Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI)

Community gardening has substantial and immediate benefits for Philadelphia, where a quarter of all people live in poverty, more than 40,000 plots of land lie vacant, and over 900,000 people face hunger and malnutrition.

Members of the Central Club for Boys & Girls

Community gardens provide reliable sources of healthy food and income, and they help communities revitalize and reclaim their neighborhoods. But even established sites of urban food production face legal difficulties that can make them difficult to sustain – not the least of which is the difficulty faced by community groups and individuals seeking to grow food on public and private vacant and abandoned property.

In 2011, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia launched the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI), with support from the Skadden Fellowship Foundation. The goal of the project is to provide pro bono legal support, policy research and advocacy, and community education and organizing to community gardeners and market farmers in the Philadelphia region. Through GJLI, we provide direct representation to clients.

GroundedinPhilly Temp LogoThe GJLI also connects community gardens with pro bono counsel to expand capacity and increase representation of gardens. Through community education, we engage with more than 200 people each year, providing tools to advocate for the right to use and build community on land in their neighborhoods. We also provide a web mapping and organizing tool – Grounded in Philly, – that provides access to data on vacant land throughout Philadelphia and offers resources to individuals interested in starting or preserving community-based vacant land projects.

The GJLI’s director and community organizer have worked with numerous partners to successfully organize and grow a network of farmers, gardeners, and their neighbors, as well as community-based organizations and city officials, to build a strong, citywide voice for urban agriculture and garden and open space preservation, including the Soil Generation coalition. Over the past two years, the GJLI has provided key policy research and analysis on urban agriculture, garden and open space policy in Philadelphia, rooted in the needs of current clients, as well as concerns raised by community leaders and city agencies.

Through the advocacy of the GJLI and its partners, Philadelphia City Council unanimously approved a Philadelphia Land Bank bill designed to provide a transparent, streamlined and equitable process through which the city can manage the more than 40,000 vacant properties and support a range of development and community-driven productive uses. This work is carried out in collaboration with residents, community-based organizations, partner nonprofits, city agencies and other municipal authorities.

Request Representation from the Garden Justice Legal Initiative

To request representation for a community garden or urban farm issue from the Law Center’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative, click here and follow the instructions on the form.

To complete the form:

  1. Save the form to your computer or print it
  2. Fill it out on the computer or by hand
  3. If completed on the computer, email to
  4. If completed by hand, mail to the Law Center’s address listed above, Attn: Garden Justice Legal Initiative

If you have questions, you contact the Law Center at (215) 627-7100 ext. 224 or

NOTE: Requesting an appointment by phone or email will not establish an attorney client relationship. We are not agreeing to take your case. We do not represent you at this time. Therefore, you remain responsible for any and all deadlines.



Recursos 2015 Sobre Terrenos Desocupados

En Philadelphia hay decenas de miles de terrenos desocupados. Aproximadamente 25 % de ellos son propiedad de la ciudad. Por décadas, los residentes de Philadelphia han cuidado de las tierras de la ciudad. Hemos creado espacios verdes y huertos de lugares abandonados. Ahora contamos con cientos de huertos en toda la ciudad. Muchos han existido por generaciones. Son lugares muy especiales que forman parte de la identidad de nuestras comunidades. También brindan muchos beneficios. Sin embargo, sabemos cuán difícil es obtener autorización legal para utilizar espacios nuevos para cultivar alimentos o construir zonas recreativas al aire libre. Además, con frecuencia los horticultores carecen de las protecciones legales que necesitan para permanecer donde están.

Recursos 2015 Sobre Terrenos Desocupados

Philadelphia City Council Urban Ag Hearing

On September 22, Philadelphia City Council held its first hearing devoted solely to urban agriculture. Soil Generation and community organizer Kirtrina Baxter organized over 100 farmers and advocates to attend this hearing.

Kirtrina was one of more than 20 people who testified before City Council at the hearing. She said, “We can help our city, state and Federal Government to create policies that are reflective of what is happening on the ground in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. We are gardeners and farmers, and we are also lawyers, teachers, organizers, artists, designers, travelers, researchers, and writers.”

Staff attorney Amy Laura Cahn was also among those who testifiedin support of Philadelphia’s right to affordable, nutritious food and the land that could provide that nutrition. She spoke on behalf of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council, pushing for the transformation of abandoned land in Philadelphia, “Hundreds of these spaces are still at risk of being lost. This simultaneous push pull of possibility and precariousness reflects the overall picture of urban agriculture today in Philadelphia.”

