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How One Nonprofit Scales the Fences of Hundreds of Acres of Publicly Owned Vacant Land

If you’ve ever walked around New York City—whether through Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens or Staten Island—at some point you probably noticed that in between the restaurants, boutiques, and countless Duane Reades there are a surprising number of scattered vacant lots sitting empty, collecting weeds and garbage. You may have also noticed that these spaces are usually concentrated in lower income neighborhoods, the kind of areas where safe, beneficial land is most needed. If you’ve ever wondered why these lots were empty or why someone hasn’t just rolled up their sleeves and started planting some tomatoes, you may want to contact Brooklyn-based non-profit 596 Acres—but be ready to start digging. The organization has helped neighborhood organizers transform eight public sites so far, and with four more pre-approved, they're not slowing down anytime soon.

596 Acres catalogues the city's empty, unused land (check out the interactive map on their website to find a vacant lot near you), and then provides local communities with the resources—including online organizing platforms and advocacy help—to transform the spots into productive spaces. With simple tactics like posting signs on the city’s open lots and connecting locals to each other and the right government agencies, 596 Acres helps communities convince the city to give them the right to claim the spaces and put them to use.

The organization helps neighborhood leaders connect with city officials, build alliances with other local groups with vested interests in the land, find the necessary funding to support the project, sign agreements to keep everything above board, and eventually transform the lots into usable, productive space. Success stories include plans to turn a parcel at Patchen Avenue and Putnam in Brooklyn into a garden and play area and Community Board approval of interim gardens on Attorney and Stanton Streets in Manhattan. Through 596 Acre’s new partnership with the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, it will be helping to “identify, organize and access publicly-owned vacant land” in Philadelphia as well.

Working out of Silent Barn Stewdios, a shared artist’s space, performance center and community meeting place in Bushwick, Brooklyn, co-founder and attorney Paula Segal is passionate about the connections between land use and social justice, seeing the former as playing a fundamental role in achieving the latter. Her and attorney Anthony Mohen recently celebrated the opening of their legal practice, Mohen & Segal, through which they plan to expand the services they can offer local communities all over the city.

Interested in learning more? 596 Acres recently published its first book, the cheekily titled, I’m So Lucky You Found Me: Public Land Use Inside the City. Describing it as a “drawn documentary about public vacant lots in Brooklyn,” Segal notes it was produced through the efforts of many of the “neighbors and vacant lot transformers” that have worked with 596 Acres. The book offers a “visual narrative” by the talented Brazilian artist, Daniel Eizirik. According to Segal, “The book captures the unique experience of people finding people finding land inside the city.”

Want to get involved? Use the interactive map on the 596 Acres website to figure out what vacant lots in your neighborhood are up for grabs, and get started.

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