How an NYC app is helping Philly reclaim its lots

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Philadelphia is home to over 30,000 vacant lots. And yet, little information is circulated on how vacant lot zoning and land use laws operate, often trapping the lots in a vicious cycle of permanent blight. Individuals that do want to make use of the land, such as urban gardeners, often are hard-pressed to navigate the bureaucratic process of even finding out the owner of the lot.

With this in mind, 596 Acres, the New York City based land advocacy organization, announced in January that it would partner with the Garden Justice Legal Initiative for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia to launch a digital map that charts blighted lots in Philadelphia. The freshly released app, Grounded in Philly, is now available for use by land access advocates and urban gardeners. The app allows individuals to identify vacant lots in the city, find information related to the lot, and ultimately, smooth the path to gaining access to it.

Grounded in Philly is modeled off of 596 Acres’ original digital platform that maps vacant lots throughout Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. Like its NYC counterpart, Grounded in Philly presents new possibilities for mitigating urban blight. The vacant lot map allows users to search for a vacant lot by entering a street address, zip code or neighborhood. The map provides information on the size of the lot, its council district, zoning district, a description of why the lot is vacant and land characteristics. Users can use this information to research zoning and land use laws for the specific lots.

One of 30,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia

Making this information available for the average citizen goes beyond easing the path towards land tenure; vacant lots require a lot of tax dollars to maintain upkeep and keep with safety regulations each year. By converting the lots to productive use, the city could in fact save quite a bit of tax dollars. In Philadelphia alone, $20 million each year is channeled towards maintaining vacant lots.

596 Acres is not the only organization that has been promoting vacant lot occupancy as an agent to mitigate the high crime rates and upkeep expenses associated with vacant lots. The Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land is just one of many Philadelphia based coalitions of community, faith and labor groups that has given a serious push towards occupying vacant lots. Their vision? To create a land bank that “converts vacant, abandoned, and tax delinquent properties into productive use, allowing communities to reclaim, reinvest in and rebuild their neighborhoods.” Starting with Grounded in Philly to locate the lots may be a good first step.

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