Amy Laura Cahn Testifies at City Council on "The State of the Environment"

Today, I will provide for you a brief update on flooding and extreme weather. This is an issue of equity and environmental justice. It is our most vulnerable residents, particularly those with limited economic resources, who are most at risk from extreme weather...In neighborhoods such as East Germantown and Eastwick, Philadelphia residents know this increase in flooding events firsthand.

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Are you or your org guilty of Trickle-Down Community Engagement?

A while ago I was talking to a friend (another Executive Director, since all my regular friends have abandoned me because I make jokes about compostable sticky dots), and he said, “Have you noticed that everyone is getting paid to engage us communities of color except us communities of color?”

Sigh. Yes, I have noticed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a term to describe it: Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE). This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.

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Gardening as Community Power

Written by Kirtrina Baxter & Nicole Sugerman

With all the civil unrest around the brutality and unjust policing of communities of color, people are looking around their neighborhoods to see just how they can make a difference. People are asking their community leaders, “what are the next steps for justice?” and thinking about strategies to gain community adhesion and sovereignty. The topic of community power and how to attain it, is chief among concerns.

Creating a community garden can be a strong force for community power. Not only in the radical act of producing one’s own food, a necessary requirement to live. Or in the ability a garden has to bring unity to a neighborhood through a shared space of positive work. But inherent in the process of determining how land is used in your neighborhood, communities can help to build community power! Now let me explain.

The process of creating a community garden has a few major steps that are important to consider: choosing a particular site (hopefully along with other residents), and garnering approval of this site as a space for gardening and community gatherings from neighbors, council people, and owners. Then, community members must work together to create guidelines and protocols to ensure a functional, communicative garden. The process of gaining approval and securing land for the garden is where we start to build power.

In order to be successful at creating a long-term community garden, engaging residents in the area in creating the plan for that space is essential. It creates a symbiotic relationship between neighbors towards a common goal that could benefit everyone. Building trust, accountability and respect for the opinions and creativity of all, is a large part of this process. In order for this to be successful, first, participants should be willing to do the hard introspective work of breaking down whatever stereotypes and biases that would make it difficult for them to work with a diverse group of people. This does not just relate to ethnicity but to religion, sub-culture, sexual preference, gender, and class. This process in itself allows for personal growth that adds to one’s own sense of power.

Second, creating processes to work together and create strategy toward the goal of getting the land builds cohesion among the group and power in your community. Things to be considered are, what skills do people bring to the table and how can those skills be applied to the agreed upon strategy? Communities must plan tactics to further the group’s strategy, this works to create power through research and knowledge sharing and advances collaboration and action.

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Where Social Justice and Sustainability Meet

MLK Day DARE March
photo by: Brandon Tate Brown

Written by Nic Esposito

Even though I’m a commentator who has a platform to reach people with my thoughts and opinions on sustainability, I would be remiss not to talk about recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland where shootings by police have once again revealed the tensions that exist between law enforcement and communities of color. This is something we should all be talking about, and I would like to look specifically at how these events, as well as the tension between police and communities of color across the country, pose a huge challenge for the overall sustainability sector.

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Vallecito: Lands Recovered from narco-traffickers in 2012 lie in the heart of Garifuna territories.

A major element of OFRANEH’s organizing and advocacy is to recover and consolidate the 2,500 acres of Vallecito on the North coast, and transform it into a center for Garifuna renewal. Narcos, interested in the strategic characteristics of the land for clandestine drug running – space for a runway, a hidden creek to the sea, and remote location – had invaded the legally titled Garifuna lands. In 2012, the community reoccupied its land with drumming and ceremony, despite narco and paramilitary threats and automatic rifle fire. Since then, however, a portion of the land has been re-invaded by campesinos, presumably with the support of narcos.

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A Hidden Gem in North Philly

Through the years the North Philly Peace Park has been home to hundreds of volunteers, residents and visitors; help to create a thriving vegetable and perennial garden, earthship classroom ( a sustainably designed building created from reused materials), and small food forest. This past summer they hosted the first community-run Urban County Fair where over 300 people came to participate in workshops, listen to local musicians, lend their voices to the urban agricultural scene is Philadelphia and build relationships in the community. This is truly a community-driven project! From the intergenerational relationships being built to the collaboration of people from different cultural backgrounds, learning and growing is happening here.

