These are some of the questions we get asked the most. Please take a look before contacting us–the answer to your question may be right here! This information may be relevant to organizers in both NYC and other cities.

Learn about a particular lot

How can I learn more about a vacant lot in New York City?

Go to our map at Living Lots NYC to look up a lot and find out if it is publicly owned.

If you know of a vacant lot that is not on our map, chances are good that it’s privately owned. The best way to be sure is to look for the lot on OASIS. You can follow the link straight from the window that will pop up when you search on Living Lots NYC, or go to OASIS directly. On OASIS, the tab marked “Location Report” will contain the owner and links to more information regarding the lot. The OASIS tutorial “How do I access information about locations on the map?” might be helpful, too.

If you find out that the lot in your life is privately owned, check the questions in this FAQ under “Get started with a privately owned lot” and read about working with private land owners on Living Lots NYC.

Why isn't the vacant lot near me on your map?

Our map at Living Lots NYC shows vacant land that is owned by public land owners in NYC and places that have been developed from vacant lots into community open space projects.

If you know of a vacant lot that is not on our map, chances are good that it’s privately owned. The best way to be sure is to look for the lot on OASIS. You can follow the link straight from the window that will pop up when you search on Living Lots NYC, or go to OASIS directly. On OASIS, the tab marked “Location Report” will contain the owner and links to more information regarding the lot. The OASIS tutorial “How do I access information about locations on the map?” might be helpful, too.

If you find out that the lot in your life is privately owned, check the questions in this FAQ under “Get started with a privately owned lot” and read about working with private land owners on Living Lots NYC.

There's an existing garden missing from your map!

Let us know and we will add it!

Access a particular lot

There's a lot I want to work on getting control of for my community. Where do I start?

There are a lot of possible steps. To give you a sense of them, we made the diagram below. You can also download the diagram as a PDF

You've found the lot in your life. Now what? flowchart

You’ve found the lot in your life. Now what?

What can my neighbors and I do with the lot in our lives?

Our friends at Keep Growing Detroit put together a great guide to different vacant lot treatments a group can choose from. We invite you to take a look and mix and match from their simple and practical ideas.

I don't want to start a project, but I would like to get involved in my neighborhood. How do I do that?

You can turn on the layer of our map at Living Lots NYC that shows existing community gardens on public land.

Another good tool that might help you find an existing garden to plug into is Garden Maps. But the best tool is your feet—go for a walk; when you see a place you’d like to be a part of, stop and say hello.

I work at a school. My students would really benefit from being involved in a garden. How do I start?

You can see where there is vacant public land and gardens on public land using our map at Living Lots NYC. Another good tool that might help you find an existing garden to plug into is Garden Maps. You might also want to reach out to GrowNYC’s Grow To Learn Program—they are a school gardens program that might be able to give you the tools you need to go forward. They are a funded NYC program.

I'm looking for a place to put my temporary art installation/theater piece/sculpture/etc. Can you help me find a vacant lot to put it into?

Art is an important part of each 596 Acres community. As each site is self-managed by neighbors, each group makes its own decisions about how to integrate temporary projects and other artistic ventures. Check our map at Living Lots NYC and feel free to reach out to folks in the 596 Acres network who already have access to land. If you have an idea for a project that you have the resources to manage (like a mural) and are looking for a community that will welcome it, send a note to explaining your project and the resources you have to complete it. We’d be happy to share that with all the organizers on our network.

Talk to a city agency about a publicly owned lot

I'm about to call or email a city agency--what should I say?

You’ll need the identifying information about the lot you are interested in handy—the Block and Lot number is crucial; the address, if the lot has one, is also nice.

Our map at Living Lots NYC gives you contact information for the person who we think can tell you the status of the piece of vacant public land you’re interested in. Sometimes our sleuthing is off, or sometimes people change jobs. When you call, start by asking if they are the person you should speak to about a vacant property in your neighborhood. If they’re not, ask who is (and remember to tell us by emailing

If they are, tell them you are calling from a neighborhood organization. Describe the lot and how long it’s been empty. Give the Block and Lot number and maybe the address. Ask if the agency has any plans for it. Ask about a timeline.

Make sure you get the email of the person who you are talking to. Follow up with a note and copy Then add a note describing what you learned about the lot to its page on Living Lots NYC so that we can all learn from your experience.

Can a New York City agency just tell me that my group can't use the lot anymore after we put work into it?

If the site belongs to the city and has a GreenThumb license, Parks Department regulations for GreenThumb gardens require GreenThumb to provide your group with an alternate site in the event the lot you steward is needed for something else, as long as one is available either within a 1/2 mile of the site or within your community district. This rule applies to any city agency site (Housing Preservation and Development, Parks & Recreation, etc.).

