In 2011, videogame developer Tami Johnson, then 29, wanted to create an outdoor community space for her neighborhood in Brooklyn. In search of just the right spot, Johnson found an unusual website that mapped all the borough’s vacant lots. It was like a Zillow for perfectly good land obscured by urban blight. She scrolled through and found 348 Bergen Street.
The lot was small, less than a 10th of an acre, and narrow as a brownstone, with twisted trees, tall grass and, of course, take-out wrappers from some of Brooklyn’s finest restaurants.
The website linked Johnson to neighbors who also wanted to build something on Bergen Street. Together, they got the owner’s permission to borrow the lot, then crammed it with amenities: a working farm, beehives, a garden raising ingredients for a local dinner church, and a natural dye garden for a nearby arts center. They started a community composting operation and hosted exhibits, concerts, and classes. They named the place A Small Green Patch.
The group that made it all possible by creating that online map is a nonprofit called 596 Acres. The organization formed in 2011, when lawyer Paula Z. Segal and programmer Eric Brelsford teamed up to promote the potential of Brooklyn’s fallow acres. (You guessed it -- there were 596 of them.) The first lot they helped secure was 462 Halsey, now a community garden. They have subsequently helped organize more than 100 campaigns and liberated 17 lots, with 10 more in the works.
Since Grist first featured the group back in 2012, 596 Acres has inspired young lawyers, organizers, urbanists, and gardeners around the world to create similar websites using their cities’ own data. In Philadelphia, you can scope out vacant lots on the websites Possible City and Grounded in Philly. In New Orleans, Living Lots launches this November. Comparable sites will soon go online in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.