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Is This How to Breathe Life Into a City's Vacant Land?

BY Sam Roudman | Wednesday, July 10 2013

A new online effort hopes to revive Philadelphia's vacant lots. Photo: Matt Bevilacqua

For urbanites in Philadelphia looking to make a garden from one of the city’s 35,000 or so unused lots, the most common advice has consisted of two words: good luck. That’s because while data on any given parcel is technically open there, actually figuring out who owns it, or if anything can be done with it, can require a spelunking expedition into the dark caverns of city bureaucracy.

“How you get to be on a parcel of land legally is really hard to figure out, the game is always changing,” says Amy Laura Cahn, an attorney who leads the Garden Justice Legal Initiative at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. She says this is especially true for those who “don’t already have resources or a way to access that information.”

To bridge this information gap, Cahn teamed with 596 Acres, a Brooklyn based organization that makes online tools to promote land access. Together they created Grounded in Philly. The tool combines unused lot data in Philadelphia onto a map, and provides an informational page for each lot explaining why the property is in the database and other lots it’s close to. It also connects users to resources if they want to organize activity on the lot, and lets them post pictures of what’s going on there.

The project is of apiece with others such as Civic Insight (formerly Blight Status), a Code for America project released last year which maps and updates city information on unused lots, and which recently received $220,000 from the Knight Foundation, as well as localdata, a tool to simplify data collection in cities that came out of Code for America in Detroit. While these tools help extract city data, and in the case of CivicInsight, focus on underutilized lots, Grounded in Philly is geared specifically towards turning those properties into farms or gardens.

The project got underway last December with a $36,000 in grants from the Merck Family Fund and the Claneil Foundation. Development absorbed $10,000, and the rest of the grant went towards paying for a community organizer and manager.

“We know that there is this digital component that can hopefully enhance opportunity,” says Cahn, but “we can’t do that without an on-the-ground component as well.”

The project was based on the work 596 Acres had done mapping empty lots for every borough in New York City besides Staten Island, but it was optimized for Philadelphia. Cahn says that a slower real estate market and more lenient land use laws make it easier to set up urban agriculture on a lot in Philadelphia than in New York.

“In New York it’s a much more tenuous thing to be on land when you don’t have permission to be there,” she says.

For turning lots to farms, Philadelphia has another more basic advantage over New York.

“Philly had a lot more vacancies,” says Eric Brelsford, who helped design the project at 596 Acres.

To get a sense of what the community wanted from Grounded in Philly, Cahn and others from GJLI met with local organizations, city council members, and gardeners. It was up to Brelsford to sift through the data.

This turned out to be something of a challenge, which required digging through at least seven different sources of data in Philadelphia, with some bits inside an API, and others in giant shapefiles. To make sense out of what he was seeing, Brelsford talked to people working in the city's water and licensing inspection departments.

“It’s pretty hard to look at it and say ‘Oh, this is a violation for a vacant lot,’” says Brelsford.

He also sought guidance from Philadelphia mapping software company Azavea.

“Every city data source seems to have its own way of defining an address for a piece of land, “ he says, “so we had to try to mush it together, and make a canonical address.”

According to GJLI the site had 1,390 unique visitors and 6,700 page views in the two and a half weeks since it launched. The site has attracted 23 organizers on 39 lots, 10 of which already had gardens in operation. In addition to people choosing properties to watch and organize, 18 users have pointed out developments on 75 lots.

“We know that not all the data is correct,” says Cahn, “but we’re starting to know why and where it’s not correct.” She’s planning a meeting with open data representatives in Philly to help them clean up their data.

In the near term, the Grounded in Philly platform created by 596 Acres is set to expand to Los Angeles and New Orleans with the help from the Knight Foundation prototype fund. One of Brelsford’s colleagues has been in contact with Civic Insights, and says they’ve been helpful.

For Cahn, though, Grounded in Philly is a stepping stone to get more gardens and gardeners organized.

“When I first started in this job I heard that folks engaged in urban agriculture were not a constituency,” she says. “I think we’re starting to prove that wrong.”