Vacant Acres Symposium

On April 22nd and 23rd, 596 Acres and the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School co-hosted the first ever Vacant Acres Symposium, bringing together knowledgeable and passionate (and badass!) urban vacant land advocates from around the world. The program featured two days of presentations and discussion on land access, strategies for land tenure protection, racial and economic justice issues in access to vacant urban land, and the wide variety of urban contexts experienced by our participants from cities around the world.

Day 1 brought together urban gardeners, activists, community members and even an elected official to discuss the particular experience of New York City with regard to vacant land and land access, in front of a standing room only crowd. Memorable moments included included a gardeners’ history of community gardens in NYC, presented by Haja and Cindy Worley with a slideshow from their extensive archive of photographs and documents from the movement; Meera Bhat’s thoughtful words about the experience of farming on privately owned land in Brooklyn — and the important role that urban gardens and farms have to play even when some of them may be impermanent; Ellen Horan’s first-hand account of LaGuardia Corner Gardens’ court battle with New York University; Joel Kupferman’s account of a new court battle that is just beginning between the city and the Boardwalk Community Garden in Coney Island; and Picture the Homeless’ Arvernetta Henry’s rousing call for more community owned property in NYC.

Having thoroughly worked up an appetite with the afternoon’s panels, a number of the participants enjoyed a convivial dinner together, continuing the day’s conversation and getting excited for the next day’s, over delicious food at the Sunview Luncheonette in Greenpoint.

We reconvened bright and early the next morning for Day 2 of the gathering, which widened the discussion nationwide — and worldwide.  U.S. participants hailed from Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Cleveland; Detroit; East Palo Alto; New Orleans; New York City; Philadelphia, and international attendees came from Berlin (Germany); Manchester (UK); Melbourne (Australia); Montreal (Canada) and Sao Paolo (Brazil). The general trajectory of the day followed a line of inquiry that had been established on Day 1 in the New York context. The themes of the panels were: (1) “Identifying Opportunities and Facilitating Transformations” (2) “Protecting Community Access to Land” (3) “Developing Models for Predictable Land Tenure” and (4) “Establishing Long Term Land Management.”

The day’s highlights are too many to count, and many of them were individual moments of connection and insight that took place in the energetic workshop discussions that took place after each of the day’s panel sessions. One of the most striking things about the day was the diversity of approaches, contexts and organizations represented. The participants represented academia, the non-profit sector, grassroots activists, private companies and more. They came from cities struggling with gentrification and displacement and cities struggling with disinvestment and abandonment (some of these are the same cities). The feedback we have been receiving indicates that the most powerful thing about this event was simply gathering all of these participants in the same room together to share ideas, strategies, stories, struggles, and all the wealth of their experiences.

Some of the participants were kind enough to share their reflections on the conference:

“…it was very illuminating to hear about other successful experiences… I look forward to continuing the connection we started thanks to your symposium, to strengthen our work.”
– Sara Longo, Oakland CA

“Being a part of the Vacant Acres Symposium was an incredible opportunity for our organization to learn from the innovative work [of] new friends across the world… We are especially thankful that the Symposium provided a dedicated space to discuss cross-cutting issues that impact many organizations trying to do similar work.  We met many organizations that we feel we can continue to learn from in the coming months and years. These organizations include Neighborspace Chicago, the New York Community Garden Coalition, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Baltimore Community Law Center, African American United Fund and our cohort 596 Acres, New Orleans Food and Farm Network and the Garden Justice Legal Initiative.”
– Mark Glassock, Community Health Councils, Inc., Los Angeles, CA

 “For me, the Vacant Acres Symposium was a whirlwind full of amazing people and inspirational stories about how to increase access to land and stabilize land tenure for urban agriculture programs… Thanks again for the opportunity!”
– Nicole Wires, Collective Roots, East Palo Alto, CA

“The Vacant Acres Symposium was an amazing opportunity to connect with individuals and organizations working on making our cities into strong, healthy and vibrant living places to live… The experiences shared…provided us with many creative solutions to the challenges we face.”
– Israel Cruz, Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, CA

“The symposium showed how access to land is a crucial question when it comes to chang[ing] the way cities work and people can contribute to this change from the bottom up. It was very valuable in strengthening contacts we already established, and also creating new ones that will probably lead to new collaborations in the future. In general, it makes a huge difference to not just theoretically know that this kind of engagement and discussion goes on in a lot of places at the same time, but to personally meet and exchange knowledge and experience, especially between practitioners. So I am very grateful that you made it possible for me to come to New York and share this great experience.”
– Marco Clausen, co-founder Prinzesinnengarten, Berlin, Germany

“Vacant Acres helped ground me in the realities of making land work to build community, and how laws need to be adjusted to make that happen more easily. As a Detroiter, whose city has massive quantities of vacant land I was delighted to learn about ideas that have worked in other communities… It was very valuable to share ideas with the folks of New Orleans, whose situation seems similar to Detroit in that we both have lots of vacant land. I made numerous contacts that I can share with the people who are using our vacant land to revitalize the city.”
– Jacqueline Hand, professor of law, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law

“The most important thing about the Vacant Acres Symposium was the bringing together of practitioners who were implementing real on-the-ground projects. It was much more than papers presented at a conference. NOFFN and New Orleans will benefit from our attendance in a very direct way — being exposed to the diverse methods of engagement with communities, policymakers and governments will greatly inform our approach. Some highlights include learning about the vacant land disposition programs in Philadelphia and Baltimore; learning about movable garden bed technique used in Melbourne, Australia; Pop up public space deployed in Los Angeles; the similarities between Detroit and New Orleans…and more.”
– Sanjay Kharod, New Orleans Food and Farm Network, New Orleans LA

“I connected with people from around the world in both urban and rural settings that had very resourceful and creative ways of imagining more equitable and democrating ways of creating land access and tenure. I am hoping to stay connected with everyone…”
– Shane Bernardo, EarthWorks Urban Farm, Detroit, MI, USA

“The symposium was truly a transformative experience…This work that we are all engaged in can be extraordinarily difficult. I am one of a handful of such advocates in the South. And in a smaller pool of advocates working in a post-disaster region faced with enormous development pressure. I have felt very isolated and alone in my efforts. I have often felt the challenges too great. After the conference I now know I have peers in far-flung corners of the world… to turn to for advice, guidance, wisdom and support.”
– Bridget Kelly, Land Trust for Louisiana, New Orleans, LA, USA

Many of the participants expressed anticipation for the next gathering of this group, and we share that hope. We are actively seeking volunteers to host and help plan the next one!

This report back was written by Vacant Acres volunteer and 596 Acres Advisory Committee member Rachel Dobkin, who worked on getting travel grants for our participants (Hurray Rachel!). You can see more photos from the event here, taken by Marco Clausen. In the coming weeks, 596 Acres and the Tishman Center will be posting the slides and audio from the two days of presentations. Stay tuned.

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