Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI)


Newly passed legislation aids preservation of community gardens on vacant lots in Philadelphia

July 8, 2024 – Community gardeners in Philadelphia often steward vacant lots that would otherwise sit neglected and abandoned. Today, Gov. Shapiro signed SB 645, passing a new law that would help Philadelphians preserve these beautiful spaces they have built for the benefit of their neighbors. Sponsored by Senator Vincent Hughes, the law allows Philadelphians to more easily claim legal ownership of abandoned vacant lots that they have maintained as gardens, after 10 years of occupation and one year of notice.

Through an ancient legal doctrine known as adverse possession, individuals can gain ownership of an abandoned property they have continuously used and occupied for many years. This law shortens the required period of occupation from 21 years to 10 years for gardens on vacant lots in Philadelphia, as long as the lots are privately owned, contain no permanent structures, and have been used as a garden for at least five of those 10 years.

Today is the culmination of years of advocacy from community garden and urban agriculture advocates in Philadelphia, which continues to seek sustainable pathways to legal land security for gardens and green space. SB 645 is supported by the Public Interest Law Center, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Neighborhood Gardens Trust, the Brewerytown Garden, and WeConservePA.

“Many Philadelphia community gardens face the threat of being kicked off vacant land they’ve taken care of for many years—lots that would otherwise sit abandoned in the middle of their neighborhoods,” said Ryan Gittler-Muñiz, environmental justice organizer for the Public Interest Law Center. “This is a real step forward that recognizes the profound contributions that people who built these spaces have made for our city. Thank you, Senator Hughes, for seeing this through.”

The Law Center helped develop the legal framework that forms the basis of SB 645 after hearing from gardeners about the difficulty of establishing continuous use of vacant lots for 21 years in Philadelphia.

“The legal concept of adverse possession dates back thousands of years, and it acknowledges the contributions of people who care for property that has been abandoned by absentee owners or land speculators,” said Sarah Kang, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center. “With this law, Pennsylvania recognizes that those who have stewarded neglected land in Philadelphia for a decade or more have earned the chance to be recognized as its owners. This will lead to a cleaner and greener city.”

“This legislation provides an important tool to secure and protect land cared for by Philadelphians to grow healthy food and enjoy safe green spaces in communities across Philadelphia,” said Jenny Greenberg, executive director for Neighborhood Gardens Trust.

“The recognition that 10 years is a significant community investment, deserving of a pathway to ownership, is an incredible step for gardens and green spaces in Philadelphia,” said Teresa Elliott, executive director for Norris Square Neighborhood Project. “We are hopeful that this new law will encourage the continued support for land ownership at the local level and make it easier to protect community gardens in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like ours.”

“At the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, we are thrilled to see the passage of SB 645,” said Matt Rader, President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. “Community gardens are vital spaces that provide our neighborhoods with not only beauty and fresh food, but also crucial opportunities for recreation, connection, and environmental education. This new law acknowledges the hard work and dedication of the gardeners who steward these vacant lots, transforming them from underutilized land into vibrant community assets. While SB 645 is a significant step forward, our work doesn’t stop here. We must continue to explore sustainable pathways to ensure the long-term security of these green spaces and empower the communities that bring them to life.”