NYC Community Land Access Summary
A New York City Advocate's Summary of Routes to Land Access for Community Uses
There are many things you could create with access to vacant public land in your neighborhood. A playground? A community garden? A butterfly garden or other wildlife habitat? A space for concerts, meetings, or movie screenings? All that’s needed is some organizing ingenuity and imagination.
Many existing NYC community-controlled public lots are licensed through GreenThumb, a city agency that straddles the Department of Citywide Administrative Services and the Department of Parks and Recreation. GreenThumb is a route to interim-use licenses between gardeners and City agencies that own land. GreenThumb also sometimes shepherds interim projects on formerly vacant public land into becoming permanently protected projects by transferring them to the Department of Parks and Recreation. 596 Acres can help your group prepare an application for a GreenThumb license on vacant public land and advocate for permanent protection for an existing site. Using the map on 596acres.org, you can identify sites that are opportunities for Green Thumb licenses in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens (we're working on the rest of the city). The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, NYC’s urban renewal agency, encourages interim use on its sites and met their commitment of licensing 25 new sites between January 2011 and January 2013.
Within the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) campuses, most community-organized spaces are gardens. There are hundreds of gardens on NYCHA campuses. With some narrow exceptions, NYCHA land is reserved for gardening by NYCHA residents; gardening on NYCHA property by NYCHA residents is supported by the NYCHA Garden and Greening Program. If your project seeks to work with NYCHA residents to grow food on NYCHA property, 596 Acres can help you craft a formal proposal to present to NYCHA officials. In 2013, NYCHA partnered with Added Value in Red Hook to build a working farm at the Red Hook Houses.
Some sites on vacant land in New York City exist by means of an agreement directly between community organizations and the specific City agency that has site control over the land. The Gowanus Canal Conservancy, Added Value in Red Hook, and the new Myrtle Village Green site in northern Bed-Stuy are examples of groups that have access to formerly vacant public land by having an agreement directly with a City agency.
Using the map on 596acres.org, you can identify potential sites for community projects as interim, temporary projects or long-term projects. You can also look for 596 Acres signs on the fences of the lots in your life: we have labeled many vacant public lots in all five boroughs. 596 Acres can help your group negotiate an agreement with any agency that oversees vacant public land.
You can see the gardens that exist now in NYC on public land at 596acres.org (turn on the layer called "community gardens on public land").
The Department of Citywide Administrative Services has been under a mandate from City Council since December of 2011 to maintain a searchable database of all city-owned and city-leased property with the goal of gathering information regarding whether properties might be suitable for community use. This database is part of the way we put lots on the map at 596acres.org; the portion regarding whether lots are determined to be suitable for urban agriculture and other community projects was added on November 15, 2013 (the column is faaaar to the right on this spreadsheet; note that lots under 2500 square feet are not considered urban agriculture-appropriate, but they might make nice small community spaces nonetheless).
LAND TRUST LAND
Some NYC community spaces are part of a “land trust”. Land trusts are non-profit organizations whose mission is to conserve land, usually for the benefit of the public in the form of parks and open spaces. In NYC, local land trusts, such as the Bronx Land Trust, the Manhattan Land Trust, the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust, and the Brooklyn Alliance of Neighborhood Gardeners have acquired many plots with the express purpose of keeping them open to the public as community gardens or other community spaces. The land’s public use is made permanent in its deed - the legal document that conveys ownership to the land trust. Future owners of the land may have to to continue its use as a community garden (or other acceptable public use). If the owner can or will not continue such use, they may have to convey the land to another organization that could keep up its use as a community space.
596 Acres can help your group develop a successful strategy to conserve your land for public use (forever!), based on tried and proven models used by other land trusts. Restricting a piece of land forever (a restriction that is referred to as “running with the land”) is possible by making sure the intention is specified in the deed that conveys the land to the land trust. Sample deeds can be found here to give you an idea of how these restrictions are phrased to achieve maximum effect.
Some community sites in NYC are privately owned by organizations whose mission it is to support them, like the New York Restoration Project. Some are owned by the organization that runs them, like the 1100 Bergen Street Block Association in Crown Heights. Some public spaces are simply there with the permission of the landowner (others are on privately owned land without the owner's permission).
Many vacant lots in New York City are privately owned. Individual community groups and private landowners who see the benefits of having a site actively used, versus sitting abandoned and vacant, sometimes work together to create community spaces and opportunities. The big difference is that when working with a private owner it is really all about the relationship.
A good online tool that might help you find an existing community garden to plug into is Garden Maps (it shows gardens on public AND private land). An even better tool is your feet - take a walk and find the ones in your neighborhood!
We have more detailed information about working with private land owners here.
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