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High Tunnels and Conservatorship: Two Victories for PA Growers

Overbrook Environmental Education Center Hoophouse

Written by Aaron Marks

Two new Acts signed into law by Governor Corbett on October 22nd have made it easier – and cheaper – to cultivate land in your community.

If you’ve ever built greenhouse, hoop house, or high tunnel to protect your produce, then you may know what a pain and cost it is to acquire signed and sealed plans by a “registered design professional” (engineer, architect, etc.) necessary to secure all the necessary zoning and building permits.

Act 159 makes the process of building protective structures simpler and more affordable. Under the old law, agricultural buildings were exempt from the requirements of the Uniform Construction Code and, thus, exempt from Philadelphia’s building code. Act 159 expands the definition of agricultural buildings to include buildings used to “grow . . . agricultural or horticultural products, like greenhouses, hoop houses, and high tunnels. Thus, the Act lets you erect these protective structures without obtaining a building permit.

You may still need a zoning permit, but a zoning permit is an easier and less expensive process than obtaining a building permit, in part because you can draw up the plans yourself. You do not need an architect or engineer to do it.

The other important change in law, Act 157, is all about gaining access to privately owned and abandoned land through a conservatorship. What is a conservatorship? In short, it’s a way for people, businesses, or organizations to assume control of a vacant, abandoned property in their neighborhood and develop it for the benefit of the community.

Until now, you could only attain conservatorship of properties with buildings on them. Now, any property that ever had a building (even if it’s been demolished) is fair game. This means that almost any vacant property that meets certain conditions (e.g. its appearance negatively affects the economic well-being of the community, the owner isn’t actively selling it,) can, through a court petition, be secured and transformed into a community garden – legally.

The Act also expands the distance an individual or organization can legally be from a property over which they can attain conservatorship. Now, instead of one mile, people, businesses, and organizations can petition for conservatorship of lots up to five miles away. This might be both a negative and positive amendment as the expansion of these boundaries empowers people to maintain and develop land in their greater community, but also requires less of a close geographical connection to a particular parcel.

As an added bonus, Act 157 also lets you assume conservatorship of adjacent properties owned by the same negligent owner. This means if there are several adjacent abandoned properties in your community, you can get conservatorship of them all with a single court petition.

These two Acts are victories for growers in Philadelphia and across the Commonwealth. To learn more details about conservatorship, including a detailed how-to guide check out our Pathways page at this link.

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The Land Bank We Need: Accountable to Communities & Transparent in its Processes

On October 15, 2014, East Park Revitalization Alliance Director of Food Access Nicole Sugerman gave compelling testimony about the Land Bank we need to support food justice and equitable development in Philadelphia:

My name is Nicole Sugerman and I have been an urban farmer and food educator for nine years. As the Director of Food Access for the East Park Revitalization Alliance, I tend vegetable gardens and help kids and adults learn to grow food and maintain their own gardens. I work with both the Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land and the Healthy Foods Green Spaces coalition because I am passionate about supporting a diverse, equitable, healthy city.

I find my work worthwhile not only because of the tangible benefits that growing or accessing local food brings to peoples’ lives, including improved health, and money saved on grocery bills, but because of gardens’ incredible ability to build community and bring people together. The community gardeners in the gardens where I work are drawn to gardening for so many different reasons; one woman told me that learning to garden is helping her get through mourning her son’s death; a young mother gardens with her daughter to pass down skills she remembers from her grandmother; one man wants to commemorate his childhood, spent with his parents growing tobacco in the South. The gardens become spaces where people meet new neighbors, learn from each other, and end up working together both in the garden and without. The benefits are both broad and remarkable; peer reviewed studies have found that gardens have been linked to reductions in crime, trash dumping, fires, violent deaths, mental illness, and stress, as well as increases in residents’ perceived feelings of safety, and community civic engagement.

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