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How to Transform a Vacant Lot into a Community Garden

If you look around your neighborhood, you might see some land—a corner of your local park, or a school’s sunny side yard, for example—that could...

If you look around your neighborhood, you might see some land—a corner of your local park, or a school’s sunny side yard, for example—that could potentially be transformed into a place to produce food. Whether it’s a vacant field or schoolyard, or the rooftop of a public building, how can you work to turn that space into a community asset?

The best way to accomplish that goal is to join a group that is already working on these issues, or work with a group you’re already part of. Are you already plugged into a school group? A faith-based group? Your neighborhood association? These are all great places to start.

Once your group is on board, it’s time to work with the local government, school, or other public agency that owns the land you want to use. Your group can then partner with that agency and gain access by pursuing a few key strategies.

Identify opportunity sites.

One important consideration is whether the site you spotted is actually the best site, from the perspective of the entire community. Look for partners that can help conduct a survey of public land, which is an important step in identifying land for gardens. In Oakland, a graduate student led an effort to map public lands owned by a variety of public agencies, using site visits, soil testing, and GIS analysis to identify sites that had a high potential for garden use. Sometimes public agencies can take the lead, like in San Francisco, where a mayoral directive launched a survey of all public land to look for possible garden sites. Surveys should take into account factors such as past uses of the site, characteristics (like sun exposure, access to water, and soil quality), local land use laws, and the location relative to potential users, including schools and residential areas.

Formalize a procedure.

Public agencies can set up a process or program aimed at helping community groups access vacant land to grow food, and as a community member, it’s important to check whether or not those processes are already in place. You should always start by checking with the agency or organization that owns the land. Once you’ve done that legwork, you’ll be able to determine your next steps based on what that agency requires. For instance, in Minneapolis, nonprofits can lease small or oddly shaped city-owned lots through the Homegrown Minneapolis Community Garden Program; the city keeps the leases affordable at only $1/year. In Multnomah County, Oregon, an initiative called CountyDigs! works to donate surplus properties to nonprofits; every year, the Department of County Management asks a committee to screen and identify tax-foreclosed properties that are appropriate for use as green space, including community gardens.

Shape the vision.

As a prerequisite for accessing a piece of public land, you and your fellow community group members need to be able to articulate a plan that outlines the public benefits of the program, establishes eligibility criteria, and ensures that community garden plots are allocated fairly. Applicants for ReImagining Cleveland, a community gardening initiative in Ohio, must show how their project will “integrally involve or hire city residents in planning and implementation,” with a “majority of its members residing in a defined geographical area … with a purpose to improve the quality of life in that area.”

Put agreements in writing.

Depending on the agency that owns the land, different types of agreements may be used for community gardening arrangements, such as leases, licenses or permits, or “joint use” agreements setting out terms for shared use of property. Written agreements are critical for making sure everyone involved is clear on the conditions—and they also go a long way toward assuaging agency’s anxiety around being part of such a project.

Community members in Evansville, Indiana, recently took steps just like these to establish and sustain a community garden at the Glenwood Leadership Academy, a public school in a lower-income neighborhood. The school takes responsibility for the liability and pays for the water used by the garden. A grant covers the costs of tools, supplies, and much of the irrigation infrastructure. Other resources came through in-kind donation—for example, a local Eagle Scout troop recently built a pergola for the garden. Efforts like these demonstrate how public land can be fertile ground for improving food access and building community.

Image courtesy of ChangeLab Solutions.

To learn more about accessing public land to grow food, check out ChangeLab Solutions’ newest toolkit, Dig, Eat, and Be Healthy: A Guide to Growing Food on Public Property.

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