For sites that are under the Parks Department’s jurisdiction or otherwise considered “parkland” by the public, the city agency also needs to get approval from the state legislature to turn the site into something other than open space. The law that makes this approval necessary is called the “public trust doctrine” and the process is called “alienation.” Details are in the state handbook on alienation.

Note that if your group signs an agreement that explicitly states the site is for “interim use,” it’s not likely that public trust doctrine will apply. The city agency will be able to assign another use without state approval, but will still need to provide your garden group with an alternate site if one is available.

Get started with a privately owned lot

Do you have a sample letter to a private land owner?

Need help drafting a letter? Take a look at this example of what you might want to say:


[Name this person],

I’m writing in regards to an empty lot at [insert lot address and city] that I believe you may have an affiliation with as per the city’s tax financial records.  A group of neighbors and I are interested in temporarily using it as [insert use, perhaps a garden or community meeting spot] in the time period before development of the property becomes a reality.  My hope with this letter is that you will be able to help get permission from the owner of the property to turn it into a community resource for the short term.  If you are the owner, or know who the owner is, I would really appreciate your help with this.

The project would involve a group of community members who would use the space to [insert activities planned for the space, such as gardening or hosting events].  In return, the same group would help maintain the lot:  keeping the lot clear of trash and debris, shoveling snow in the winter, and [insert other forms of maintenance].  We would be sure to obtain general liability insurance to cover anyone working on the property and will name the owner as an additional insured.  We would also make sure that any project that is started would be marked as temporary to ease the transition of the land to development.  We would be happy to sign a contract with the owner enumerating these promises.

In the future, the City of New York is considering creating a tax credit for owners of vacant lots whose neighbors use them.  Our collaboration at [insert the lot’s address] can be a model for other communities working with private land owners.

Please let me know if this is something you can help with.


[Your Name and contact information]

How do I figure out the actual address of the vacant lot near me?

The resource we use is OASIS. To figure out how to get information there, check out this great OASIS tutorial.

How do I figure out who has the deed to the land?

After you get some more specific information about the privately owned lot you’re looking at, you can use ACRIS. Select “Search Property Records” to figure out who was the last person to receive the deed and look at the image of the deed or its details to see contact information for all parties and their attorneys. You can try contacting everyone!

Still having trouble figuring out where to contact the owner of a private lot?

The most recent tax bill is also a good place to look for a good mailing address; start at the NYC Department of Finance’s website and look at the PDFs of the bills to see where they are being sent.

If the owner is a corporation, you can also look them up in OpenCorporates. You can search the NYS Division of Corporations’ Corporation and Business Entity Database to see whether the corporation is currently active or dissolved; you can also see what address the corporation has on file as the place where the state can contact it. You can use that address, too!

How do I know how much the owner owes in taxes?

Start at the NYC Department of Finance‘s website. Look at the latest Quarterly Statement. You can also see if a property has any current or past tax abatements and exemptions at the Department of Finance’s Property Tax Benefit Information page.

There's this privately owned vacant lot that I already have permission to use. How do I get started?

This is a great opportunity for your neighborhood and the wider 596 Acres community. Two ways you could start:

  1. If you’d like to be involved in the project yourself, put a sign on the fence to the lot telling your neighbors that you have permission to use it and how to reach you to start scheming for how to do so this spring.
  1. If you’re looking for other people to spearhead the effort (and take care of things like insurance and fundraising), we can add your lot to our interactive map at Living Lots NYC to draw people to your budding project that way. Contact us to let us know the address of the lot and if you’d like to do that. Our map has a layer for private lots that people WANT community uses on and we can add yours to it.

Legal issues to consider when starting a group or project

Nothing on this page constitutes legal advice

What if we need to become an organization in the legal sense to meet our land access goals?

Legally, you could choose to become a corporation, a limited liability company or a coop. There are several types of corporations in New York State but if you are doing work that is geared towards improving your neighborhood only and not generating a profit, you probably want to incorporate as a not-for-profit corporation. Here is some information about the process from the NYS Division of Corporations and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Your group will need to name 3 initial directors to form a board. Keep in mind that these 3 people will take on liability for the corporation (e.g., for paying taxes).

You’ll need to pay some fees to incorporate as a not-for-profit corporation:

  • the reservation of name fee ($5),
  • incorporation fee ($75),
  • charity registration fee ($25) and,
  • if your group plans to incorporate any education in its mission, a NYS Department of Education consent fee ($10).

