3.1. Commoning Land with 596 Acres
In 2011, Paula and Eric began hanging signs on vacant lots in Brooklyn. They were equipped with detailed property records that were the product of months of Paula’s legal wrangling, and the revelation that some 596 acres of vacant land in their borough were indeed publicly owned. The signs declared in a bold and folksy way, “This Land is Your Land,” and urged nearby residents to self-organize around the vacant “lots in their life.” With the help of Eric, who is a GIS specialist, and many others, what began as a long list of property records was eventually transformed into the Living Lots portal, an interactive map of property ownership, advocacy tools, pathways to access, and community-organizing practices.
Eric describes the Living Lots portal as a Facebook page for a piece of property. Pieces of urban land become entities whose “status” is constantly being updated and tracked. However, instead of being listed as “single” or “in a relationship,” properties share their profile by listing their ownership and organizing status, and the city or state agency who controls them. The actual people that these properties are in a relationship with are listed as their organizers, who share their contact details. Others can “follow” this property to receive a constant stream of updates. Each page offers a long digital trail of meeting notes, photos, progress updates, copies of emails to city officials and agencies, legal proceedings, and words of solidarity and encouragement in what are often incredibly slow and protracted legal and bureaucratic struggles. In the meantime, the original organizers might get demoralized, burnt out, change jobs, or move, but thanks in part to the data on this page, the work can be picked back up by the next organizers.
Living Lots is a living archive of community organizing. Although much of the popular and academic scholarship on 596 Acres focuses on the map, the technology, and the use of open data [19
], this extensive organizing infrastructure would have little impact (and perhaps even exacerbate existing inequalities around urban land access by supporting ICT-enabled environmental gentrification) without the community organizing practices on the ground that are driven by an ethic of racial and social justice. Until the summer of 2018, 596 Acres and the Living lots portal depended on an extensive offline social infrastructure. When I interviewed Mara, then Director of Partnerships, one of her jobs was to field calls on the 596 Acres organizing “hotline,” where anyone could call for support in organizing community land access to a piece of property. She would meet with people, discuss possible pathways to access, stewardship, and ownership; investigate the history of the property; follow up with multiple city agencies on their behalf to check on the status of their paperwork; help collect signatures when needed; present on their behalf at community board meetings; sit with them for weeks and months of soul-crushing court proceedings; and then vigorously document every detail of this on the Living Lots portal, in the monthly newsletter, and on multiple social-media platforms.
Without question, the vast webs of connection facilitated through these maps, organizing platforms, and social-media tools have made a difference to the work of community self-organizing. However, these maps, platforms, and media do not do the organizing; human beings do. Mara made this very clear in our interview. We were reflecting on the enormous growth of 596 Acres, and how the organization has been able to “open source” the concept, the technology, and the tools to communities as nearby as Philadelphia and as distant as Melbourne to replicate their approach in ways that are local and context-specific. When a new group approaches 596 Acres and requests their help in developing an online map and organizing platform for vacant land in their city, the first thing 596 Acres asks is if they have the people (staff and volunteers) to support this map. This is because, in their experience, a map alone is not enough. Although all of the ICT tools that 596 Acres uses are extremely interactive, they are not equally accessible to everyone and, even if they were, having all of the right data and information may not be enough to mobilize community members or keep them engaged. Although many community members care for the “lots in their life,” they are not all able to take time out of a busy schedule to organize and attend meetings, file papers, attend various court and public hearings, follow up on phone calls, or build a community garden from the ground up. Indeed, 596 Acres staff have helped dozens of people organize around vacant land and start community gardens, who have never logged onto the website [40
Of course, the map also does a great deal; it makes property visible and obscure public property records accessible and transparent, thereby stimulating imagination and access. As Paula writes: “you can’t common what you can’t see’’ [4
]. Critical geographers have also documented how mapping can play a play a vital role in generating new spatial and economic imaginaries and subjectivities around the commons [53
], shifting the way people relate to resources, space, and one another. The people organizing around the “lots in their life” [28
] are ideally long-time residents who have experienced all of the downsides of vacancy, urban renewal, the systemic disinvestment in black neighborhoods (e.g., red lining), and now finally have a chance to make a claim on these spaces and enjoy their benefits. Many of these residents know the vacant spaces in their neighborhood in ways that city property records and their spatial representation cannot fully capture. They may know who once lived there, who was evicted, when the building was demolished, and above all they may know what has happened on the land over the previous decades—how it felt when the land became a neighborhood eyesore and burden, or attracted illegal activities such as waste dumping or drug sales. What they might not know is whether or not it is public property, which city agency owns it, what the legal steps are for gaining access, and what political and zoning promises were made for this piece of property. For example, many vacant lots are on urban renewal sites that have community “promises” attached to them for affordable housing or for parks. These promises were often made in exchange for permission to clear slums, displace thousands of people (the majority black and low income), and “develop” neighborhoods in the 1970s. Many of these promises still have not been fulfilled. Knowing this information can be a first step in organizing. To make these promises and plans more visible, 596 Acres developed the Urban Reviewer map [54
