Paula Segal is reframing abandoned, neglected and un-programmed public land in cities as opportunity for multi-stakeholder community organizing. Her approach challenges residents to not accept ugly holes in their neighborhoods and empowers community groups with the tools, tactics, and experience to shape their cities. As her work spreads around the U.S. and the world, she is recognized as the pioneering advocate of the field of “community land access.”
The New Idea
In U.S. cities, there is measurably uneven growth of healthy spaces across neighborhoods within cities, despite clear evidence that public institutions, parks, and spaces for community engagement and physical activity make for safer, healthier places. This uneven growth is compounded by the uneven access to information on how people can influence the development of the places they live. But Paula Segal spotted an opportunity when she realized that, in New York City and cities like it, the neighborhoods that are the poorest and most systematically segregated and underrepresented (via racist urban planning policies) are also the ones with the most vacant, municipally-owned land. By exposing the abundant potential of public land that has fallen to municipal neglect, Paula is helping neighbors build community and shape their urban environment. Paula’s model of “community land access advocacy” empowers community members with new ways of seeing their city and their role in it.
Paula’s work centers on the insight that we need to reframe vacant land as an opportunity for community mobilization. She founded 596 Acres, an organization that creates open-source and freely sharable tools and techniques blending high and low tech. 596 Acres has created a dynamic, interactive websites that build on public data as well as support for community organizers; it also employs and models street-level teaser and marketing campaigns. Over the last four years, thousands of New Yorkers have transformed dozens of vacant lots in different neighborhoods into vibrant, green spaces. As of December 31, 2015, 34 of them had been made permanent through transfers to the Parks Department or leases with public authorities.
While reaping the benefits of the first harvest of a community-managed urban garden or orchard might take years, the emerging field of “community land access advocacy” – the on-the-ground, neighbor-led grassroots organizing spurred by good current information and clear directions – scales very quickly; dozens of other community organization around the world – from Montreal to Los Angeles, Philadelphia to Melbourne – have been directly replicating and building on these successes. Across all these efforts, Paula is championing an important mindshift that is reverberating across the communities in which she works. By challenging notions of agency and control among some of the most disenfranchised people in the world, Paula and community land access advocates around the globe are inspiring local development on a model of ownership and community-control capable of more equitably sharing public and common goods and stewarding life-sustaining resources in increasingly dense and inequitable global cities.
In 1977, Christopher Alexander – the godfather of the new urbanist (or “walkable cities”) movement –made the claim the “without common land, no social system can survive.” According to Alexander, “common land has two specific social functions. First, the land makes it possible for people to feel comfortable outside their buildings and private territory, and therefore allows them to feel connected to the larger social system. And second, common land acts as a meeting place for people.”
Urban spaces are highly commodified and contested and increasingly so in the era of globalization and urbanization. But look closely and you’ll notice that a city like New York is pock marked with unused, municipally-owned lots. In New York City alone thousands of lots languish, collecting garbage and blemishing the very neighborhoods they could enliven. When Paula first organized, translated, and mapped the nearly-incomprehensible land-related public records for New York’s public land in 2011, she counted a total of 596 acre s of “vacant” land in Brooklyn alone that were outright owned by government entities. Taken together, these forgotten parcels – fenced-off, inaccessible and lost to bureaucratic neglect – are larger than most city parks. What if we were able to see these lots as part of the solution, and not the problem? From this seed, 596 Acres, the organization, emerged.
Vacant public land in New York City is concentrated in low-income communities of color. While New York City as a whole is 66.7% non-white, the eight neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of vacant public land are 91.3% non-white. These neighborhoods lack adequate parks, playgrounds and public spaces – especially troubling as the percentage of residents under age 18 in these areas is far above the citywide average (29% versus the citywide 22%). And recent research bears out what Christopher Alexander long-ago predicted: spaces for community engagement and physical activity make for safer and healthier neighborhoods.
The land that government owns explicitly is just the beginning. Paula explains that “much of the unused land in our cities technically belongs to the public – it is either ours because our government agencies own it or carries tax debt due to us via public entities charged with collecting that debt.”
