Vacant lots into community gardens: a profile of 596 Acres

A ribbon cutting for the new Keap Fourth Community Garden in Brooklyn, which was created with 596 Acres' help.

A rib­bon cut­ting for the new Keap Fourth Com­mu­ni­ty Gar­den in Brook­lyn, which was cre­at­ed with 596 Acres’ help. From http://​596acres​.org

On East 108th Street between 3rd and Lex­ing­ton Avenues, in the space between two brown­stones, there is a thin rec­tan­gu­lar lot behind a locked gate of chain-link fence. Much of the ground in the vacant lot is cov­ered by var­i­ous weedy plants, but next to one wall there is a stretch of bro­ken con­crete and what looks like grav­el­ly dust. The lot is strewn with rocks, shards of brick, and a fair amount of trash. It is a des­o­late lit­tle area. Some­time in the future, how­ev­er, the land may be some­thing quite dif­fer­ent and more cheer­ful, such as a gar­den. And if this hap­pens, it will be part­ly thanks to the orga­ni­za­tion 596 Acres. The 596 Acres web­site lists this space, Lot 43, as one of the lots that is being “orga­nized around,” mean­ing that some peo­ple are con­sid­er­ing turn­ing the lot into a com­mu­ni­ty space. The website’s page for this lot also pro­vides the name and phone num­ber of a con­tact who is involved in the lot’s pos­si­ble devel­op­ment.

596 Acres, which uses the slo­gan “find the lot in your life,” seeks to turn the abun­dance of vacant lots in New York City into oppor­tu­ni­ty. Its mis­sion is to help make unused land in the city acces­si­ble and to help trans­form it into “com­mu­ni­ty resources,” usu­al­ly gar­dens. A group of gar­den­ers in Brook­lyn, led by Paula Z. Segal, start­ed 596 Acres in 2011. They took its name from a sta­tis­tic in the city’s offi­cial data, which stat­ed that there were 596 acres of pub­licly owned vacant land in Brook­lyn.

The group’s first mis­sion was to raise aware­ness about the amount of unused land; it cre­at­ed and dis­trib­ut­ed a map show­ing all the vacant lots in Brook­lyn. The orga­ni­za­tion also began to hang signs on lots, inform­ing passers­by that the lots were poten­tial­ly usable. 596 Acres con­tin­ues to place such signs today.

When near­by res­i­dents want to start a gar­den or oth­er com­mu­ni­ty project in a vacant lot, 596 Acres first con­nects peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in using the lot. The 596 Acres web­site dis­plays posts about poten­tial new projects, and includes the con­tact infor­ma­tion of peo­ple involved so that any­one can join the effort.

596 Acres also informs cit­i­zens about how to inter­act with the New York City gov­ern­ment to gain access to land. It pro­vides infor­ma­tion about this on its web­site, and when request­ed, it holds “com­mu­ni­ty land access work­shops” with aspir­ing project lead­ers to give guid­ance. 596 Acres also acts as a third par­ty to help with com­mu­ni­ca­tion between city gov­ern­ment agen­cies and the groups who are inter­est­ed in using pub­lic land. After com­mu­ni­ties gains access, 596 Acres helps them orga­nize the new projects. It also offers instruc­tions for trans­form­ing a lot into a space for grow­ing food.

596 Acres orig­i­nal­ly only doc­u­ment­ed lots in Brook­lyn, but the project has now spread to Man­hat­tan, the Bronx, and Queens. A map show­ing all the vacant lots in the­se bor­oughs is avail­able on its web­site. It cur­rent­ly lists 430.736 acres of vacant land in 1356 lots. 596 Acres has caused an increase in the amount of green space and local food in the city. It has already helped groups get access to 22 sites. So far, the projects that have been cre­at­ed are all gar­dens, but 596 Acres also helps groups that are inter­est­ed in oth­er types of projects, such as out­door the­aters or dog runs. 596 Acres also part­ners with orga­ni­za­tions that work towards the cre­ation of gar­dens in oth­er cities, thus fos­ter­ing the evo­lu­tion of green­er cityscapes every­where.