Urban farmers do more than simply grow food, explains attorney Amy Laura Cahn. “These people are building community. They are providing resources for their communities in terms of food, but also in terms of value of property,” she says. “They’re creating community spaces and creating opportunities for education and cross-culture, cross-generational communication.” Urban farmers are investing in their neighborhoods.
But establishing community gardens and urban farms often isn’t easy. There are numerous hoops to jump through—from gaining the right to use vacant property to declaring nonprofit status and building governing bodies. All of these steps require legal assistance that many urban communities cannot afford.
This fall, Cahn and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCoP) launched the Garden Justice Legal Initiative to provide pro bono legal support to community gardeners and urban farmers in historically disinvested sections of the city.
“There really wasn’t any place to go here,” says Cahn. “Some places will help you incorporate as nonprofits. There are some places that offer pro bono support for nonprofit businesses. You might be able to get an attorney who might be able to help with complications on zoning issues, or others who offer some guidance. But there was nowhere that was comprehensive.”
Cahn’s services will range from assisting individuals and groups trying to secure land use, to advocating for community gardeners as public policy is drafted.
There are more than 40,000 vacant plots in Philadelphia, many of which become eyesores that invite crime. Around 25 percent of those properties belong to the city and its various agencies, says Cahn.
“Securing land rights is a huge issue,” she acknowledges. “Dealing with the city is very complicated.”
A Worcester, Mass. native, Cahn received her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. She has worked on environmental justice issues in New Orleans and Brooklyn and witnessed the impact of disinvestment and displacement in urban communities. She then received a Skadden Fellowship, which provides two years of employment and benefits to lawyers focused on public interest work.
Cahn was a natural fit for PILCoP, which has been assisting residents in the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia since 2008.
At the height of Philadelphia’s industrial prowess, the Hunting Park neighborhood was home to a large population of factory workers. As the industry jobs dissipated, many left the neighborhood. While more people moved in and gave the area new life, many homes were simply left to deteriorate.
“There are so many vacant lots in this community,” says attorney Adam Cutler, the director of PILCoP’s Public Health and Environmental Justice Clinic. “There are a lot of homeowners in the neighborhood and they take care of their properties. It’s that constant struggle. The longtime residents want to keep their properties nice and their streets safe and clean.”
Cutler helped neighbors secure a lot at Third and Wingohocking Streets that is now a community garden with six raised beds producing copious amounts of vegetables.
“When Adam came, it was like meeting an angel,” says, a Hunting Park resident who works with the community garden. “We’re a nonprofit. We don’t have money to do anything.
The PILCoP team, including Cahn, is now working with the Hunting Park residents to secure four additional properties.
“I’m hoping I can be sort of a clearinghouse for community garden groups in the city,” says Cahn. “I’m hoping to represent some and then provide resources to facilitate people in representing themselves.”