Growing on Vacant Brooklyn Lots, Reclaiming Public Space

Back in April 2010, a group of people used a tool called MapPLUTO, a product of the earthbound Department of City Planning,  to pinpoint the amount of unused, city-0wned land in Brooklyn.  They found both the answer and their project’s name:  596 Acres. Since then, the 596 group has worked to connect individuals and organizations with the proper city agencies in order to transform three empty Brooklyn lots  into community gardens.

More transfers of fenced-off green space into public hands is the goal, but with the often slow pace of city bureaucracy and the complexities of grassroots organizing,  it’s no easy task.

MetroFocus asked participants from two reclaimed lots share their stories about what it’s like to fill a hole in their neighborhood.  You can learn more about the third lot, Patchen Square at 868 Patchen Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, at its upcoming work days on May 19 and May 26, 12-5 p.m.

462 Halsey Community Garden : 462 Halsey Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant

462 Halsey Community Garden was co-founded by Kristen Bonardi Rapp and Shatia Jackson and has been developed with help from other community members, local businesses, and 596 Acres.


Neighborhood newcomer Kristen Bonardi Rapp and Bed-Stuy native Shatia Jackson co-founded the 462 Halsey Community Garden with help from 596 Acres and their community. Video courtesy of Jessica Esptein, Zac Hoffman and Edward Wardrip.

Kristen Bonardi Rapp: As far as anyone can tell, 462 Halsey Street had probably been vacant since the late 1970s. Long-time residents have said that every so often people would talk about getting a community garden together on the site but nothing ever really came of it. It’s not surprising that in all the years the lot was vacant, nothing happened, because it’s not at all obvious what to do when you and your neighbors want to start something like a garden. If 596 Acres hadn’t posted a sign on our fence and also followed it with advice on which city offices to get in touch with, the lot would probably still be empty right now.

Until recently, the lot at 462 Halsey Street in Bed-Stuy looked like this. Photo by Meg Wachter/

Fortunately for us, despite being vacant for so long, there wasn’t a lot of junk on the site — no rusted out appliances or old tires — just some trash as well as rubble from the building that had been there. So, after about three months of phone calls and filling out forms, when the city finally gave us access to the site, we didn’t have too much cleaning to do before we got to work.

462 Halsey as it exists today. Photo by Kristen Bonardi Rapp

From the start, we’ve tried to make 462 Halsey Community Garden as much about community as it is about gardening. Our aim has always been to draw in everyone in the neighborhood, whenever possible. We have garden beds for our members but we also have several large public plots for anyone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to grow something otherwise. We’re a year-round public drop-off for compostable waste. We’re building a pavilion later this summer which will be a nice shady spot to sit. And our gates are open from morning to dusk every day, because we want people to feel that this garden is theirs, too — that it belongs to everyone. 


A Small Green Patch: 346-350 Bergen Street, Boerum Hill

Feedback Farms, Textile Arts Center, St. Lydia’s Dinner Church and community members worked with 596 Acres to secure the lots on Dec. 1, 2011, which they’ll use for a variety of purposes under the banner “A Small Green Patch.” Feedback Farms runs one of the lots exclusively at 348 Bergen Street, but all of the groups plan to share resources across the other lots.

Feedback Farms member Gregory Sogorka says the lot at 348 Bergen St. has been vacant since the 1960s. Until recently, it looked like this. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Clare Sullivan and Gregory Sogorka, members of FeedBack Farms: A Small Green Patch is a new garden that we started in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. The site is being run by a group of community members and three community organizations: Feedback Farms, The Textile Art Center, and St. Lydia’s Dinner Church. It came together through the happy circumstances of several different people and groups who had been thinking about new ways of utilizing vacant land getting together.

Tami Johnson had been trying to organize temporary gardens and green space in vacant lots around Gowanus for some time — she started the group “A Small Green Patch” and built a Facebook group and email list around the idea. Tom Hallaran registered as an organizer of the lots at 346-350 on the 596 acres website. He noticed the lots, a block from his home and started researching ownership using the 596 acres website and the CUNY Oasis websites.

We got a few more people together and Tami called the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, GreenThumb, and the Brooklyn Borough President’s office.  GreenThumb agreed to give the group access if the private lot owner agreed. The private owner was persuaded to grant short-term access if the space was designed to be temporary and “A Small Green Patch” finally had a home.

The lots themselves had been vacant for decades and with their mixed ownership it was always unclear who was responsible for clean-up and maintenance. With just a few weeks of work by the organizations, neighbors and many other volunteers the three lots are already transformed. The garden community space is using participatory planning to develop its layout and the ways in which it will be used.

This photo, taken on May 5, shows the progress the Feedback Farms team has made on 348 Bergen Street. Photo courtesy of Feedback Farms

There has been an incredible turnout of people investing their time and energy in creating a green space that everyone can use. Garbage accumulated over years was removed, contaminated soil was covered, raised beds and benches have been built, and plants are being planted. GreenThumb, GrowNYC, the NYC Parks Department and the Department of Sanitation helped make all the cleanup possible and Ioby [an online micro-funding platform for environmental projects] helped us to fundraise and covered our insurance. Some of the activities that we are envisioning taking place there are community concerts, workshops on composting and beekeeping and other types of education and outreach that have to do with urban agriculture.

Feedback Farms is using the lot at 348 Bergen Street. We, along with Kallie Weinkle and Tom Hallaran, incubated the idea of Feedback Farms into a simple and powerful initiative that transforms vacant lots into urban farming research projects.

We utilize a raised bed planter technology called Sub Irrigated Planters (SIPs). This method consists of a reservoir of water underneath a layer of soil, which continually supplies plant roots with a direct source of water. The benefits of this approach include consistent watering, higher crop yield, and water conservation.

In addition to SIP benefits, some of the Feedback Farm planters are outfitted with wireless sensor technology that periodically monitors soil moisture content, temperature, and luminosity. These planters provide extra insight and understanding that allow for precise measurements to further inform the project moving forward, hence the name Feedback Farms. 

Contact 596 Acres about taking over a lot in your community. You can learn more about the process here.

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