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.