Paula Segal

Ashoka Fellow
United States
Fellow Since 2016


This profile was prepared when Paula Segal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.
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.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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