Brownfields or Vacant Lots In Your Life?

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Is the New York City summer weather inspiring you to start a garden or farm? Unsure if your local vacant, empty space or yard is safe for planting produce? The truth is, because many of the city’s neighborhoods have an industrial past, the soil is probably contaminated. To be safe, City Atlas recommends sending a sample of soil to Brooklyn College to test it for toxins such as lead or heavy metals.

If you want to get a head start on learning more about transforming a vacant space into a green space for growing produce, check out these guides: The Green Thumbs Gardener’s Handbook and Urban Agriculture and Brownfields Guidelines for Safe Gardening.

Curious about where there are vacant lots in NYC just waiting for revitalization? The educational project 596 Acres developed a interactive map which includes Brooklyn vacancies, but is currently expanding to include Manhattan and Queens. 596 Acres also has a awesome six step guide to “Turning Your Lot Into A Food Production Space.”

In addition, The City Atlas lab’s own Kaja Kuhl has been researching vacant lot revitalization and has created a printed guide to phytoremediation, (a natural process to decontaminate soil with plants,) in her Field Lab project at Finca del Sur in the Bronx. Learn more about The Field Lab and visit a workshop during the summer.


596 Acres is a public education project aimed at making communities aware of the land resources around them. With the goal of a food sovereign New York City in mind, 596 Acres is helping neighbors form connections to the vacant lots in their lives by mapping city-owned, vacant land in Brooklyn. Print maps are attached to the fences that lock the neighborhood out of the land, and a digital map facilitates connections between those who are interested in transforming lots near them. As neighbors organize, 596 Acres often acts as a liaison between the neighborhood group and the city agency that controls the vacant lot. Since the summer of 2011, four groups that have met through 596 Acres’ print and digital maps have received access to their target lots and are in the process of creating community-driven spaces in their neighborhoods. Over twenty other groups are in the process of organizing to get access to their lots.

Kaja Kühl, (Dipl.Ing, AICP) received her Diploma in Architecture from the University in Karlsruhe, Germany and a Master of Science in Urban Planning from Columbia University in New York. Prior to founding youarethecity in 2008, she worked for the New York City Department of City Planning as an Urban Designer and team leader where she was responsible for design guidance and development of public policy for several private rezoning applications and city initiatives. Selected projects include Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ 65th Street Project, Sherman Creek Housing Opportunity Plan, Upper West Side Contextual Rezoning, Columbia University‘s Expansion Plan in Manhattanville, 125th Street rezoning study and streetscape analysis, Small Sidewalk Cafe Initiative. Kaja is a certified planner and Associate Professor at Columbia University, where she coordinates the 5 Borough Studio as part of the Urban Design Program and teaches studios and seminars related to her research on migration and urban spaces.

youarethecity is a research, design and planning practice interested in creating dialogue about the urban environment. Informed by the belief that the city is a complex set of economic, social, environmental, political, historic, geographic and spatial dynamics, each of which can be a transformative agent in the design and planning process, youarethecity collaborates with institutions, individuals and non-profit organizations to produce maps, diagrams, writings, designs, websites, events and exhibitions about urban spaces. youarethecity is a WBE certified business in New York City and is located in Downtown Brooklyn at the Metropolitan Exchange.


Top photograph by Todd Heisler