Saving City Cropland
Applying Agricultural Land Preservation Practices to Urban Gardens
by Alex Charnov
Farms and gardens have played a role in defining urban space for as long as cities have existed in the United States. They are also under threat from the pressures of more profitable land uses. Even cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, where vacant land previously meant a bounty of urban garden space, are losing longstanding farms and gardens to developers and investors. It is thus the ideal time for cities to make actionable, systemic commitments to preserving their urban gardens. But what should those commitments look like? And what does “preservation” even mean for urban gardens?
Methods of preserving rural agricultural land are thoroughly systematized, with thousands of acres permanently preserved across the country every year. The same cannot yet be said for urban agricultural land; methods of preservation are burgeoning at best, and most gardens are far from permanently preserved. Knowing this, a crucial step in improving the process of urban garden preservation is to consider urban and rural agricultural preservation in tandem. By considering the fundamentals and challenges that both efforts face, a vision for saving city cropland will come to the fore.
Photo: Sayre High School yard garden, Philadelphia, PA, by Jackson Plumlee
Agricultural Land Preservation
Agricultural land preservation typically involves the voluntary sale or donation of development rights by a willing landowner to a government agency or private, nonprofit land trust. A conservation easement, which memorializes the sale or donation of development rights, also spells out the restrictions placed upon the land. For agricultural conservation, easements typically limit industrial, commercial, and residential use and permit all agricultural uses. These restrictions help prevent the conversion of privately owned farms to nonfarm uses, maintain productive agricultural soils, and sustain local agricultural industries by maintaining the viability of individual farms.
Conservation easements “run with the land,” meaning the easement applies to buyers and heirs of the land. There is in turn no ambiguity related to whether rural agricultural land is or is not conserved; agricultural land is “saved” when a perpetual deed of easement is recorded in the land records and non-agricultural uses are permanently restricted.
States, localities, private non-profits, and citizen groups all participate in agricultural land preservation. In Maryland and Pennsylvania, which lead the charge on large-scale farmland preservation, state-level farmland preservation programs play an outsize role. In states and counties that have not allocated significant public funds for agricultural land preservation, private, nonprofit land trusts are more prominent. And in both scenarios, land trusts often play the crucial role of acquiring and hold conservation easements and managing the stewardship of the land under easement.
Finally, citizen groups may also play a primary role in the acquisition of urban land for preservation, especially when scenic views and habitats are imminently threatened by development. However, these groups rarely conduct long-term, strategic conservation efforts; because their focus is often on a single property, citizen groups usually disband once a given property is preserved.
Urban garden preservation is also led by efforts to sustain neighborhood food sovereignty and support a local food system.
Urban Garden Preservation
Thus far, the preservation of urban gardens does not rely on conservation easements to permanently eliminate the risk of development. Preserving an urban garden instead tends to mean clearing outstanding liens on parcels that are already used for gardening and transferring ownership of the land to a government agency, a non-profit land trust, or a community group. In the first two cases, government agencies or land trusts either lease gardens out to gardeners or let them steward the land free of charge.
The primary purpose of preserving urban gardens by transferring ownership to a government agency or nonprofit is to prevent the conversion of established urban gardens to non-garden uses. Urban garden preservation is also led by efforts to sustain neighborhood food sovereignty and support a local food system. Ecological considerations like maintaining productive agricultural soils are rarely a stated purpose of urban garden preservation, although the environmental and public health benefits of urban open space often feature prominently in the stated benefits of such efforts.
Preservation of urban gardens is often facilitated by grassroots organizations or community land trusts, supported by pro bono legal services, and transacted by city governments. Like the citizen groups that sometimes lead one-off rural agricultural land preservation efforts, grassroots organizations and citizen groups involved in urban garden preservation often form in response to an imminent development threat on an existing urban garden site. However, these groups are less likely to disband after the preservation of a given parcel is completed, because of their likely stake as gardeners and neighbors.
