Digging Up Land Trusts’ Urban Roots

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Conservation land trusts work to protect land by holding property rights for the public good.

Relying on a combination of volunteers, staff and a board of directors, these nonprofit organizations may own land outright (which may be turned into public recreation areas or reserved for conservation purposes), or place conservation easements on pieces of property (which allows the land to remain privately-owned while still protected from development). In doing so, land trusts are advocates for responsible land use so that current and future generations can enjoy the many benefits of open space: recreation, agriculture, biodiversity and climate resiliency (just to name a few).

But, while all land trusts work towards these fundamental goals, each one represents a unique community and defines its own mission. Looking across the U.S. you can find land trusts of all shapes and sizes, but no two are identical.

People often imagine land conservation as occurring on tracts of remote wilderness, along the rolling hills of a bucolic farm, or framing a National Park; and, some land trusts do work on large scale preserves. But many land trusts form when development pressure reaches a breaking point and jeopardizes some of last remaining space for communities to gather.

In 1999 a group of community gardeners banded together to protect 112 community gardens that were slated for development in New York City. Through several years of negotiations and grassroots action this community saved 69 of the gardens and soon after officially formed the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust. Today BQLT owns 34 gardens maintained with the help of 500 volunteers who use these gardens as food sources, educational spaces and social centers.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 8.52.18 AMThis is a familiar story. Conservation land trusts were borne out of Post-Industrial Revolution Boston in response to urban sprawl. Worried that development would destroy the scenic nature of the State Capital, a landscape architect named Charles Eliot (left) wrote an op-ed letter petitioning for legislation that would allow a trust to form and keep significant land for the public’s enjoyment (comparing the act to lending books from a library or experiencing art in a museum). In 1891, legislation was passed and The Trustees of Public Reservations formed.

The number of land trusts continues to grow into the thousands. As more and more land is protected it is easy to get distracted by the conservation work being done on postcard-worthy swathes of land, and this is very important work. But, it is equally important to remember the vital role that land trusts play in cities.

As we move towards a more urbanized society we cannot overlook the benefits that come from protected open spaces in cities. It is hard to monetize the good that comes from creating a park or saving a garden when the land could be quickly sold for storefronts or new apartments. How can you put a price on the mental and physical wellness that comes from smart growth and responsible land management when these effects are seen over the course of many generations? Often, it is hard to know just how much these areas are worth for our communities until they are gone.

The Kingston Land Trust is committed to working with the Kingston community to protect open space and conserve our natural resources through land acquisition, education and outreach. In doing so, we join other urban land trusts that continue the great tradition that began in Boston 120 years ago.

The City Garden courtesy of bklnr.com
Charles Eliot’s portrait courtesty of brooklineperspective.blogpost.com

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