Big Tech understands the power of data to advance its interests. It’s time for commoners to do the same, especially in urban settings.
A pioneer in this style of high-tech activism is the Brooklyn-based group 596 Acres, whose name comes from apparent number of acres of vacant public land in Brooklyn in 2011 as determined by the NYC Department of City Planning. Since its founding that year, 596 Acres has ingeniously used various databases to identify vacant lots throughout the City that could be re-purposed into public gardens, farms parks, and community meeting spaces.
Paula Z. Segal, an attorney who works with the Urban Justice Center in New York City, explained in a blog post that shortly after its founding in 2011, “the 596 Acres team started hunting down all available data about city-owned land. Once we got the data, we worked to translate it into usable information. For each publicly owned ‘vacant’ lot we found, we asked two questions: 1) ‘Is this lot in use already?’ and 2) ‘Can you reach this lot from the street?’”
The group used a combination of automated script, Google Maps, the interactive community maps at OASISNYC.net, and gardener surveys done by a NYC nonprofit, to identify the unused lots accessible from the street. It discovered that there were approximately 660 acres of vacant public land in New York City, distributed across 1,800 sites. But putting this land to better, public uses required commoners to organize and pressure elected officials and city bureaucrats to transfer ownership and allow the creation of new green spaces.
There is a backstory to 596 Acres’ activism: In the 1990s, many New Yorkers converged on trashed-out parcels of city land, converting them into hundreds of community gardens. This amazing surge of commoning helped to humanize the cityscape while, as a byproduct, raising property values for adjacent buildings in the neighborhood. People could undertake this work only because the vacant lots were open and accessible. (In the era of Mayors Guiliani and Bloomberg, by contrast, any vacant lots are fenced, effectively thwarting the reclaiming of vacant lots and abandoned buildings for commoners.) Guiliani sought to sell off the land that commoners had reclaimed, provoking a fierce backlash that resulted in the creation of scores of community land trusts to manage the gardens.
Now that vacant lots are fenced, 596 Acres post signs on the fences informing neighbors that the land is actually publicly owned (i.e., government, not commoners, has title to the land). The signs invite people to organize to try to convert the unused lots into gardens or parks. To help move this process along, 596 Acres has created online maps giving detailed information about each vacant lot – who is the registered owner, the land's legal status, city departments and politicians who should be contacted, etc.
Living Lots NYC now serves as “a clearinghouse of information that New Yorkers can use to find, unlock and protect our shared resources.” The site features a searchable database and map of 899 “acres of opportunity” on 1,337 sites, and 1,186 acres of community projects on 584 sites. The map also includes colored dots showing where people have access and where people are organizing to liberate land. A primary goal of the site is to “broadcast what is know-able [about vacant city land parcels] and to help people find one another on a property-by-property basis.”
Paula Segal explains that:
Wherever possible, the goal is a permanent transfer of public land to the NYC Parks Department, or private land to a community land trust. But sometimes creating a temporary space for a few years until other planned development moves forward—arranged via an interim use agreement—is the only achievable outcome.
In each instance, residents must navigate a unique bureaucratic maze: applying for approval from their Community Board, winning endorsement from local elected officials, and negotiating with whichever agency holds title to the land. Along the way, 596 Acres provides legal advice, technical assistance, and a network for sharing best practices from successful campaigns.
Some of the benefits of building power this way have been unexpected. In January 2015, when NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) published a list of 181 “hard to develop” properties that they would sell for $1 to developers willing to build affordable housing, we were able to quickly analyze the list and find out that it included 20 community garden lots. Six of those were gardens that had been formed with our support.
Within three weeks of the list’s publication, over 150 New Yorkers, including four City Council members, were rallying on the steps of City Hall. By the end of that year, the administration had transformed 36 formerly “interim use” spaces to permanently preserved NYC Parks Department gardens, including fifteen of the gardens on the January list. Using our network, community gardeners had preempted a major threat, ensuring that the largest wave of garden preservation in NYC history would happen without a legal battle.
596 Acres has now moved beyond vacant lots, focusing on how inaccessible and neglected NYC parks, buildings and post offices could be put to better use.
In collaboration with the Urban Justice Center and Common Cause/NY, 596 Acres also operates a website called NYCommons that helps people learn more about New York City’s public spaces. Some 3,243 properties are listed, with colored dots indicating whether the property is a library, post office, waterfront facility, public housing, garden, vacant lot, whether “development is pending” and if organizing [against “development”] is underway.
“Some are opportunities to organize new spaces for integrated community services,” writes Segal. “Others we hope to preserve in the face of a real estate market hungry for places it can transform into luxury development.” Many of of the neglected land parcels, parks, community centers, public baths, rest rooms and buildings are in low-income communities of color -- victims of the city’s fiscal crisis and class-driven policy choices in the 1970s.
I’m impressed with how database-driven maps can be used to galvanize and assist citizen campaigns to reclaim the city. It suggests that commoners should convene more “inter-mapping” confabs to trade insights and develop database activism.