land ownership and the expense of acquiring land given rising urban real estate values and the lack of valuation methods for community gardens. Dealing with the problem of land ownership raises complex issues to do with changing community values and competing political priorities as a number of important examples from Philadelphia demonstrate.

The latest generation of community gardening was conceived as a strategy for community building in urban neighborhoods. In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, as urban neighborhoods were perceived to be under siege—with drugs and crime running rampant and property values declining—vacant land was reclaimed by urban gardeners around the country and transformed from eyesores into mini-Edens through the backbreaking work of community members. Where once trash and weeds proliferated, community members cultivated flowers and fresh produce, often in areas where access to such commodities were and still are either limited or entirely unavailable. The intangible product of community gardening was the construction of social capital, the joining together of community members and the formation of community networks.

As in Los Angeles and the South Central Farm, most community gardens in Philadelphia have been sited on derelict or vacant land, usually tax delinquent parcels. The Warrington Garden is located in the Cedar Park neighborhood of University City in West Philadelphia. Designated a Keystone Garden by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) because of its diverse membership ranging from long-time African-American blue-collar residents to recent Laotian immigrants to African-American and white professionals, it serves sixty-two households on three-quarters of an acre. The gardeners bought their land, located immediately adjacent to the neighborhood commercial corridor, in 1993, when rumor had it that developers were eying the property. At the time the rumor seemed far-fetched, given that crime, crack and declining property values were ravaging the neighborhood. Nonetheless, the gardeners raised $15,000 immediately and borrowed $20,000 more. To pay off their loan held by a local land trust, the Neighborhood Garden Association (NGA), the gardeners held their annual Saturday Porch Sale Extravaganza. The ribs were heavenly, the salads out of this world and the brownies divine—and they were all made by members. In 2001, three local community members invested over $1,000,000 in a new Italian restaurant located next door to the garden. Today, a recent appraisal estimated the land to be worth $500,000, an unthinkable amount for the gardeners to raise.

Las Parcelas is located in the Norris Square neighborhood of the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Once largely a blue-collar Irish community located in an industrial section north of Center City along one of two subway lines, the area became the center of Puerto Rican immigration in the 1960s and 1970s. Las Parcelas was founded eighteen years ago following a sting by the Drug Enforcement Administration that resulted in the incarceration of over fifty men from the community. In partnership with the Philadelphia Green program of the PHS, Grupo Motivos , a group of neighborhood women, transformed three parcels of “vacant land,” the site of a former open-air drug market, into six award-winning gardens. The garden attracts busloads of visitors who come to see the beautiful murals and vibrant garden and eat food prepared in an outdoor kitchen byGrupo Motivos catering. The garden is full of native Puerto Rican herbs and indigenous plants that connect the gardeners to their culinary roots and cultural traditions. Each year the gardeners eagerly await the harvest of their pigeon pea and yucas, traditional delicacies difficult to get fresh in Philadelphia. The garden employs one youth during the season, which Grupo Motivos hopes to expand through construction of a greenhouse and thereby retain its employee year-round.

Las Parcelas has evolved into much more than its humble origins might suggest. It has become a powerful symbol of Puerto Rican and women’s empowerment as well as a cultural and environmental center. The garden has become didactic, teaching neighborhood residents about traditional Puerto Rican life. The murals and the La Casita, the “little house” built by neighborhood residents, depict scenes from rural Puerto Rico. Across the street, community residents are building the African Village, a series of huts connecting local Puerto Ricans to both their African roots and to their larger Philadelphia neighborhood. Grupo Motivos has expanded its activities beyond traditional community gardening. The women have founded a catering company as well as a women’s resource center where community women can be trained in job skills. They are converting an adjoining building to house their expanded activities. While by all standards Las Parcelas is a success, its future is nowhere near assured. The core group of women who founded Grupo Motivos is aging, making generational leadership a major issue.

Property ownership is also a major issue for Las Parcelas . Their gardens are cultivated on land under different ownership. The Norris Square Neighborhood Project, the local neighborhood association of which Grupo Motivos is a part, owns one parcel. The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) owns another. The neighborhood is in flux as it is now one of Philadelphia’s urban frontiers, with new residential development creeping up from Center City. Neighborhood land values are increasing almost exponentially.

