RDA pilots urban farm initiative for land bank

First program of its kind led by a city agency will tap a rich history and network of urban farming in Philadelphia. It has more than 900 acres for a start.

Feb. 25, 2009
By Thomas J. Walsh

For PlanPhilly

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, collaborating with area urban agriculture groups and about a dozen farmers, has launched a pilot program aimed at using city-owned open space for greenhouse farming on an interim basis, or up to five years.

Request-for-qualification forms were posted and returned earlier this month, seeking “urban farming models which would be replicable or scale-able on other sites in the city.”

“The origin of this was we have been trying to figure out how the RDA manages the city’s land bank,” said Terry Gillen, the RDA’s executive director and the senior economic development consultant to Mayor Nutter. “Some of the land we know we’ll need immediately, some is held for long-term purposes. But other land we don’t think we’ll need for five years. We don’t necessarily want to sell it, but we don’t have an immediate use for it, either.”

Parcels as small as a half-acre and as large as three acres are included in the initial plans. Temporary urban greenhouse farming “is a very new, radically different idea,” Gillen said, and since there is no planting in the soil, even brownfields can be used.

Gillen wants to have a small-scale pilot Greenhouse Project under way by summer, an ambitious timeline by city standards, she said. No additional city funding aside from staff time is being put into the effort, but Gillen said there have been talks with Fairmount Park officials, and there might be an effort to establish a foundation if the project achieves some amount of success.

She would likely have plenty of help establishing such a body, judging by Philadelphia’s envied reputation as an urban farming champion.

‘Grounds for change’
The RDA project was germinated at an international competition a few years ago called “Urban Voids: Grounds For Change,” sponsored by Philadelphia LandVisions (itself a partnership of the City Parks Association, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and The Reinvestment Fund). The partnership sought to implement a multi-phase program to put derelict city properties to positive, nourishing use.

“The idea was to generate ideas for thinking about our vacant lands in Philadelphia,” said Deenah Loeb, president of the City Parks Association, which created and led the LandVisions/Urban Voids programs. “One of the programs the RDA was excited about exploring is the ‘Farmadelphia’ submission, and what the RDA developed was informed by that.”

“Farmadelphia” was created by Yen Ha and Michi Yanagisita of the New York-based Front Studio. Quoted in GreenlineBlog.com, the team sought to “transform the urban environment by introducing bucolic farmlands into the city’s urban fabric. The insertion of incongruous rural elements assigns a new use for the abandoned parcels, creating juxtapositions between farm and city that challenges its residents to revitalize their surroundings and daily lives.”

Founded in 1888, the City Parks Association is one of the nation’s oldest green-specific organizations, marrying urban living to flourishing parks and gardens. It drafted the city’s first zoning code, guided the development of Philadelphia’s railroad routes and assisted with project management for the builders of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

New ways of thinking
Interim-period thinking for the land bank is related to the city’s more recent efforts at engaging nontraditional RDA partners, including arts organizations and alternative energy production, such as solar or wind generation.

“Again, historically, the market has assumed you have to have a long-term commitment of 20 years for, say, solar panels,” Gillen said. As technology has advanced and the push for non-fossil fuels has been heightened, that thinking is over.

The farmers approved for the RDA’s Greenhouse Project will pay no rent to the city, Gillen said. “We’re not going to get any money for [the sites] anyway, and at least this way we wouldn’t have to worry about maintenance and things like that.” (The farmers will incur incidental costs for insurance, permits and perhaps utilities.)

The RDA is coordinating efforts with the city Planning Commission and other agencies on the project.

“Given the lack of economic pressure at the moment, this might be a way to use some of our public lands productively,” said Alan Greenberger, executive director of the Planning Commission. “I don’t know what the track record is for other cities, but I do know that Philadelphia scores very high on the locally grown food quotient. Weaver’s Way Co-op (in Mount Airy, and expanding) is a great model of a group that is using excess land.

“There’s been a great history of locally productive gardens. It’s actually an idea that goes back to William Penn. He imagined a city where people had enough land to keep some of it under cultivation. He was witness to the great London fire of 1666, and didn’t want this city to burn.”

The city also has at least one public school – the W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences in Roxborough – that trains students in related careers and apprenticeships.

Greenberger foresees minimal zoning conflicts, but concedes that each parcel may have to be appraised individually, depending mostly on proximity to residences.

For all its under-the-radar urban farming history, Philadelphia has more than 40,000 vacant properties on more than 900 acres.

One of the goals of the City Parks Association has been to substitute the idea of “blight” with “opportunity,” Loeb said, and to help change the way city agencies think and interact with open spaces – from the most horrific former industrial plot to the prettiest shady glen in the Wissahickon. That kind of thinking, and additional urban-ag programs down the line, will eventually mean longer-term solutions.

For now, though, the Greenhouse Project, combined with the new Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, shows enormous potential for the groups involved.

“We’re pretty thrilled that it’s moved ahead,” Loeb said of the RDA program.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

RDA: www.phila.gov/rda

City Parks Association: http://www.cityparksphila.org/

Philadelphia LandVisions: http://www.landvisions.org/index.php

Urban Voids: http://www.vanalen.org/urbanvoids/

“Farmadelphia:” http://greenlineblog.com/farmadelphia/ and http://www.cityparksphila.org/gallery/farmadelphia

Related organizations & other links:
Farm to City: http://www.farmtocity.org/
Infill Philadelphia: http://infillphiladelphia.org/
Weaver’s Way Co-op: http://www.weaversway.coop/
Pennsylvania Environmental Council: http://www.pecpa.org/
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society: http://www.pennsylvaniahorticulturalsociety.org/
The Reinvestment Fund: http://www.trfund.com/
W.B. Saul High School: http://www.phila.k12.pa.us/schools/saul/
Mayor’s Office of Sustainability: http://www.phila.gov/green/LocalAction/PlanElements_PolicyEducation.html

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal