Frequently Asked Questions
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 (more on that at the bottom of this FAQ). 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 on this webpage.
How do I use the map to find out about this vacant lot I'm looking at?
Check out this slideshow for step-by-step instructions!
The map doesn't work on my computer. How do I fix it? / Why don't you fix it?
Otherwise, we have heard that some versions of the Firefox web browser get confused and block the map as though it was a popup. In this case, you might have to enable popups on 596acres.org in order to view the map.
Finally, if the above suggestions don't work out for you let us know. The more you can tell us about your operating system (Windows or Mac) and your web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari, mostly), the better we'll be able to work out the problem. If you can attach a screenshot that would help too!
What about Staten Island????
We would love to see vacant lots in all five boroughs used by their communities. Getting the data for the boroughs isn't the difficult part--organizing and talking to community groups in those boroughs is. We've just recently added Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx and are learning so much! We're also having Organizing Fellows work in each boroughs.
If you are passionate about getting this data in your borough and are interested in doing the (non-technical) work involved, please contact us.
Why isn't the vacant lot near me on this map?
Our map only shows land that is owned by the NYC government and is marked as vacant in the Department of City Planning's database. If you know of a vacant lot that is not on this map, chances are good that it's privately owned. The best way to be sure is to look for the lot on OASIS. The tab marked "Location Report" should contain the owner and links to more information regarding the lot. For a tutorial on how to access information about this particular lot on OASIS, go here and click on "How do I access information about locations on the map?"
Once you find that the lot in your life is privately owned, please read our update about working with private landowners.
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 require GreenThumb to provide your group with an alternate site as long as one is available either within 1/2 mile of the existing garden 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." If your group signs an agreementment 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.
There's an existing garden missing from your map!?!?!
You won't see all the NYC gardens on our map because many gardens in NYC are on private land -- some are owned by great organizations whose mission is to protect community spaces like the New York Restoration Project, some are part of land trusts, and some are on private land. Our map only shows information about public land (plus the private sites that a few landowners have volunteered to make available to the community!).
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 that shows existing community gardens on public land (the buttons are to the right of the map on the front page - chose the green one with the black circle around it).
But you won't see all the gardens in your neighborhood because many gardens in NYC are on private land -- some are owned by great organizations whose mission is to protect community spaces like the New York Restoration Project, some are part of land trusts (e.g., the Bronx Land Trust, the Manhattan Land Trust, the Brooklyn-Queens Land Trust, and the Brooklyn Alliance of Neighborhood Gardeners), and some are on private land.
A good tool that might help you find an existing garden to plug into is Garden Maps (it shows gardens on public AND private land). 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.
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 PDF version.
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.
This site gives you contact information for the person for each piece of vacant public land who we think has the ability to tell you it's status and give you permission to use it. 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 North/South Brooklyn. If they're not, ask who is (and remember to tell 596 Acres!).
If they are, tell them you are calling from a neighborhood organization. Describe the lot, how long it's been empty. Give the Block and Lot number and maybe the address.
Ask if such an interim use plan would be compatible with the agency's timeline for the "real" plan. Say you would like to sign a license agreement that would be revokable at any time -- offer to send a sample.
Make sure you get the email of the person who you are talking to. Follow up with a note and copy email@example.com. We can help you negotiate the licence.
We would also love to get a note from you describing what you learned on the phone -- add your Note to the page for the lot you are calling about so that we can all learn from your experience.
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. Another good tool that might help you find an existing garden to plug into is Garden Maps (it shows gardens on public AND private land). 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 artisitic ventures. Feel free to reach out to folks in the 596 Acres network who already have access to public land (pink dots on the map) or private land (blue dots on the map). 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
There's this privately owned vacant-lot that people could 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.
2. 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 to draw people to your budding project that way. Let us know the address of the lot and if you'd like to do that. We have been talking about adding a layer for private lots that people WANT community uses on and this would be a great way for us to start building that layer. Click the contact button to get in touch with us.
What's the difference between a licence 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 pre-requisite 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 here.
There are also great New York City organizations that support our goals and already carry insurance policies that are big enough to cover your projects. You may be able to find one that will share its policy with your site for free. If you are connected to an organization that carries general liability insurance for volunteers and would be willing to share it by adding more sites, please let us know. We'd love to connect you with sites that need insurance (and volunteers!).
What if we need to become an organization in the legal sense to meet our land access goals?
Legally, you could chose 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 State 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 (see http://www.irs.gov/Charities-&-Non-Profits/Charitable-Organizations/Public-Charity-Exemption-Application).
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 Non-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.
Nothing on this page constitutes legal advice.
What if my group needs a lawyer?
Community Development Project of Urban Justice Center provides legal help for base building, and 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 http://cdp-ny.org, or call 646-459-3017.
Have you guys considered using QR codes?
In a word - yes. Here s what a QR code looks like on for a NYC vacant lot; we put up about two dozen of these and know that they were never scanned (though folks on the internet really liked them). If you'd like to print one for your lot that you're organizing around, go to the lot's page and add "pdf" at the end of the URL in the address bar (like this). Remember to laminate it or put it in plastic before you put it up. 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. 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 a-fix 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 the site 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.
What is MapPLUTO?
MapPLUTO is a repository of geodata and real estate data about New York City, compiled from information from various city agencies. By viewing MapPLUTO with mapping software, users are provided with navigable data for individual plots, including tax lot features, building outlines, and extensive land use and geographic information.
NEWSFLASH (7/25/2013) MapPLUTO is now free and available for download direct from the Department of City Planning.
Why free MapPLUTO?
Although a lot of city data is online and free to access, and a new city law requires all public data be made available to download by 2018, the Department of City Planning charges a hefty price for the use of MapPLUTO. MapPLUTO costs $300 per borough, and $1,500 for all five, and users must pay for a new license every six months. To have MapPLUTO current for the whole city costs $3000 per year. For more information, check out this New York World article, or this blog post by Steven Romalewski, the Director of CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research.
Real estate developers, urban planners, architects, and engineers all make extensive use of MapPLUTO. However, the dataset is also incredibly useful to schools, organizations, and residents seeking information about land in the city, and many of these groups and individuals cannot afford City Planning’s fees.
MapPLUTO is a public database produced using public resources -- it is made from public information on City Department computers by people who are paid a salary by New Yorkers. We think that MapPLUTO should be free and open to everyone. Luckily, there’s a way to access it without paying hundreds of dollars.
How can I help free MapPLUTO?
You can help by getting MapPLUTO from the Department of City Planning without paying their licensing fees. Because Planning is a City Agency, it is subject to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). If you submit a FOIL request for MapPLUTO, Planning is legally required to provide you with a copy. According to the Committee on Open Government, this kind of data is defined as “government records” under the FOIL, and government records are meant to be accessible to anyone who asks to see them.
How much will this cost me?
Planning will charge you a $5 duplication fee for the 5 MapPLUTO disks (one disk for each borough).
Is using the MapPLUTO data for free a violation of copyright?
Don’t be intimidated by the copyright disclaimer you will get from Planning along with your copy of MapPLUTO! If you are using the data for educational purposes (as opposed to commercial) then you can be relatively confident that you are not violating copyright.
If you decide to FOIL for MapPLUTO, please let us know how it goes! Also, Planning will be releasing updated version in June, so let them know that that’s the one you want!
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.