How We Connect: Bridging the Gap Between Neighborhoods Through Public Land

When I worked as a local newspaper reporter, it was frustrating to see community members with ideas of how to transform or beautify their town stopped at the onset by a puzzling municipal process or other access issues.

Usually the problem could be traced back to not knowing who to contact or the right department to go to, information that is not always easily accessible.

Enter Paula Segal, founder of 596 Acres, who describes her mission of connecting unused vacant public land in Brooklyn to community members with ideas for action in the article “Flowers Follow“ in the latest issue of Shelterforce. Segal recounts her struggle to get information about the availability of land and who was responsible for which plots to the public, who were eager to see the spaces reclaimed.

Through the 596 Acres website, community members can identify potential project sites using interactive maps of Brooklyn's vacant public land. Pinpoints on the map show whether lots are available, private, or in the process of being organized. Contact information and suggested ways to organize a project are listed for available plots.

Segal says the distribution of these vacant land parcels lines up an unequal division of resources between neighborhoods. “596 Acres’ maps make patterns of neglect visible by showing the distribution of unused, misused, or otherwise untapped resources,” she writes. “These maps make concrete what would otherwise be invisible or, at best, anecdotal.”

Revitalizing the vacant land parcels is a way to start to 'unsort' the neighborhoods, connecting neighbors through common spaces of earth.

Since Segal's article, 596 Acres has announced it is expanding to provide information about vacant public land in the Bronx as well, and launch a version of its website in Spanish. In the Bronx alone, there are about 42 acres of vacant public land in over 141 vacant lots waiting to be transformed, according to 596 Acres' data.

Have you ever stopped a project because of obstacles in accessing information about a piece of property? If there was an organization near you focused on clearing those hurdles, what could you accomplish?

Jodi Weinberger served as assistant editor of Shelterforce from 2013 to 2014.


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