How to turn a scuzzy vacant lot into a green oasis

These land scraps await your green thumb. Some of them are up to three acres in size.

You know that disgusting lot you have to walk by every day? The one that almost drives you to buy a hoe and jump over the chain link fence? Paula Segal knows how you feel and wants to help you do something about it. The lot that changed her life was at Myrtle and Kent. It was two acres of wasteland originally slotted to become a neighborhood park 25 years ago, but was ultimately forgotten about. She organized a community meeting to see if anyone else shared her sentiments. About 100 people showed up and together, they convinced the city to give them the keys to the lot. 

Now there’s 596 Acres, an organization Segal founded that has mapped out all of the vacant public space in Brooklyn. (It adds up to 596 acres.) The map boils it down to just the government owned, publicly accessible lots, technically termed “gutter space.”

These are the leftover odds and ends created by zoning errors over the years. Many of these spaces are long thin slivers of land that are unusable for commercial or residential purposes. They sit empty because the city didn’t fix its mistakes and buildings went up all around them. The only way to fix it would be to raze the buildings and start the mapping from scratch. Since that’s not going to happen, 596 Acres has set  out to transform these oddly shaped plots into usable green space. (They’re not all bits and bobs — some are up to three acres in size.)

A 596 Acres project at 248 Bergen Street. Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell.

Patchen Community Square is one such success story; a group of Bed-Stuy residents are turning the lot into a children’s play area and garden. Java Street Garden Collaborative in Greenpoint has created a space to learn about design and gardening. A plot at 463 Tompkins is set to become an urban orchard and another huge lot at Jefferson and Broadway is open to whatever creative schemes you can think of. How about a community bocce ball court? (With a garden on the side of course — their goal is to make Brooklyn greener after all.)

So you want to turn that eyesore of a garbage heap across the street into something beautiful? Gather some friends and request a “visioning session” from 596 Acres. They will come to you (if you provide the location, a projector and snacks) and teach your group how to write a contract for the land — and how to execute your plan.