Philly's urban gardeners deserve a thank you, not an eviction notice | Editorial

Elmira Smith in the community garden she and her neighbors created in Kensington. It is now threatened by an impending sheriff’s sale.

When the rest of us saw abandoned lots covered with discarded tires, clothes, household trash, and weeds, urban gardeners saw hope.

They gathered together, threw out the garbage, uprooted the weeds, and planted grass, flowers, herbs, and vegetables. They installed benches, split-rail fences, and hanging baskets. They dug their hands into the earth and came up with what staff writer Samantha Melamed called “green monuments to a neighborhood’s civic history.”

But now, as the city’s real estate markets are picking up, many gardens are under threat of being sold for development, and could soon be covered over with bricks and cement.

According to Jennifer Greenberg, executive director of the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, there are more than 400 community gardens in the city, many on land owned by the city, School District, or nonprofit groups. But about 150 of them are vulnerable to private or sheriff’s sales. The land could be lost forever to the gardeners, who do not own or lease it and don’t have the money to outbid developers.

Should they even have to?

They’ve already improved their neighborhoods at a time when nobody wanted these lots. Not the owners, who abandoned them. Not the city, which couldn’t maintain them.

But the gardeners did. Fortunately, some are getting help.

The trust is in the forefront of helping gardeners lease or acquire the land and follows up by helping them be good stewards. Since 2012, the trust has preserved 38 gardens and wants to help preserve 55 more by 2019. The group provides liability insurance, monitors gardens, and refers gardeners to education and technical assistance from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The trust even analyzes gardens for preservation based on several factors including whether they are in gentrifying areas, low-income neighborhoods, or areas that lack access to food stores and parks.

On another front, the Public Interest Law Center has been fighting to save gardens and recently trained a team of volunteer lawyers to help out.

If the gardens are owned by the city, the city ought to give or lease the property to the gardeners as long as they meet the Neighborhood Gardens Trust’s very good criteria ranging from gardeners’ capacity to be responsible to the condition of the soil.

There is a tremendous public good to community gardens, starting with the words community and garden. They are patches of green, a source of food, peaceful contemplation, and social connections. They absorb storm water, reducing flood damage. Academic research shows they’ve even made neighborhoods safer.

The city should honor all that and more. Greenberg rightly argues that the city should see gardens as a permanent fixture in neighborhoods and not an interim use of fallow land awaiting development. The city should find a way to protect gardens from sheriff’s sales, speculators, and developers, as well as help out the trust and other reputable nonprofit groups preserve these green spaces.

As Philadelphia digs itself out of a long decline, it cannot lose such a vital part of its character. We all can take a lesson from the gardeners and look past the garbage to see the hope.