Paula points out that “a lack of developed and maintained green spaces is just one symptom of municipal neglect; a lack of information about how people can shape the city comes with it.” In that information and power vacuum, when urban land becomes neglected or derelict, private interests can rob residents of the space that might have been used for other purposes. These ‘robberies’ are often happening in plain sight. Deed theft, disenfranchisement, education privilege, obfuscation, and the powers of well-moneyed interests to threaten and intimidate present additional hurdles to residents and community groups.
Against great odds, Paula is proving that neighborhoods can change when neighbors see the vacant lots in their lives as sites of opportunity. Through facilitated organizing, they can create communal, green spaces in areas that lack them. As an immigrant and a lawyer, a community-gardener and community-organizer, Paula is able to navigate the social and legal landscape and blaze a path for a new model of community empowerment. Over the last four years she has harnessed the yearning of urban residents for vibrant, green space to facilitate the creation of parks, gardens, and farms. By putting the keys to previously inaccessible sites into the community’s hands, she is ultimately increasing residents’ agency in shaping their neighborhoods and the city .
The whole question of access to land in the U.S. – where the system of private property is so deeply embedded – is overwhelming, abstract, and often prohibitively expensive. Paula’s approach is to make the abstract and overwhelming land use system accessible, physically but also figuratively, by bringing the seemingly insurmountable challenge of urban land access down to the most local level and rooting it in actual, isolated pieces of land that residents pass every day.
Using highly engaging, street-level posters backed up by dynamic, interactive online maps and tools, the strategy is starts with tagging and flagging vacant, municipally-owned land as the potential sites of vibrant community spaces. Passersby might first notice posters reading “THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND” or “FIND YOUR LOT IN LIFE.” Stop and read the fine print and you can learn how to connect with other neighbors interested in accessing the space as well as the first steps you can take to begin the process of taking responsibility for the lot. In New York, the signs lead you to LivingLotsNYC.org and you can learn even more; if you choose, you can contact government officials responsible for the particular piece of property, log your progress and connect with other residents; to facilitate groups organizing, 596 Acres also provides access to pro bono legal support, and streamlined outreach to public officials, the media, and potential collaborators. In New York City alone, over 150 government-owned properties had become hubs for organizing and 34 had already been transformed into vibrant, community-managed green spaces and made permanent through transfers to the Parks Department or via leases with public authorities (as of December 31, 2014).
Through these efforts, 596 Acres has been shifting the paradigm of urban development, getting more people to see that their communities have rights - even in the face of fiscally-motivated developers, and despite a history of top-down political determinism.
Simultaneously, thousands of neighbors working together in cities across the country and the world are realizing the power of community autonomy to collectively manage the resources they depend on. In this approach, communities do not rely as much on the state to provide; after all, the state is not particularly good at equitable access. Nor do they depend on the market to distribute; this hasn’t led to more equality or fairness either. Community land access advocacy empowers communities to steward the things that they need to sustain themselves. Chris Tittle at the Sharing Economies Law Center (an Ashoka Fellow organization) finds this to be “an empowering, enlivening framework.” It doesn’t push against or reform the old as much as is creates anew.
That explains in part why this approach has spread so widely, but the fact that replicators have been able to quickly and effectively build on the New York model is also the product of Paula’s active sharing of the emerging field’s customized tools and tailored resources.
596 Acres has developed an award-winning open source case management system called Living LotsTM (LivingLotsNYC.org in New York) to demystify and decode public data, maintain continuity of local campaigns, and easily transfer knowledge from one campaign to another where the decision-makers are identical (for example, linking community groups that are both seeking support of the same councilmember). To date, Living Lots websites powered by local support teams have enabled citywide organizing in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. Paula notes that, “many cities around the country have the right mix of public real estate assets in limbo, engaged residents, and networks of support organizations for greening (or, in the case of Montreal, for rehabilitating heritage buildings) that are not connected and not living up to their potential.” The 596 Acres team has been strategic in tapping into rich veins of interest in networks focused on community-driven revitalization, green cities, and legal reform.
