596 Acres was launched in 2011 when its founders set out to identify all parcels of public land sitting vacant in Brooklyn, mapped the results, and calculated that there were no fewer than 596 acres of publicly-owned land in that borough of New York City alone.
The organization was founded by lawyer Paula Z. Segal, “a facilitator- and annotator-at-large who has lived in Brooklyn for ten years and focused her work on building capacity and providing technical assistance for local community-based organizing and decentralized pedagogic practice.” It is sustained by the hard work by her and other core staff members, and by donations.
596 Acres has made tremendous use of the power of technology to engage the public and recruit participants in the project. Rather than leave this vacant land sit until New York City sells it off to developers who will capitalize on the phenomenal boom in housing prices and rents, or rather than letting City officials in remote offices decide upon alternate designated uses for the land, 596 Acres encourages residents living near the vacant lots on their map to identify for sure that it is vacant and City-owned, determine what city agency controls the parcel(s), talk to neighbors to build consensus regarding how the local people would like to use this land, and get a plan in action for creating a garden, composting, growing food, establishing a gathering place for arts or educational use, or whatever would best serve the people in the immediate area.
Each vacant lot on the map has its own page on 596acres.org, where anyone can enter their name and contact information to become the “organizer” of the parcel of land, and where others who wish to participate can post comments, upload documents and plan work days, meetings, etc. 596 Acres also prints up signage and visits lots to attach announcements to the fence, alerting passersby that this is public land and that it is available for a local group to “claim” and use.
596 Acres also provides clear information for dealing with Community Boards and City agencies who might have the real estate in their portfolio. In essence, they built a community project template, provided Web-based technological support, and thus have created the strongest type of Bubble Up Change — an effort that self-propagates from lot to lot, neighbor to neighbor, across Brooklyn. And, as of 2012 after clear positive, noticeable, documented successes in that Borough, 596 Acres has gone city-wide.