All About Land

Land is an essential part of growing food, and because of its importance, there are many rules and regulations surrounding it. In this section, we will help explain the various aspects of land from where to find it to how to evaluate the soil.

Finding Land
Looking for land where you can start growing food? You have a few options. Pittsburgh has many vacant lots which might be the perfect site for your next garden. Start your search at Lots 2 Love, which maps out all of the vacant lots in Allegheny County (over 45,000!) and shows whether they are municipally or privately owned. 

Not all sites are suitable for growing food.  The Finding a Suitable Site page on Grow Pittsburgh’s website and the Assessment page from Gtech’s Lots to Love website gives you a short overview of things to think about when selecting a site. 

If you find a suitable lot owned by the City of Pittsburgh, you can use the Adopt-A-Lot program that grants licenses and leases for creating temporary gardens on city-owned lots. The program even allows the on-site sale of what is grown, specifically through a “market-stand lease” ($25). Check out the Department of City Planning’s Vacant Lot Toolkit for step-by-step instructions on how to adopt-a-lot, as well as general info about vacant lots. 

A comparative study completed last year found that community support was integral to the success of urban farm operations. Especially if you are not already well-networked in the neighborhood where you are considering farming, it’s essential to reach out to local organizations to build support before you break ground. This report, titled Integrating Urban Farms into the Social Landscape of Cities, includes recommendations that can guide you through the process of becoming a part of your neighborhood. Community Development Corporations (CDCs) can also help with finding and securing land, and potentially with funding. A quick Google search for “CDC + your neighborhood” may help you find them, or browse the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group members.

If a publicly-owned vacant lot doesn’t work for what you are planning, leasing or buying land might be an option. The Finding, Assessing, and Securing Farmland guide created by New Entry Sustainable Farming Project is for farmers specifically, and helps you understand all of the leasing and purchasing options. The Gtech Lots to Love website also has a section on getting site permission for private lots.

Understanding Zoning
The city manages how residents use land parcels through zoning regulations. These regulations both encourage and deter certain activities. There are two types of zoning that are related to growing food: Agriculture and Urban Agriculture. The Urban Agriculture zoning code was updated in July 2015 to simplify the process and lower the permit fee, which is now $70 for most applications. Both Agriculture and Urban Agriculture uses are described in this fact sheet from the Department of City Planning. This Simplified Code and FAQ document is also helpful in understanding how you are affected. 

In summary, if you are just growing food for personal consumption, then you do not need to apply for any permits. But if you want to raise chickens, ducks, goats, and/or bees, or sell the food you grow, you need to apply for an Urban Agriculture permit. You may need to complete a site plan and this Site Plan Survey Requirements fact sheet explains what that is. You can also browse the full text of Urban Agriculture zoning code or read a first-hand account of the process. 

A note about animals: Depending on how many animals you have, you may need to follow state nutrient and manure management laws. If you are within the city, it is unlikely that you are affected but contact the Allegheny County Conservation District for more information.

Evaluating Soil Safety and Suitability
Growing healthy plants requires soil that is suitable, with sufficient nutrients and good soil structure, as well as free from harmful contaminants. Soil contamination can come in many forms, from lead paint to bought-in contaminated topsoil. 

It’s critical to do soil testing to ensure that the soil you are growing in is under the safe threshold for Lead (400 Parts Per Million), especially if you plan to share or sell your harvest with anyone else.  Depending on your site’s history, you may also wish to test for Arsenic, Cadmium, and Chromium, as well as organic chemicals.  Many soil testing labs will do a nutrient analysis, but the Penn State lab does this inexpensively; soil testing kits are available at the Penn State Center.

Knowing a site’s history can give you valuable insight in planning how to take samples. Use the Google Earth time slider, PGH ESRI website and/or Sanborn fire insurance Penn State maps to get your site’s history.  Follow the soil testing protocol on the Grow Pittsburgh website to take your samples.  

To read more about soil safety, check out this fact sheet from the EPA and this guide from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Accessing Water
The land you are growing on may already have a water hookup. But if not, accessing water is a challenge you will have face. If you have a lease on a city-owned vacant lot, you can request a water tap from Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) through the process on the Adopt-a-Lot website. 

In order to get water access on private land, the Single Family Residential Development process with PWSA will need to be followed for a new water service tap. The PWSA Procedures Manual describes the process of applying for a permit, but it may be confusing so contact PWSA with any questions. You can also avoid this costly process by working with a neighbor to share water access or by harvesting rainwater. The Pennsylvania Resource Council hosts Watershed Awareness/Rain Barrel Workshops throughout the area where you learn about rain harvesting and receive a 55-gallon rain barrel. If you would rather build your own, check out these resources from GrowNYC and Keep Growing Detroit

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