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Amy Laura Cahn helps gardens blossom from weed-choked lots in Philadelphia

She advises residents on how to obtain title to a vacant property and defends grass-roots garden projects threatened by development.

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Amy Laura Cahn, director of Philadelphia’s Garden Justice Legal Initiative, stands in the Mercy Emily Edible Park in Philadelphia.

Ann Hermes/TCSM

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In cities around the United States, people are going back to the land – the vacant land, that is. What was once called “squatting” or “guerrilla gardening” has become a creative approach to improving empty lots.

In Philadelphia, Amy Laura Cahn is one of the leading exponents of this approach. A lawyer at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Ms. Cahn has carved out a unique role as a land-access advocate. She works to amplify the voices of ordinary Philadelphians in discussions of how vacant land will be used.

Vacant land is ubiquitous throughout the city, largely the result of disinvestment and population decline. Philadelphia lists nearly 40,000 vacant properties on its rolls. A quarter are publicly owned; the rest are abandoned, tax delinquent, or held by speculators.

Instead of leaving these properties to the weeds or handing them to private developers, Cahn helps community groups become land stewards. “My work is about residents having access to this space and controlling what happens in them,” she says.

To this end, she maps Philadelphia’s vacant lots, advises residents on how to obtain a property’s title, and defends grass-roots projects threatened by development. And she advocates for new policies to make the process of land transfer easier and fairer.

Cahn’s biggest constituency is gardeners with legal problems. Philadelphia has a long tradition of people creating squatter gardens, but since they lack legal standing, their plots can be razed at a moment’s notice.

“The city has tacitly accepted gardens as a good thing,” Cahn explains, “but there hasn’t been a workable way to make them permanent.

“Gardens aren’t just gardens,” she adds. “They also serve as spaces to grow food, build skills and relationships, create art, and preserve cultural traditions.”

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Cahn has campaigned to save some of Philadelphia’s oldest and most beloved gardens. She helped rescue the Central Club for Boys and Girls, a nonprofit community garden and open space in South Philadelphia that dates to the 1930s. Central Club’s founder, Mabel Wilson, organized her neighbors to garden and maintain spaces when landowners died or disappeared, or homes were demolished.

“The organization had been a nonprofit since 1947, but it never owned the land, and the taxes kept mounting,” Cahn says. “When they finally acquired the land in 2010, they were saddled with years of back taxes.”

In 2011, the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office, which conducts foreclosure sales on the city’s behalf, listed three of Central Club’s parcels for sale. Cahn used the courts to have the sales postponed and successfully petitioned to have the taxes waived.

“Thankfully, the court and the authorities ended up recognizing the decades of work that Central Club has put into caring for and improving the land,” she says.

Central Club is just one of Cahn’s pro bono clients. She’s known throughout the city as a friend of gardeners – and anyone dedicated to improving an often unlovely landscape.

“Amy Laura is a tireless advocate,” says Claire Baker, director of gardening programs for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which oversees 125 gardens in Philadelphia. “She’s smart, pragmatic, and approachable.”

What if someone wanted to start a project like Central Club today? Or, in Cahn’s words, “If a piece of land is owned by a deceased person, or by a city agency, and you want to turn it into a garden, how do you get legal access?”

In 2013 Cahn created Grounded in Philly, a website that aggregates data about vacant land and gardens in the city. Visitors can zoom in on a particular neighborhood or address, find a garden, and determine its legal status. The site also tells how to purchase a lot at a sheriff’s sale or strike an agreement with a private owner.

Since its launch, more than 100 groups have rallied around 200 vacant lots listed on the site.

“Grounded in Philly is one of the most important civic technology projects in Philadelphia,” says Mark Headd, who until recently served as chief data officer for the city. “It has the potential to impact how other cities address the acute issue of vacant land.”

Many cities find themselves in a similar predicament. Chicago has 60,000 vacant properties. St. Louis owns an estimated 10,000 vacant properties. A Baltimore city database lists more than 17,000 vacant properties.

Cahn’s community-based approach to vacant land heralds a day when mayors will work as closely with gardeners as they do developers – or rather, when mayors see gardeners as “developers” in their own right.

Cahn’s land maps have had another benefit: They reveal how new laws and proposed developments might affect existing gardens.

In 2011, for instance, the Philadelphia City Council considered an amendment to the zoning code that, Cahn’s maps showed, would have made 20 percent of the city’s community gardens illegal. Spurred by Cahn’s data, gardeners and residents rallied to defeat the amendment.

Cahn began practicing land-use law on a fellowship she received in 2011 from New York’s Skadden Foundation, which has been called “the legal Peace Corps.” The two-year fellowship gave Cahn freedom to pursue the pro bono work that has become her specialty.

Only a handful of lawyers in the country take such cases, and no one does it full time, as Cahn does. “Where others would be discouraged, Amy Laura continues on her highly original path,” says Susan Butler Plum, the foundation’s director. “She’s a force of nature.”

Not all of Cahn’s clients are gardeners. In 2012, Cahn agreed to represent a neighborhood called Eastwick, near Philadelphia International Airport. The neighborhood had long contended with chronic flooding and pollution from multiple landfills, the airport, and a nearby oil refinery.

In November 2012 a developer proposed turning 35 acres of Eastwick’s green space into 722 rental units and 1,034 parking spaces – without consulting residents. Another 93 acres were slated to become part of the airport.

Paving those acres, residents worried, would aggravate the flooding, while the influx of cars would exacerbate air quality problems. Moreover, bringing in more residents might harm the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, a birding hot spot adjacent to Eastwick.

Cahn prepped a coalition of Eastwick residents and environmentalists to speak out about the development. “Amy Laura was able to get meetings with the local elected officials and frame the issues in a way they could understand,” says Debbie Beer, secretary of the Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition. “She coached us on how to advocate for ourselves.”

The result: a dialogue and subsequent agreement with Councilman Kenyatta Johnson to postpone the development proposal.

“We’re not against development,” Ms. Beer explains. “Residents just need to be heard in the process. Amy Laura was pivotal in that.”

For Cahn, these cases aren’t necessarily a fight against government. They’re a way of refining government policies to better reflect the changing needs of residents.“What if cities stopped treating land as, first and foremost, a revenue generator? We have 40,000 vacant parcels in Philadelphia. There are many ways to approach that challenge,” she says.

City-owned land, she says, is public land. Residents should help determine the future of this resource, particularly in communities of color and immigrant neighborhoods that historically have lacked a voice in the decisionmaking process.

“There is such a thing as ‘the commons,’ ” Cahn says, “that goes beyond who owes a particular piece of land.”

Instead of the classic definition of “the common” as a village green in New England, could it be a vacant lot in Philadelphia?

Maybe it already is. “We need new models of how to use and share land while preserving deeply rooted but vulnerable community spaces for the long term,” Cahn says.

• To learn more, visit http://groundedinphilly.org.

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