Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A Brooklyn group tracked the history of the city's urban-renewal projects—and gave some still-vacant spots a future.
New York is a city that seems to reinvent itself over and over again, often in chaotic and unpredictable ways. Buildings go up and buildings come down. Lots sit empty. Most of the time, the people who live in any given neighborhood have little idea of why things look the way they do—or whether anything could be different.
The group 596 Acres, which started in Brooklyn, has been working since 2010 to map the slivers of publicly owned vacant land that dot the real-estate-hungry city. (In Brooklyn, such pieces add up to at least 596 acres, hence the name.) The group then helps neighborhood groups gain access to the spaces, many of which are owned by the city and have been forgotten or written off. Over four years, 596 Acres has assisted in the construction of many neighborhood gardens in New York and has expanded its efforts into Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.
During this process, says co-founder Paula Z. Segal, she and her colleagues began to realize that many of the empty spots in New York's streetscape were related to the master planning and urban renewal efforts that took hold in the United States in the mid-20th century.
Starting in 1949*, the city has used eminent domain to acquire property in neighborhoods that it deemed "blighted." It tagged these areas for renewal projects that subsequently relocated tens of thousands of people, many of them poor and members of immigrant and minority groups.
Segal and her group decided to look more deeply into the question of how master planning has affected the city over generations, using the same approach that underpins their whole effort: mapping and researching records gained through Freedom of Information requests. They undertook the project together with design firms Partner & Partners and SmartSign, and enlisted volunteers to enter data from paper records into spreadsheets. The result, Urban Reviewer, is an incredible resource pulling together more than 155* adopted neighborhood master plans for New York City on one searchable map. Their collected data is also available for use by others.
Click on an area where a master plan was adopted and you will get scans of the original plan as well as detailed information about individual lots. There's also a way to leave stories and feedback for the researchers, and the site features essays that put the information into historical and political context.
"The whole theory of urban renewal was based on the idea of urban obsolescence," says Segal. "It was not about blight, but about making way for the new, on the idea that urban structures are made to last 30 or 40 years."
Some of the master plans, such as the one for Lincoln Center in Manhattan, are well known and were fully realized, for better or worse. Others called for public spaces to be part of their construction, but those aspects of the plans were never implemented.
The data has already led to the revitalization of two lots, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens, that were cleared out but never used for anything new.
"We found a couple of sites that were planned open spaces that were behind fences," says Segal. "It proved our hypothesis in a way that was really profound."
Urban renewal is still a tool that can be used by the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development, says Segal. It has fallen somewhat out of fashion, which makes an understanding of this complex history even more important.
"These plans are not irrelevant," she says. "They are very relevant. Master planning is not dead."
*CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story misstated that the City of New York only used eminent domain until 1974—this process is in fact still in use. Also, there are more than 155 total master plans available in the Urban Reviewer database, not 150.