There are contradictions, uncertainties, confusion and risks surrounding the city’s policies on community gardens and how those policies are implemented. Broadly speaking, the mayor’s agenda is to attract and retain the middle class by strengthening neighborhoods, overhauling the school district, creating jobs, increasing recreational amenities and building affordable housing. Each city department and agency has its own strategy for attaining those goals. These strategies often align but sometimes do not, resulting in confusing, if not conflicting, policies. The Board of Revision of Taxes, which maintains an inventory of all properties, sees community gardens as merely vacant land, as do most other citywide land use inventories. The Redevelopment Authority (RDA), for example, one of three city departments empowered to own land and the only one empowered to use eminent domain, states on its website that its mission i s “to facilitate the development of underutilized property in the special emphasis on affordable housing” ( emphasis added). The Philadelphia City Planning Commission is sponsoring a community-based planning effort called the “GreenPlan Philadelphia” in which community gardens are an important element. The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) has been downright progressive in encouraging sustainable agriculture. In West Philadelphia, PWD has leased 1.5 acres to a non-profit to develop the Mill Creek Farm, a project that will combine stormwater management, local agricultural production and education. The land is adjacent a community garden and the entire parcel is protected through a long-term lease.

The recent growth in community gardening has been in more affluent neighborhoods where heirloom tomatoes are of more concern than basic nutrition, but vacant land is most often found in the poorest neighborhoods under the jurisdiction of the RDA and the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI). The RDA, acting on behalf of the NTI, has been using eminent domain to assemble large parcels of land to attract suburban developers to build affordable middle-class housing. The PHA has also been working with NTI, actively developing large parcels in the context of a market-based model while deaccessioning some scattered housing sites. While NTI has offered more land to Las Parcelas for garden development, PHA’s plans for its parcel are still undetermined.

The fate of an individual piece of land rests with the agency that has jurisdiction. Navigating the complex jurisdictional landscape is dizzying, confusing and downright frustrating. Some departments and agencies are more accountable to the public than others. PHA is a state authorized agency not directly accountable to the city government. NTI and RDA, the city agencies primarily dealing with site development, are notoriously opaque. The key is often the district councilperson who represents district residents. There is, however, a strong tradition of “pay to play” in Philadelphia, which favors developers’ interests over those of community gardeners. Given the preceding conditions, it is easy to foresee a situation developing like that in Los Angeles at the South Central Farm. PHS and NGA have been working diligently to assist gardeners in navigating the system and acquiring land through outright purchase or long-term leases.

These conditions raise the issue of valuation, both qualitative and quantitative. The problem is how to turn a perceived liability into a perceived asset—vacant land into an economically productive use—in the minds of municipal bureaucrats. In Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa praised the farm but when push came to shove, supported the developer and the proposed warehouse. He did offer another vacant land site that could accommodate 200 families but where they would have to start from scratch. Gone would be the fourteen years spent carrying out backbreaking work and building a social network. The developer could easily provide a cost-benefit analysis, including the number of jobs created and projected tax revenues. It is far more difficult to quantify the value of social networks and other benefits derived from a community garden, and there are many who would argue that such should not have to be the case.

Recent studies in New York and Philadelphia have focused on the impact that community gardens, street tree plantings and the greening of vacant lots have had on neighborhood property values. Using real estate finance methods and sophisticated statistical analysis, these studies have proven that community actions are beneficial to the neighborhood, raising surrounding property values. In the New Kensington section of Philadelphia, property values rose an average of 30 percent when vacant land was improved through greening. The irony is, of course, that as neighborhood property values rise, the land on which these community gardens sit becomes more expensive, making it all the more attractive to developers. The increase also diminishes the ability of community members to purchase the land and ensure the longevity of the gardens. Neither study addressed the ownership or garden valuation issues.

The emerging field of ecological economics may point to solutions. Robert Costanza et al in An Introduction to Ecological Economics ( 1997) try to put a price on the services ecosystems provide In the case of many community gardens such as the South Central Farm, their fate depends on proving they are not “vacant,” but that they provide cash flows that benefit city residents. Basic finance also suggests there may be a method for the valuation of community gardens. Valuation can be generally determined by the present value of future cash flows, “investor” perceptions and the law of supply and demand. Community gardens produce two types of goods: tangible goods, such as produce and flowers, jobs and decreased stormwater management costs, and intangible goods, such as community building, social networking, soil building and biogenetic diversity. Tangible goods are more easily quantified. The amount of produce can be estimated on an annual basis and comparable selling prices assigned. The valuation of intangible benefits presents a more difficult problem.

Through the public relations efforts of people like Daryl Hannah, the gardeners at the South Central Farm were able to raise close to the $16 million purchase price, which included a $10 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Notwithstanding, on July 25, 2006, bulldozers hired by the developer razed the South Central Farm. Only time will tell the fate of many of Philadelphia’s community gardens.

Michael Nairn is a landscape architect who teaches urban studies and planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

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