Online Landbanking: Philadelphia’s pending land bank bill inspires a variety of high-tech tools

photo by Mark LikoskyWith more than 40,000 vacant lots and abandoned properties currently wasting space, fostering crime and bringing down property values across the city, consensus is growing around creating a land bank in Philadelphia. Last October, the state passed a bill allowing each city to create a land bank — a single public authority tasked with acquiring, maintaining and overseeing the sale of publicly-owned vacant properties.

In March, a land bank bill was introduced in Philadelphia City Council by Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez. Council failed to act on it before their summer recess, but in the meantime, several local initiatives — Reclaim Philly, Grounded in Philly, Possible City — have emerged that are attempting to draw a cohesive map of vacant and abandoned properties, encourage their use for urban agriculture, and connect communities with ideas and resources for transforming these blighted parcels.

“Because we don’t currently have a reliable dynamic database, it hinders community groups’ ability to plan for their neighborhoods, residents’ knowledge of what’s happening in surrounding blocks and ultimately the city’s ability to plan long-term for property reuse in communities,” says Garrett O’Dwyer, policy and communications associate at the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC).
While there is a certain amount of overlap between the three projects, they’ve begun conversations to determine how best to share data and complement one another’s strengths. They’ve convened for a series of round table discussions hosted by Blissbit, a local socially-minded tech start-up that is working with the three groups to devise a collaborative vacant land data application, a shared software interface to aggregate their findings.

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Reclaim Philly

PACDC is working with volunteer programming and design professionals to create Reclaim Philly, a mobile app for compiling a crowd-sourced database of vacant properties. The hope is to eventually allow community groups to register, define their boundaries and fact-check data aggregated from individual citizens to identify vacant parcels.

Grounded in Philly

Grounded in Philly is a collaboration between the Garden Justice Legal Initiative at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) and Brooklyn-based 596 Acres. Its mission is to support the use of vacant lots for community gardens, market farms and other community-driven land-based projects. “It’s a solution to blight, it’s a solution to creating food access, it’s a way of building leadership development, and it’s a way of insuring continuity of cultural traditions,” says Amy Laura Cahn of PILCOP. 

Possible City

Douglas Meehan created Possible City as a grad student in urban planning and landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The site, which he’s developing in close collaboration with Blissbit, has more of a networking agenda: mapping vacant spaces, cataloguing reuse ideas, creating profiles for people interested in individual properties or ideas and connecting them. “The site would allow people doing similar work in different communities to network, share resources, and potentially share goods and services,” says Meehan. 


Story by Shaun Brady