Kirtrina and the rest of the community came to the hearing prepared with specific concerns to be addressed and possible solutions. Those Kirtrina mentioned in the hearing include, “Prioritizing preservation of existing community based gardens, fewer barriers to access land, longer leases, pathways to ownership, community person(s) on the Land Bank board and a representative specifically for urban agriculture transparency in city council goals and objectives in development of policies and processes around the Land Bank Funding for resources like, water, storage, refrigeration.”

For more on the hearings, check out articles at PlanPhilly and Metro.

Garden Justice Legal Initiative Releases Vacant Land 215 Toolkit

Philadelphia has tens of thousands of vacant parcels. For decades, many communities have tried to put these spaces back into productive use by growing gardens or farms or establishing open, community spaces. But too often gardeners, farmers and community members face challenges trying to gain legal access to new spaces or secure the legal protections they need to maintain their spaces. So, we created a comprehensive self guide for gardeners looking to maintain or create community spaces on vacant land. Through this guide, our community trainings, and, we are helping community members self advocate to secure access to vacant land.

Click here for the Vacant Land 215 Toolkit.

North Philly Peace Park

Photo: North Philly Peace Park Facebook page

Photo: North Philly Peace Park Facebook page

This community-driven garden in North Philadelphia sits across from the Blumberg housing project. For three years it has provided the neighborhood with free organic produce, allowed children a place to learn, and given the elders who live in the center across the street a place of belonging and a connection with the children in their community. These inter-generational relationships have been a key part of the parks development.

In December 2014 at a Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) community meeting, the PHA said there would be a place for the Peace Park in its new development plan but did not give any concrete solutions. In the beginning of 2015, the Peace Park received an email about soil drilling and testing to be done at the site of the garden. We rallied together, sent out messages in the community and on social media and about 12 people were out on a Tuesday morning at 7:30 a.m. in the snow to stop this testing. It was agreed upon, when PHA finally got to the scene, that no testing would be done at the Peace Park, as this test may disrupt the organic soil building they have been doing over the years.

Many calls were also made to Councilman Darrell Clarke’s office. Clarke’s office said that moving forward they would support the Peace Park in their negotiations with PHA!

Farm 51

For the past six years, Farm 51 has been a community resource and educational farmstand under the City Harvest Grower’s Alliance Program of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.  Andrew Olsen and Neal Santos have converted 5105 and 5103 Chester Avenue from trash strewn lots to lush edible green space. They have produced and distributed well over 6,000 pounds of produce to the immediate neighborhood. As of 2013, they are able to accept WIC FMNP coupons from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for immediate neighbors in Southwest Philadelphia, enabling Farm 51 to make its produce more broadly accessible. We have assisted them in acquiring one parcel and are now working with them to try to stop sheriff’s sale and acquire the other parcel.

In 2014, on behalf of Mr. Olsen and Mr. Santos, the Law Center filed an intervention in a sheriff’s sale action pending for 5103 Chester Avenue, a parcel that makes up half of Southwest Philadelphia’s Farm 51, as it would adversely affect the farm. The postponement was granted, allowing Mr. Olsen and Mr. Santos additional time to work with municipal officials and the community at large to craft a solution to preserve the property of Farm 51. Click here to read the full Petition to Intervene. Click here to read the Petition to Vacate and Answer.

HIAS/Bhutanese Gardens 

Amy Laura Cahn, director of our Garden Justice Legal Initiative, has been advising IMAG0487HIAS Pennsylvania and their Butanese clients on how to obtain land in Northeast Philadelphia since last year. She connected HIAS to Partners for Sacred Places, who  has helped them negotiate with a faith based partner. There are seven refugee families that will be gardening to start.


Central Club for Boys & Girls

The Central Club for Boys & Girls has stewarded community gardens and open space in Grey’s Ferry since the 1940s. In spite of its rich neighborhood history, Central Club recently faced losing its land to sheriff’s sale. GJLI secured a delay of the sheriff’s sale, giving the club time to file for the necessary tax exemptions. After helping the group obtain nonprofit real estate tax exemptions, the GJLI successfully advocated to remove over thirty years of back taxes owed by previous delinquent owners.

The Village of Arts and Humanities and Norris Square Neighborhood Project

Both The Village of Arts and Humanities and Norris Square Neighborhood Project have been integral in turning abandoned parcels into parks and gardens in North Philadelphia and Kensington for more than 25 years. Over the past two years, the GJLI has worked with both organizations to consolidate ownership, reduce debt, and develop land preservation strategies to ensure the long-term health of these vibrant community spaces. Critical to this work has been the support of pro bono partner Duane Morris LLP, as well as the offices of City Council President Darryl Clarke and Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sanchez.

