Philly is creating first-ever urban agriculture manifesto

Willow Zef volunteers at the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, established by Philly Socialists in 2012 near Lawrence and Norris streets. (Angela Gervasi for WHYY)

Willow Zef volunteers at the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, established by Philly Socialists in 2012 near Lawrence and Norris streets. (Angela Gervasi for WHYY)

Kensington residents have cultivated fresh vegetables on abandoned lots in the corner of Norris and Lawrence streets for seven years. Last year, a portion of the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden was bought by a developer, and now the owner of the rest of the land wants to reclaim it. The garden will probably lose its ground.

City officials often recognize the various benefits of growing food in the city — it increases food access, it creates community, it makes kids and adults engage with their environment, and it even reduces crime. But when it comes to prioritizing resources to secure the land existing gardens occupy or to help community members to open a new garden, city agencies and representatives don’t always move in ways that support the cause. As a result, well-tended and productive urban farms are threatened every year in Philadelphia. Last year, just a couple of blocks from the César Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, La Finquita closed its doors after almost 30 years of existence.

But a new city initiative aims to stop this trend and help preserve urban farms across the city. In November, the city will initiate a public planning process designed to help its first-ever director of urban agriculture, Ash Richards, shape a strategy.

A final plan, including recommendations and internal guidance on how to implement them, will be released by September 2020.

“We see a tremendous need as a city to coordinate more with each other in regards to urban agriculture and also to be more aligned about how we want to support it,” said  Richards.

Three years ago, the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council (FPAC) estimated that 470 gardens operated on nearly 568 parcels in the city and that almost half of them didn’t own the land they tended.  Richards said that today’s there’s no exact number on how many gardens and farms exist and no precise definition of what urban agriculture means or includes.

“Certainly one of the largest issues that gardeners face is land security and land preservation,” Richards said. “Our hope is that we might not be able to offer solutions per se, but I think we’re definitely going to have recommendations…to address a lot of the issues that have come up historically and contemporarily in urban agriculture, including land preservation.”

The city built a team to lead the planning process that includes Interface Studio LLC, a local planning firm, and Soil Generation, a black and brown-led coalition of gardeners. The team was selected from a pool of seven proposals by a panel comprised of members of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Office of Sustainability, and the Department of Planning and Development.

Interface’s recent projects in Philadelphia include a feasibility study for publicly-owned land in Eastwick and the city-wide  Rebuild plan to invest in parks, libraries, playgrounds, and recreation centers.

Soil Generation has led efforts to help gardeners to secure their land and put pressure on the city to deliver its promises to protect farms.

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia will lead the planning work. The Fund will use a $125,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to pay for the work. FPAC, a group appointed by the mayor to create a more just food system, will also work on the plan.

“Ultimately, the goal is to give people more access to land, and the goal is also to give more people access to food,” Richards said. “Having a more diverse network of food in our local city food system is another very big goal.”

The first steering committee will be held in November and the first public meeting on December 3, at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central branch.

The process will include four public meetings, up to 10 focus groups, and a steering committee. The committee will consist of 45 to 60 individuals representing city agencies, nonprofits, and the community, in equal parts.

Although there are no funds secured yet for the implementation of the plan, Richards promised the recommendations would be implemented.

“There’s too much investment from staff like myself for this thing to sit on a shelf,” Richards said.

Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation supports WHYY.

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