Lots belonging to urban farmers and gardeners in Pittsburgh will soon become protected land thanks to the efforts of two area nonprofits.

Grow Pittsburgh and Allegheny Land Trust recently launched the Three Rivers Agricultural Land Initiative, a joint venture meant to ensure that existing and future community gardens and urban farms stay put.

With development pressures increasing in many parts of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, it is increasingly urgent to permanently protect land to ensure these important projects are not lost,” says Grow Pittsburgh Executive Director Jake Seltman. “As vacant land becomes more scarce, Pittsburgh has the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve, protecting the gains made through robust investment in urban food production over the past decade.”

Allegheny Land Trust will acquire and manage lands in perpetuity, while Grow Pittsburgh will step in to operate urban farms and assist neighborhoods with starting community gardens.

Allegheny Land Trust President and CEO Chris Beichner says that while his organization focuses mainly on buying up and conserving “large parcels of ecologically valuable, existing green space” throughout the county – like Dead Man’s Hollow in the Youghiogheny River Valley – the partnership with Grow Pittsburgh gives them a chance to expand their mission.

This initiative allows us to apply our tools to more urban challenges like parcel ownership and food security,” says Beichner, adding that the loss of rural farmland has made urban farms all the more essential as a source of “local, sustainable, fresh food sources for our communities.”

The Trust estimates that there are currently more than 80 community gardens and urban farms in Allegheny County, many of which operate without a formal land use agreement or only have temporary permission. This leaves them at the mercy of landowners who could choose to sell the land to developers, in effect squandering the efforts of dedicated volunteers and organizers.

It is a real challenge for gardeners to invest the resources they need to develop impactful projects without the assurance they will have access to the land for a minimum period,” says Seltman. “This insecurity is the reality for too many projects and one of the critical reasons for starting this initiative.”

He adds that the lack of formal land use agreements also renders urban gardens and farms ineligible for many sources of funding, including USDA and philanthropic grants.

Central to the initiative is a nine-person steering committee consisting of representatives from Grow Pittsburgh, Allegheny Land Trust and local community gardening groups, who, in the coming months, will develop the leases and outline how gardens and farms will cooperate with the initiative to ensure projects thrive. They plan to choose three community members in August and September to help lead the committee.

It is important to the long-term success of this project that community is represented in decision-making from the beginning,” says Seltman.

He also believes that the initiative can only lead to a positive outcome, regardless of whether or not a garden or farm succeeds.

“Even if a given project stops functioning as a food producing space, it can still be transitioned to another green use and stay under community control,” says Seltman. “Although we hope this won’t happen and will do everything in our power to prevent it, we think it’s vitally important that these spaces continue to serve the community as green assets in whatever way the community feels is most appropriate.”

For anyone interested in serving as a community representative, applications and nominations for the three steering committee positions are open until September 8.

See also: Hilltop Urban Farm in South Pittsburgh is set to become the largest urban farm in the country