Does incorporating make my group a tax exempt organization?

Incorporating in New York State is a separate process from filing with the IRS to have your organization’s tax exempt status recognized (under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code). It’s totally legit and legal to incorporate as a NYS  not-for-profit without filing with the IRS for tax exemption. Your organization would be presumed exempt and not need to apply to have the IRS recognize your exemption as long as your income was not over $5,000 (find more information at the IRS public charity tax exemption application page).

The fees for filing with the IRS start at $400. If you’re just starting out and you’ve filed as a New York State not-for-profit, the IRS will presume that you meet the requirements and donations to your organization are actually tax exempt income for both the organization and the donor as long as your group doesn’t collect more than $5,000 in any single year. If you think you might cross the $5,000 line, it probably makes sense for your group to use a fiscal sponsor (to handle all your finances) or IOBY (to fundraise for specific projects) or simply collect donations that are not tax exempt (the Section 501(c)(3) exemption is NOT why your neighbor is giving you $20 for shovels). If you figure out that your organization needs to have your own recognized Section 501(c)(3) exemption for some reason, you can then file for it.

596 Acres, Inc. is a New York State not-for-profit corporation, with an income of more than $5,000 annually. Our fiscal sponsor is the Fund for the City of New York. We have not filed with the IRS to have our own exemption recognized under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code.

What if my group needs a lawyer?

The Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center provides legal help for base building, leadership-development-oriented community organizations and worker cooperatives. Attorneys offer legal advice and assistance to grassroots organizations in a variety of areas, including incorporation and tax exemption, complying with non-profit, employment and tax laws, and real estate and lease issues. They also help groups of workers establish worker-owned cooperative businesses. For more information visit the Community Development Project website, or call 646-459-3017.

What's the difference between a license and a lease?

A license gives you permission to do something or be somewhere. It can be taken away at any time because it is given freely.

A lease is a contract that can’t be taken away by one party because both sides are actually giving up something to be a part of the relationship. When you pay rent to a landlord, you are giving up money and they are giving up the right to rent the space to someone else or use it themselves. You have a contract.

What about insurance?

You may want general liability insurance for your project on public land so that if someone gets hurt, they can get care and no one will have to pay for it personally. Projects on city owned land are not required to carry insurance; private owners and municipal authorities like the MTA can require you to have insurance for the site as a prerequisite to giving you permission to use it.

Insurance sounds intimidating but it really isn’t. You’re just paying a company to carry the risk of anything bad that might happen in your space. Since gardens are pretty simple projects, that risk is not so severe and so insurance doesn’t cost that much. The American Community Gardening Association recently created a way for gardens who are members to get individual insurance policies affordably. Details are at their Garden Insurance page.

About 596 Acres and its signs on vacant lots

Are there really 596 Acres of vacant public land in Brooklyn?

596 acres is how much vacant public land the NYC Department of City Planning perceived there to be in Brooklyn in 2011, a number that came out of an examination of the official data published in MapPLUTO. Our project delved into this official number and discovered that, while lots of land is not being used in the borough and much of it is publicly owned, that number is both under- and over-inclusive (e.g., unbuilt municipal parking lots are not included while 20-year-old gardens are). Information about particular parcels is even more complex than that. So we cleaned up the available data and set out to get information about particular parcels to people where they could use it–at the parcel sites themselves and online at Living Lots NYC.

Have you guys considered using QR codes?

In a word, yes. We put up about two dozen QR codes on NYC vacant lots and know that they were never scanned (though folks on the internet really liked them). We don’t actually put QR codes up ourselves now but we have considered them among the mechanisms available for connecting people in their neighborhoods with information that is available online on our website about local public land, Living Lots NYC. We have decided that the most straightforward ways work the best — we write notes, in English and Spanish, and in complete sentences, about the lots and affix them to fences; we have a phone number and email address and pay a staff person to answer both, reading information directly off the website when needed and adding people who are motivated to build community to the lots pages on Living Lots NYC so that they can utilize the organizing tools and connect with neighbors. QR codes require acts of technological translation and levels of understanding that we think are not the best tools for taking barriers down.

Living Lots® for your city

I'm not in NYC, but want to replicate your successes in my city. Do you have any funding recommendations?

Most of our funding for Living Lots NYC and to staff our Community Land Access Program for New York City comes from small individual donors who see the value in having advocates available to support local land access in their own communities. We also get funding from elected officials and crucial support from foundations. In your city or town, figure out who will benefit most from having a community land access advocacy team armed with a Living Lots tool and work together to makes sure the advocacy staff and tool development are funded!

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