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At the end of 2015, 34 community gardens in New York City were protected from destruction. The gardens, some of which were on land owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and proposed for residential development last January, are now permanently part of the Parks Department. Behind the formation of several of these gardens on vacant publicly-owned land was 596 Acres, a grassroots nonprofit using design and technology for greenspace advocacy.
“The project is about community control and community access to land,” Paula Z. Segal, 596 Acres executive director, told Hyperallergic. She added that “design is a huge part of making sure that different people are involved in the process.” Among their initiatives are signs reading “This Land Is Your Land” in green text with information on options to learn more about the lots’ potential for use. These are installed on chain link fences that often close off the derelict lots.
“The signs bring the information to where it matters to most, to where people in neighborhoods need it the most,” Segal said. 596 Acres (named for the acres of vacant public land in Brooklyn) has installed the signs since 2011 so people “who have the vacant lot in their neighborhood are the people who have the information about it.”
For example, last March the New York Daily News reported that the New York City Housing Authority was selling small lots of land, including greenspaces. By having signage, and getting the community involved, people living in the area can know that a space is public land rather than some empty private property, and rally around it if such a sale is proposed.
There’s also the Living Lots NYC site, a database which maps public vacant land across the five boroughs, plotting which have people organizing, which have current access, and which are still unused. Viewing the map reveals that a lot of the vacant lots are in low-income neighborhoods, some likely claimed in eminent domain for a public project that was never executed. Last year, 596 Acres had an installation on the Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum called the “Urban Reviewer,” which visualized the city’s history of urban renewal plans, including those that got to the demolition stage, but never development.
596 Acres grows on existing initiatives in the city like GreenThumb, started in the 1970s when the financial state of the city increased the number of abandoned lots, both public and private. GreenThumb is now part of the Department of Parks and Recreation, and is a vital support for the community gardens now under their control. The gardens being transferred to NYC Parks following the December decision include the Siempre Verde Garden on the Lower East Side, the Casa Frela Sculpture Garden in Harlem, the 451 Bedford Avenue Garden in Brooklyn, the Java Street Garden in Greenpoint, the Chestnut Street Garden in Cypress Hills, the McKinley’s Children Garden in Queens, and the Libertad Urban Farm in the Bronx.
Through the signs, mapping, and public advocacy, there’s a new visibility for these abandoned lots, which people might walk by every day and not consider are public spaces, ready for a community garden or other cultural space. By remaking them into greenspaces, or any purpose, the community involved helps reverse blight, and adds a vibrancy to the streets that was missing. Anyone who wants to get involved can check out the Living Lots NYC map, see the vacant public lots in their neighborhood, and connect with their community to consider how an overgrown eyesore can be something more.
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