Once there is adequate support for an urban garden preservation effort, a legal service provider often steps in and assist the community group or land trust in acquiring the property. Finally, if the city owns some or all of the parcels, they will sell or otherwise transfer the land over. If the land is all privately owned by a tax delinquent owner, the city may decide to clear the liens on the property, take ownership of the land, and then transfer it. And if the parcels that constitute the garden are split between public and private ownership, as is most likely, some parcels may be preserved while others may remain in a tenuous state of ownership until either the city clears any outstanding liens or a long-absent owner emerges and reclaims the land or sells to the city, land trust, or community group.
Photo: Salehin Chowdhury, Flickr Creative Commons
There are other challenges facing rural agricultural land preservation, including a reticence on the part of land trusts to participate in regional scale land use planning.
Challenges for Agricultural Land Preservation
The most glaring challenge facing agricultural land preservation is the costly nature of land acquisition. Even in states where agricultural land preservation is well funded, there are times when the price of high-priority agricultural land puts the land out of reach for everyone but profit-driven investors. The rise in land values has been especially prominent in metropolitan counties, where virtually all agricultural land is worth more for real estate development than for raising crops and livestock.
Additionally, the legal fees needed for effective agricultural conservation constrict rural agricultural land preservation efforts, particularly for more complex (and often higher priority) acquisitions. Because there are often multiple heirs to farmland, the number of parties involved in each transaction is higher than for other types of transactions. This means lengthier and more costly deals that smaller land trusts may struggle to afford.
Agricultural land preservation is also constrained by the difficulties of securing the funding needed for long-term stewardship. Even when land trusts have acquisition fundraising down to a science, it may still be difficult to secure the funding needed to support agricultural land in the long term. This is of greater concern for land that does not generate a profit as agricultural land does, and instead relies solely on outside funding for stewardship. However, it is still a concern for land under agricultural easement, especially as climate change makes year-to-year profits less predictable.
There are other challenges facing rural agricultural land preservation, including a reticence on the part of land trusts to participate in regional scale land use planning even though the regional scale is optimal for successful, long-range preservation efforts. The challenges listed above are those most relevant to the concurrent challenges faced by urban garden preservations. In their own ways, land acquisition, legal fees, and stewardship costs are all drags on urban garden preservation as much as they are on rural agricultural preservation.
Perhaps the most glaring challenge of all is that “preservation” remains undefined for urban gardens.
Challenges for Urban Garden Preservation
The biggest challenge for urban garden preservation is likewise the high cost of land acquisition. But unlike rural agricultural land preservation, the scarce nature of urban land makes this an even tighter squeeze on urban gardens than on rural agricultural land. Small garden plots are regularly lost to multi-million-dollar housing developments, while tax-delinquent properties within community gardens regularly go to sheriff’s sale. It has also become a more regular occurrence for developers to track down descendants of urban garden parcels and acquire their land. And with the added complication of tax delinquency, gardeners have no assurance for the future of the spaces into which they invest their time, effort, and money.
Much like rural agricultural land preservation efforts, the many costs beyond acquisition are also a major challenge for urban garden preservation. Settlement costs, legal fees, insurance, administration, overhead, investment in fencing, lighting, and other amenities together range from $26,000 to $42,500 per garden. And compared to the transfer of a conservation easement from a private landowner to a land trust or government agency, the transfer of urban garden land from a land bank or redevelopment authority might need to await a lengthy City Council approval process and have numerous lawyers involved. A longer process means higher costs and more of a burden on land trusts, pro bono attorneys, and other partners.
Perhaps the most glaring challenge of all is that “preservation” remains undefined for urban gardens. For rural agricultural land preservation, “saved” land is land under conservation easement. In this case, it is clear whether land is preserved regardless of whether the land or easement is publicly or privately held. But without easements, “preservation” loses some of its meaning, and instead becomes a largely subjective question of whether ownership by a trustworthy party –be it a city, a non-profit, or a community group’s ownership– is enough to consider land “saved.”
For an example of just how sticky this may become, the Philadelphia Land Bank states that they support the preservation of urban agricultural land. Yet gardeners on most city-owned land can only secure short-term, revocable license agreements, which are conditional on the ability to afford insurance coverage. Similarly, the Baltimore Office of Sustainability’s Land Leasing Initiative provides five-year leases for city-owned land for farming at a cost $100 per year. However, the city can decide to change the use of their land at any time so long as they provide adequate notice to the farmers. There is nothing inherent in this structure that guarantees preservation in the long term.
