Case Study: NeighborSpace (Chicago, IL)

NeighborSpace is perhaps the closest existing organization to what might be considered a central-server land trust model for urban agriculture. A closer look at the history and structure of NeighborSpace points towards how a central-server model for urban agriculture might be further developed in other cities.

History of NeighborSpace

NeighborSpace was created in 1996, one outcome of a city planning process that reached the conclusion that Chicago ranked 18th out of 20 comparably-sized cities in terms of open space per capita. The authors of the CitySpace report, which came out of this planning process, saw this as a cause for concern: Chicago could be less competitive than other cities in attracting businesses.

The CitySpace report also saw opportunity. Chicago had an abundance of vacant lots – some fifty-five thousand of them, or nearly 15 percent of the city’s total land area. Almost 30 percent of these lots were already owned by public agencies or nonprofits, and 17 percent were behind on taxes. These vacant lots offered a ready resource for new open space.

The report identified development as a threat to community gardens in particular. But there was some question as to the best agency to take ownership and preserve these community-managed open spaces. It was difficult for the city or the park district to take ownership, since the gardens presented risks and complexities that were different than other properties owned by the city. They were smaller and more dispersed than the city’s parks, and required working in cooperation with groups of gardeners.

The CitySpace report recommended creating new entity, NeighborSpace. This would be a land trust to hold urban gardens. In 1996, an intergovernmental agreement between the City of Chicago, the Cook County Forest Preserve, and the Chicago Park District created NeighborSpace, a new land trust with the mission to hold land for such gardens in the City of Chicago.

Initially, almost all of NeighborSpace’s funding came from its three governmental founders. Each government partner has provided $100,000 per year for NeighborSpace’s operations. In return, NeighborSpace staff have sought to ensure that the benefits the land trust provides are obvious to elected officials and appointed parks commissioners. The most recent executive director, Ben Helphand, has focused increasingly on raising funds from foundations and private donors.

NeighborSpace’s genesis and funding structure helps explain why, even today, many of the seats on its board are reserved for designees of the three founding governmental partners. Three seats are filled by people from the Chicago Park District, three more by city officials, and three from the Forest Preserve. Others are staff from regional open space land trusts, the University of Chicago, and other nonprofits.

As of late 2015, Neighborspace holds just over 100 sites. This is some small fraction of the hundreds of community gardens in Chicago. But all in all, it is a sizable amount of land: 23.1 acres, or about 17 football fields of green space, are held in trust.

What Does NeighborSpace Do?

NeighborSpace takes on many of the roles that might be thought of as part of a central server model. But just as important as the roles it takes on are those that it leaves to community organizations. As Helphand puts it, community gardens are owned by the land trust, “which holds the title and satisfies insurance requirements and other obligations of property ownership.”

Acquiring Land and Securing Title:  Much of the land held by NS for gardens and farms was once owned by the city. Helphand notes that the city donates land, and often invests in garden infrastructure “because successive administrations and city council members have prioritized these community spaces, but also because our process is predictable.”

NeighborSpace has also learned to work well with Aldermen, who in thanks to the custom of aldermanic privilege, “control most decisions surrounding land use in their wards, especially when it comes to transferring city-owned land.” This means that an Alderman has discretion to set local requirements for gardens before land can be transferred to NeighborSpace. In one instance, an alderman chose to create a rule in which a gardens would have to show success over three seasons before he would approve the preservation of its land through a transfer to NeighborSpace.

Environmental Testing and Remediation:  NeighborSpace holds land in perpetuity, which as Helphand notes, raises legal and environmental risks that must be addressed before taking title. NeighborSpace takes not only title but also liability for the site in perpetuity; this increases the stakes of environmental contamination. As such, NeighborSpace undertakes a thorough environmental assessment of every site it acquires.

In cases where this process reveals contamination, NeighborSpace can help community groups secure funding for remediation. With support from the local alderman, funds from Open Space Impact Fees provide one source of support for cleanup.  In other cases, NeighborSpace has helped community groups secure grants from private foundations.

Insurance and Tax Exemption:  Where NeighborSpace is able to secure permanent title to uncontaminated land for a community garden, it also helps gardeners by extending its liability coverage to gardening activities. This means that gardeners themselves do not have to pay for such coverage. In cases where NeighborSpace sites have been used for urban farms, the urban farming organization is responsible for liability insurance.

For both community gardens and urban farms run by nonprofit organizations, NeighborSpace is also able to secure a property tax exemption for the site. This makes low-cost land available in perpetuity for gardening, and on a long-term basis for urban farms run by nonprofits.

Water Access and Stewardship Emergencies:  NeighborSpace helps arrange for permanent water hookups at the sites it protects for community gardens and urban farms. This can be quite expensive; many gardens that are not held by the land trust have temporary hookups to nearby fire hydrants. The land trust has also helped gardens learn to conserve water, by conducting a survey of watering methods, and sharing best practices.

NeighborSpace can also help community gardeners fix broken infrastructure, make leadership transitions, and deal with emergencies. Helphand notes that for a garden acting alone, a downed tree or someone driving through a fence can be a major event that threatens its existence. But with support from NeighborSpace, such emergencies can be dealt with.

What Does NeighborSpace Not Do?

The success of the NeighborSpace model is attributable not only to what the land trust does, but also what it does not do. In short, it leaves the community organizing to community organizations. Before considering securing title to a community garden, NeighborSpace requires a community organization partner to take responsibility, along with at least three garden leaders, and at least ten community stakeholders. For the most part, NeighborSpace leaves governance and management of the gardens to community partners, so long as they meet minimum requirements for insurance.

NeighborSpace Expands to Hold Land for Nonprofit Urban Farms

Around 2010, Growing Home, a nonprofit urban farm operating in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, saw an opportunity to expand. Across the street from a parcel of land that it owned – a prior transfer from the city’s inventory – there was a city-owned vacant lot. Rather than  seeking to take ownership of this new property, Growing Home’s staff tried something different. It sought to have the parcel transferred from the city to NeighborSpace, and then rent the land from the land trust.

Up to this point, NeighborSpace had only held land for community gardens – holding land for a commercial, albeit non profit, farm was a new proposition. It prompted discussions among the NeighborSpace board, to decide whether such a land use fell within its mission of community-managed open space. Ultimately, the board agreed that the deal could go forward without amending the land trust’s bylaws. In the process, it developed rough criteria for holding land for urban farms: a farm would to be run by a not-for-profit organization; it could not be an indoor farm, or involve any permanent structures on the site (though hoop houses are permissible); and the site could not be too big. This last criterion remains somewhat vague, and depends on the context of a site.

City officials, of course, also had to be willing to transfer farmland to a trust, rather than directly to a farming organization. But from their perspective, NeighborSpace’s ownership of the land helps solve some of the problems concerning site preparation, since the land trust can help coordinate and fundraise for environmental testing and any needed remediation. Since this can be a significant investment – in the range of several hundred thousand dollars – knowing that the land will remain in trust and be used for open space even if a nonprofit is no longer able to use it helps to secure the public investment in preparing the land.

The experiment that began at Honore Street has helped to spark new thinking about how vacant land can be governed and put to use, by serving as a model for transferring city-owned lots to NeighborSpace, for use by nonprofit farms. And other projects have been starting to follow suit. In East Garfield Park, a low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, NeighborSpace now holds 2.6 acres of land for Chicago FarmWorks urban farm, which grows vegetables for sale at wholesale prices to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.  Officials from city agencies and local foundations, eager to expand commercial urban agriculture in Chicago, have come to see the land trust as an useful tool for furthering that goal.