A land trust is one of several models of ownership that can be used to convert vacant land within cities into part of a larger open space network. While this ownership model is not new, dating back to the 19th century, it is only recently that land trusts have been stewarding land within cities.
Throughout its history the land trust has been a method to protect land and other assets from development pressure.
While this has been a successful method of preservation, land trusts have typically existed on the urban fringe. Land trusts have largely been used to protect greenfield land from encroaching development and sprawl.
There are two primary models available through a land trust. The first is direct ownership of the land. In this model, the land trust owns the land and controls decisions about what occurs on and with the land. The second model is through a conservation easement. Under a conservation easement, the ownership of the land remains with the original owner, however there are restrictions placed on what can happen on the land. In exchange for entering into a conservation easement, owners in many states and counties receive tax benefits. Often when using a conservation easement, land trusts control the rights to future development on a site while allowing the owner to continue to use their land.
While land trusts have been primarily used on the urban fringe, in recent years they have begun to be used in the urban context as a way to preserve community assets. Two examples of land trusts operating in cities are the Neighborhood Gardens Trust in Philadelphia, which works to provide consistent ownership for community gardens and Thriving Communities Institute which is part of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy has begun to work to protect urban land in the state of Ohio.
The land trust offers a few models for creating stable ownership for the long-term use of land within cities for open space purposes.