Friends of Manton Park and Community Garden

When the Friends of Manton Park and Community Garden came to CGLI, they were on the verge of losing a newly revitalized public space to development. We supported their effective self-advocacy to ensure that the maximum amount of space was preserved as a garden and park by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Additionally, we negotiated with the adjacent developer to protect the garden from construction debris and to bring in resources for the space. “The renovation and conversion of neglected, trash-strewn lots into Manton Street Park & Community Garden galvanized our community and made our neighborhood safer, greener and beautiful. The Friends of Manton Street Park & Community Garden worked tirelessly around the clock to save our lot from sale. The Garden Justice Legal Initiative was an integral partner in the negotiations between the developer, the developer’s attorney, City Council, and Parks & Rec. Amy Laura Cahn had the intimate knowledge of which channels we needed to pursue and the legalese and experience to connect the various agencies and departments. We had accomplished quite a bit of the work on our own by Amy Laura was able to be our communicator at the eleventh hour.” – Mark Berman, Friends of Manton Street Park & Community Garden


Plotland is a small garden on a West Philadelphia corner lot. Neighbors worked together to transform this trash-strewn, abandoned lot into a visible community garden and meeting space. We advised Plotland in their successful efforts to obtain a lease, which will ensure land security in the short term.

Viola Street Garden

In the fall of 2012, we identified Viola Street Garden as one of seventy gardens actively offered up for sale by the City of Philadelphia. We alerted the gardeners and assisted them in obtaining a year-to-year Urban Garden Agreement. We are now advising the garden in its efforts to preserve this 30-year-old garden in the long term.

Pulaski Zeralda Garden

The Pulaski Zeralda Garden is another one of the gardens that was actively being offered for sale by the city. We connected Pulaski Zeralda gardeners to the Neighborhood Gardens Trust as a long-term preservation strategy and the garden is on its way to being preserved in perpetuity. “Our garden is more than 25 years old and the only spot of green on our block of row houses. When we learned that it was up for possible sale, we were anxious and did not know what to do. Amy Laura Cahn and the Garden Justice Legal Initiative helped us unravel the maze of city threads and talked us through options which will lead toward keeping this valuable neighborhood resource vital and strong for decades to come. All of us who live in older, industrialized sections of the city know that gardens, living plants, and fresh, organic produce shared with our neighborhood pantries are invaluable neighborhood assets. Thank you for doing the work to keep such miracles alive.” – Dee Dee Risher, Pulaski-Zeralda garden leader.

South Philly Review Features Central Club for Boys & Girls

A recent article in the South Philly Review details the Law Center’s Amy Laura Cahn’s work with the Central Club to postpone the sale of their land and its successful attempts at receiving non-profit status. The article notes the importance of the Central Club in the local community and the impact it has had on children and families in helping them “to see that they, like thousands before them, keep neighborhoods thriving.” Read the article here.

Central Club Granted Six-Month Stay of Sheriff’s Sale

At risk of losing two lots of formerly vacant land it has cared for since the 1940s, the Central Club for Boys and Girls reached out to the Law Center for help. After delaying the sheriff’s sale multiple times, Law Center attorney Amy Laura Cahn filed a motion to stay the sheriff’s sale in April, and on May 15th, 2012, following a hearing on the motion, she won a six-month stay of sheriff’s sale for the Central Club. Read the motion here. (A nearly identical petition was filed for the second property.)

GJLI , Gardeners & Fellow Advocates Weigh In On Proposed Vacant Land Policy

In January 2011, Law Center attorney Amy Laura Cahn partnered with a number of urban farmers, community gardeners, and food justice advocates, as well as the Mayor’s Food Policy Advisory Council (FPAC) vacant land subcommittee and the Food Organizing Collaborative to submit feedback to the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) on its proposed policy for managing vacant city-owned land.  The proposed PRA policy makes progress in its efforts to create a more “user-friendly” way to access land – creating one “front door” to access land held by several agencies and a database to determine what land is available. For many years, City policies have not supported gardening and farming, and without a fair and transparent path to gaining land ownership, gardeners and farmers have not been able to secure the land they work on. The current system of one-year Urban Gardening Agreements has been wholly inadequate, as it creates uncertainty between growing seasons. Gardens and farms require a large initial investment, and the policy should encourage and make possible long-term investments in the community. To make farming and gardening worthwhile, the city must offer secure lease options of at least three years with the option to renew. Further, the proposed policy will create new barriers to urban agriculture. The liability insurance and organizational requirements set by the policy impose a financial burden that is unrealistic for such small-scale, low-budget operations. The policy should leave room for greater flexibility in demonstrating organizational stability, and it should allow a grace period in the insurance requirement to give farmers and gardeners time to assess their options. Moving forward, PRA should take steps to engage the gardeners and farmers whose work will be directly affected by this policy, and they should take steps to ensure that the process of amending and implementing this policy is both transparent and responsive to the needs of the community. Read more:

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