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Mapping New York's Vacant Lots, To Use Them To Create A More Vibrant City

After tearing down many buildings in the name of "clearing slums," the city left giant holes in the urban landscape that it never filled. Now an organization wants to do grassroots development in those holes. So it developed a tool to find them.

Mapping New York's Vacant Lots, To Use Them To Create A More Vibrant City

[Top photo: Flickr user Carl]

"We’re living with ghosts," says Paula Segal, executive and legal director at 596 Acres. She's talking about many of New York’s currently vacant lots. Originally cleared as part of "urban renewal" plans—demolition of neighborhoods deemed "slums" across the country from 1949 to 1974—the idea was to make them open spaces, but many were never developed. Rather, they were left as open wounds (most behind fences), concentrated in areas like the South Bronx, East Harlem and East New York: neighborhoods that, as Segal put it, "we know with our hearts are full of holes. But then you realize; those holes are part of a plan."

Today, there is a clear correlation you can see as Segal toggles between two maps: Urban renewal plans can predict with a sad accuracy the locations of the city's current empty lots. Too many currently empty lots are "the scabs of urban renewal: places that were cleared for the New City that never arrived."

Segal showed the maps on Urban Reviewer, a new online tool for viewing the history of urban renewal plans in New York City, which 596 Acres recently created in collaboration with Partner and Partners and supported by Smart Sign.

596 Acres is a grassroots community land access nonprofit. They represent the exact antidote to urban renewal-style top-down urban planning. 596 Acres helps neighborhoods organize to transform vacant lots into community gardens, play lots, and spaces where people can "co-create." And now they are also helping to expose how and exactly where we are still waiting for the promise of top-down planning to deliver.

They first discovered two vacant lots that were publicly owned, planned-but-never-developed open spaces when "a gentleman about to retire" from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)—the government agency that was once responsible for deeming neighborhoods blighted slums to be destroyed—tipped them off. "No one’s ever going to work on these," he told them.

Later, 596 found a similar lot in the Rockaways. So they started to search urban renewal plans for others. They soon realized they needed to look through all of the plans, without an efficient way to do so. So they began development of this tool, which would eventually become the Urban Reviewer. In the process, Segal discovered the "shocking amount" of publicly owned vacant scab-lots in the city.

596 and a team of volunteers undertook the massive task of first accessing and then gathering the data from all of the City’s urban renewal plans since 1949 (there are over 150) and converting them into an interactive map. They used a law that requires government agencies—in this case HPD—to make their documents available for inspection. "Initially they were reluctant," Segal said, "because they thought the plans didn’t matter. We had to go back and forth with them about whether we were allowed to inspect the documents. But once they started to see [the project] come alive they were incredibly cooperative and helpful."

Unable to photograph or copy the old plans, a team of volunteers sat "in a windowless room" at HPD pouring over archives. Every Thursday afternoon for almost a year, the team sorted information and created spreadsheets listing plans by lot and block numbers. With real estate development conglomerating lots into superblocks over the years, many of these numbers have changed since the plans were made. Accurately mapping the plans thus required 596 Acres to reference old tax maps and two atlases of compiled urban renewal plans with corresponding maps from 1968 and 1984, which, Paula noted, "was last time anyone in the City thought it made sense to collect all of the urban renewal plans." Digital cartographer Charles Chawalko geocoded the data and created the maps with GIS. Then Partners & Partners designed an impressively intuitive interface.

As Greg Mihalko of Partners & Partners explained, they also used the 1968 and 1984 urban renewal atlases in their design process, "in the spirit of perverting an aesthetic of what was originally used as a document for the city planners, to re-appropriate what was planned to put the power back into the hands of the people." Partners & Partners "riffed on the visual cues" of the old atlases, using their typefaces and color schemes to create something "paper-like and tactile."

Urban Reviewer is a full-screen map of the city with a movable timeline across the bottom. The left-hand side of the map offers users filters to integrate data, most importantly, to view lots that are "Publicly Owned And Vacant Today." Users can also filter by types of planned use, plans by mayoral term and search by address, ZIP code, or master plan name. Dotted lines mark individual plans which can be clicked for more information, including beautiful scanned maps from the old atlases.

On the map, each scab lot is connected to its corresponding page on 596 Acre’s website. These pages are toolkits for transforming the lots into community spaces. And now, with a recent grant from Macktez, 596 and Smart Sign are printing signs designed by Partner and Partners to physically outfit each scab lot with a sign that reads "This is an active urban renewal area. See plans at UrbanReviewer.org."

Segal’s scab-lot findings present a tangible case against urban renewal-style top-down urban planning, a paradigm more in question than ever. But Segal’s findings also show that top-down planning is far from dead. Luckily for the people of New York, Urban Reviewer provides an enormous resource for residents to counteract the forces of failed plans with community-driven civic efforts. This project’s design process, as Mihalko described it, is a perfect metaphor for the effect of the tool itself: Urban Reviewer allows users "to appropriate what was planned, to put the power back into the hands of the people."

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