Shielding Land from Speculation

If affordable land is key to commercially viable, community-engaged urban farming, the question becomes how to protect affordability over the long term. This means, on the one hand, providing ensure that urban farms are not displaced by rapidly rising prices in a speculative real estate market, while, on the other hand, ensuring that land in communities where values may be stagnant or declining is not allocated willy-nilly out of a sense of desperation. In both cases, the struggle is how to ensure space is available to projects that are rooted in and benefit the surrounding communities.

Over the last several decades, housing and environmental advocates have developed land trust models to ensure that community priorities – places to live, and to enjoy nature – are not displaced by speculative market forces. Open space land trusts have focused on protecting ecologically-valuable land at the urban fringe, and community land trusts have sought to protect housing affordability in cities and suburbs. Both models are increasingly being brought to bear on the question of how best to protect land for urban agriculture.

Adapting these models to conserve productive urban farmland often involves ground leases from a nonprofit land trust to a grower. This presents the potential concern that growers may lose out on certain opportunities for profit, since they do not own their own land. They will not have the opportunity to take the gains from selling their land at market prices, since they did not purchase it at market rates in the first place. But the reality is that, for many urban growers, the outright purchase of market-rate land will likely be out of reach, and effectively not an option.