As Paula puts it, "The effects of individual campaigns – some successful and some not – ripple through communities. Neighbors tell neighbors about their experiences and the possibilities that exist behind rusty fences. As a convener of multiple, different efforts across New York and, through replication efforts, in other cities around the world, 596 Acres is able to help share best practices, identify patterns, and champion the new field of “community land access advocacy” in the face of global trends towards the privatization of urban space."
596 Acres does not promote any specific land uses (that’s for local communities to determine) or provide on-the-ground programming (there is plenty of interest and skill in our neighborhoods to do that). As the champions of a new pattern, they are helping individuals and communities experience immediate impacts but also the lasting, wider reverberations of mindset shift. Once residents have internalized the new framework and grasp what is achievable, they engage and advocate for even more community control in a way that they didn’t understand was possible before. It’s not uncommon to see residents in the network joining community planning boards, supporting other sites around the city, or drumming up interest in their work and the model in the media and online.
The 596 Acres approach has been featured in leading media outlets around the world – from The New York Times and The Guardian to Grist and The Nation – and spreads widely on social media. Ashoka Fellow Ramón Vera-Herrera in Mexico City says, “from afar, you can see the impact Paula is making. Though social media, Facebook, and Twitter, the repercussions of Paula’s work are – I dare to say – legendary. This will change the way we look at cities. It’s not just New York; it’s Dublin, Berlin. She’s becoming very present for many people in many parts of the world.”
Paula was born in a country that no longer exists – the Soviet Union – and lived there for the first seven years of her life as a stateless person. Her parents had shed their citizenship so they could apply for exit visas, but upon applying their visas were denied. With applications being reviewed every six months, her childhood was spent in anticipation of displacement. Her parents worked on the black market and the authorities could (and did) regularly raid their home and confiscate her family’s possessions at will. She and her family were finally allowed to leave and eventually emigrated to the United States when a Massachusetts senator, campaigning for re-election, intervened on Paula’s family’s behalf.
Thirty years later, her experience as an internally displaced person still shapes the way she sees the world and her work. As a college student, Paula studied cognitive science and how adults learn; as a young adult in New York City and as a teacher of the English language to immigrants and refugees, she developed a curriculum that created space for students to bring their own migration stories to the classroom. (She also built the school that delivers this curriculum, still running today, out of the immigration services program run by New York’s “scrappy and thrifty” Cabrini nuns.) As part of her investigation into how complex systems work, Paula worked as a user-centered designer at TelCordia (Ericsson’s U.S. subsidiary) and a bike messenger in the city. These experiences proved to be particularly useful when -- during a national political convention in NYC in 2004 that inspired a heavy-handed show of force from the NYPD to silence any local rallying or protests -- she was part of a team that created a grassroots dispatch service and media hotline to ensure that protesting journalists could hand off their unpublished stories when being rounded up and arrested.
But it was one particular project that most inspired her current work in community land access advocacy. Paula and some friends created a vibrant community space in an abandoned WWII-era wooden boat docked in the Gowanus Canal. Since the boat had a 1942 vehicle ID number carved into it, they insured it as a vehicle. Because it was docked at the end of a dead end street and on non-navigable waters, it existed outside of the jurisdiction of both the police and the coast guard (for a while). Residents of the local community embraced their new, shared space and it became a hub for local events and community meetings. Paula believes that “only through collaborating can we create a new world that we actually want to live in together. People gathered together in strategic collectivities organized by geography build power and develop the capacity to resist their own uprooting.”
Paula sees that the next iteration of her work will need to tackle the outsized financial resources of the real estate industry head-on. As the next piece of the community land access advocacy puzzle, Paula and a group of collaborators have just launched the New York Real Estate Investment Cooperative, another vehicle for land to be held collectively in a model that isn’t private, individual ownership but helps strengthen community and enliven neighborhoods.