Suggested Actions to Save City Cropland
It has become increasingly rare to come across dedicated agricultural land in any city in the U.S., which serves as part of the explanation why efforts to protect urban agricultural land are becoming more commonplace in East Coast cities. Urban agriculture subcommittees and offices of Urban Agriculture pepper numerous city governments, while many city-wide planning processes are now dedicated to urban farms and gardens. Government initiatives are a promising step –but thus far no office of urban agriculture or city planning process has released anything more than an assessment of existing conditions.
The suggestions that follow are applicable for community groups and offices of urban agriculture alike and would surely advance to goal of systematizing the preservation of urban gardens.
1) Improve the disposition process for publicly owned and tax delinquent land.
The most important step in preserving urban gardens is to establish ways for preservationists to circumvent the competitive property acquisition process altogether. Many active cities policies contradict this goal. For example, major cities including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City all have annual sheriff’s sales, during which land with significant back taxes is sold to the highest bidder. These sales should be halted and replaced with a more redistributive process that centers urban garden preservation and creation.
2) Fund city-led acquisitions and stewardship.
Cities will inevitably increase their capacities to preserve urban gardens so long as they continue to fund offices of urban agriculture and urban agriculture strategic planning processes. But so far many of these new offices strategic plans merely make recommendations for capacity building and do not allot funds for acquisition or stewardship. City council members must prioritize funding for acquisitions in addition to funding for stewardship efforts and legal support.
Photo: Katie Hanford
The most important step in preserving urban gardens is to establish ways for preservationists to circumvent the competitive property acquisition process altogether.
3) Define “saving” for urban gardens.
Without conservation easements at play, the point at which an urban garden is preserved remains unclear. To clarify this unknown, land trusts should pursue strategies of urban garden preservation that “run with the land.” Nonprofits dedicated to urban agriculture should also set clear definitions of urban garden preservation for themselves and disseminate accessible communication material that convey how different ownership structures protect, or do not protect, urban gardens in the long term.
4) Improve zoning codes.
Many zoning codes speak generally to gardening or urban agriculture, but do not specify the permissible or restricted uses. By making zoning codes more explicit with regards to urban agriculture, legal challenges could be avoided while incentives could be created. Such clarification could also incentivize urban gardeners to explore newly permitted agricultural uses such as hydroponics or indoor crop production and would ensure that urban agricultural practices follow the most sustainable ecological practices.
About the Author: Alex Charnov
Alex Charnov is a second-year Master of City Planning student. A graduate of Vassar College, Alex has held positions focused on eviction prevention, environmental justice litigation, and cohousing development. His research interests include the racial homeownership gap and the effectiveness of emergency rental assistance. Find him exploring the Wiss, biking through Fairmount Park, or basking in the Summer-Winter Community Garden.
Daniels, Tom. “Assessing the Performance of Farmland Preservation in America’s Farmland Preservation Heartland: A Policy Review.” Society & Natural Resources. Vol 32, No. 7. 2019. Pp. 2.
Daniels, Tom and John Keene. The Law of Agricultural Land Preservation in the United States. New York: American Bar Association. 2020. Pp. 1.
Example programs include the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) and the Pennsylvania Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (PACEP)
Daniels, Tom. Environmental Planning Handbook. New York: Routledge. 2014. Pp. 284.
Daniels and Keene, Pp. 4.
Amundsen III, Ole and Susan Culp. “Conservation in a Broader Context: Land Trusts and Land Use Planning.” Saving Land (Land Trust Alliance), 2013. Pp. 16.
Reed, Margo. “Philly’s urban gardeners are under siege from gentrification. Here’s what they’re doing about it.” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 16, 2018.
National Young Farmers Coalition, “Building a Future with Farmers 2022: Results and Recommendations from the National Young Farmer Survey.” 2022. Pp. 45.
Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation.
“Urban Agriculture”, Baltimore Office of Sustainability.
Galiber, Sonia. “Philadelphia’s first urban agriculture strategic plan will be available for public review in May”. GridPhilly, March 27, 2022.; NYC Government. “Mayor Adams Appoints Qiana Mickie As Director Of New Mayor’s Office Of Urban Agriculture” September 23, 2022