Homes or gardens?

In poor inner-city neighborhoods, a scramble for vacant land pits developers against urban farmers

Vacant lots dot lower-income neighborhoods across the country. In many cities, urban growers have planted in those lots, repurposing abandoned city land into gardens with farmers markets and healthy food.

But cities often still register such plots as “vacant,” which allows them to be snatched up by housing developers. In communities where both housing and fresh food are needed, the fight over valuable vacant land is prompting policy reform — and tense collaboration — between developers and gardeners.

“People who live near [vacant lots] should have a say in how they’re developed, and most of the time people want to grow gardens, parks and farms,” says Mara Kravitz, director of 596 Acres, an organization that maps vacant lots in New York City and advocates for community stewardship of that land.

On average, 15 percent of land in most U.S. cities is vacant, according to a study by the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. And that land can become a source of tension between urban growing and urban growth.

Signs urging residents to plant a garden hang in front of a vacant lot in Weeksville, Brooklyn. (Photo by Murray Cox)

Take Chicago, where low-resource communities are sometimes forced to choose between housing and fresh produce. Three years ago, Kofi Ademola and his neighbors in Woodlawn, on Chicago’s south side, turned the vacant lot on their road into a community garden. A developer was “sitting on the land,” as he describes it, but gave them permission to grow. They grew a peach tree, then an apple tree, and then added garden boxes.

But then one day the developers announced they were going to start building, Ademola says, and soon all that remained of the 15-year-old garden was the stump of the former apple tree and the uprooted peach tree.

In New York City, there are more than 15,000 parcels of vacant land. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, roughly 12 acres of public land are classified as “vacant,” though some of that land has been converted into thriving gardens and farms.

In fact, Brownsville has more than a dozen gardens and farms, the most of any Brooklyn neighborhood. They are an important source of fresh produce for community members. Just 40 percent of Brownsville residents live within walking distance of a supermarket.

But this network of gardens is threatened by housing developers, in part due to a need for affordable housing in the community. A recently completed development plan for Brownsville would add 2,500 affordable units to the neighborhood, built atop dozens of vacant lots, according to the city’s designation. But some of that development would displace gardens — and not all the housing being developed in Brownsville is necessarily affordable.

New York is attempting to rectify the tug of war between affordable housing and healthy food sources. In December, council members passed the city’s first urban agriculture bill, designed to ensure that farmers and gardeners in the community have a say in how community land is used. Before the bill, civil disobedience was the only way local gardeners could make their voices heard. In December 2016, for instance, the Isabahlia Ladies of Elegance Foundation, an urban gardening organization in Brownsville, protested against a developer who sought to buy their garden — a community anchor since the 1990s — for just $4 because the Department of City Planning listed the lot as vacant. The gardeners won the fight, with some support from the city council.

Karen Washington, an urban agriculture activist in the Bronx, is optimistic about the city’s plan. As the former president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, she spent nearly two decades turning empty lots into community gardens in her borough, with support from local politicians and neighbors.

Washington has witnessed a successful partnership between an urban garden and a developer in her Bronx community. The Kelly Street Garden, in Longwood, is part of the Kelly Street affordable housing development. Both are products of Workforce Housing Group, whose founder, John Crotty, helped add 81 affordable units and also turned a vacant lot into a community garden for the residents.

And Brownsville itself offers another example of developers partnering with urban gardeners. Marcus Garvey Village is a 625-unit, mixed-use housing complex, co-developed by L+MDevelopment Partners. The developers also bought a few vacant lots in the vicinity several years ago, one of which is currently a 20,000-square-foot farm. L+M actually came up with the idea for the farm, which it funds, and selected Project Eats, a nonprofit farming coalition, to run it. The farm hosts twice-weekly farmers markets and has its own café.

“Our mission is to bring good, organic food to food-desert areas,” says Josh Weisstuch, a project manager at L+M.

The farm in its current form has an expiration date. The developers are expanding Marcus Garvey Village, and by 2020 the crops will be replaced with mixed-use housing. Once that happens, L+M says it will license Project Eats a new, smaller plot of land to farm.

CORRECTIONAn earlier version of this story said the farm at Marcus Garvey Village is owned by Project Eats. While Project Eats runs the farm, it is owned by L + M Development Partners. In addition, the story incorrectly said residents will lose access to fresh produce from the farm. L +M says it has committed to giving Project Eats a new plot to farm.

Lead image credit: Pexels

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