At the time of our interview, Mara was in regular contact with a group of local residents who were organizing around a vacant lot in their Bronx neighborhood. The LivingLotsNYC page attached to this property begins with a simple message from a 596 Acres organizer on May 7 2015. In all caps, she writes, “THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A PARK!”, links to an article about the park, and urges concerned residents to organize with her to push the Parks Department to clean it up and open it to neighborhood residents. One year later, on April 4 2016, a neighbor who has become enmeshed in this process through several offline meetings with 596 Acres staff, Partnership for Parks, and local council members posts her contact details and takes responsibility for organizing this parcel. There is a steady stream of back and forth between the neighbor and 596 Acres staff, to share information about the park’s ownership and plans. Evidently the land has been vacant for more than 20 years, and the Parks Department has owned the lot for six years but has no plans to renovate it. Through their local civic networks, 596 Acres staff learn that there are plans afoot to “demap” and “alienate” the park and sell it to a housing developer [55
Mara posts detailed summaries and updates to keep track of the organizing process on the multiple social-media and communication platforms she manages. This is how I learn about their next meeting, which is in the basement of a housing complex in the Bronx. At this visioning meeting, the neighbors are discussing their plans and dreams for the garden over drinks and cookies. One neighbor would like to see a healing garden for cultivating natural herbs and a green space for people relax in. Another neighbor shows us the drawings she has made on her computer that show how the space could be used. This stimulates others to begin imagining bringing their children and grandchildren to the garden. We then take a walk to the vacant lot, stare in through the chain-link fence, and try to picture ourselves inside. The neighbors have maintained frequent contact with Mara over the months (now years) they have been organizing. Mara provides constant guidance and encouragement, advises them on next steps, and keeps track of everything. The next step for this lot is to begin collecting letters of support and signatures that can be presented to the community board. The next day Mara has posted the meeting notes, and a group picture of us at the meeting is on Twitter. Through these social practices, the community that is willing to care for the land comes into focus.
Using the online platform, organizers share vital information about an upcoming city council meeting on public parks that have been closed to the public. Countless community members from the South Bronx turn out for the meeting to share their stories about this parcel of land and their hopes for its future. Their testimony is prepared with support from 596 Acres and then meticulously archived on the public webpage for this lot, where I have been able to access it. Community members describe the feelings of abandonment they came to associate with walking past the same locked parcel of land for 20 years, as well as the sense of curiosity they maintained in its possible use and future, as new weeds and plants grew and new signs of activity became visible. What each person makes clear in their testimony is that they would not have even known about this public meeting, or been able to add their voice to this important community conversation, were it not for 596 Acres. 596 Acres organizers play a vital role in facilitating access to the municipal governance processes that all residents have a right to participate in, by helping citizens to develop the knowledge, tools, and experience needed to take an active role in these public meetings [55
]. In this way, “tools for commoning” come to play an important role in facilitating civic participation in the governance of urban land, enabling residents to exercise their collective right to the city.
This extensive offline community infrastructure is not visible on the web portal—or in the extensive write ups about 596 Acres that focus on the technical innovation of the map. This social infrastructure is created by (paid and unpaid) community organizers who are available to meet with residents interested in organizing, hang signs on vacant lots, encourage them to develop a vision and inclusive organizing process, collect signatures when needed, present their case at community board meetings, contact city agencies (and keep contacting them), accompany them in court, and advocate for community land access at multiple levels. While 596 Acres has unfortunately lost the foundation funding that supports this type of labor, the Living Lots web portal remains active [56
]. In this way, it continues to help people build community online and offline and share vital information about the “lots in their life.” However, as this small example shows, it takes much more than an interactive map to support community self-organizing around the urban food commons.
At present, Living Lots NYC also plays another vital role; it is an organizing archive. In cities like New York, where changes in land use can happen at an incredible pace without community participation or public accountability, it is critical to have an archive of these decisions and practices so that we can make sense of the particular decisions, relationships, and actions that have led to the current state of affairs. Examining this history, we can see that gentrification and land grabbing are not inevitable processes guided by the seemingly natural laws of capitalism, but political and policy decisions. The page for the vacant lot in the Bronx I have described in this article concludes with the troubling documentation of assembly members in the state capital successfully passing a law to alienate the park from public ownership in order to sell it to a housing developer, effectively side-lining the local governance institutions (the community board, city council, and parks department) through which community members have been organizing for the last three years. Table 1
provides a summary of the different tools and practices that support community-self organizing around imagination, access, governance, and care in 596 Acres. I return to these themes in the discussion.
3.2. Commoning Food with foodsharing.de
In contrast to urban land, which is a relatively scarce, sedentary, and costly resource that tends to gain value over time, surplus food is very nearly the opposite. It is abundant, highly mobile, and rapidly degrades in quality and value. ICT tools have long been incorporated into the complex algorithms and logistics of our food system, to the benefit of supermarkets and distributors who can respond to consumer demands and market trends “just in time” and maintain razor-thin profit margins, often at huge expense to upstream producers. The logistics and market devices that prop up our industrial food system may also contribute to food waste, as the exchange value of food can expire far faster than its use value [57
]. Increasingly, a number of tech start-ups are targeting food retailers and businesses to help them monitor and reduce their food waste, and when possible redirect their surplus to food redistribution programs [59
In the realm of community self-organizing, ICT tools are being used to decentralize the complex logistics of food rescue and redistribution. Foodsharing.de is a volunteer run food-saving logistics and food redistribution platform that began in Germany and continues to spread its tools, values, and innovations in Europe through grassroots outreach. Their social innovation—the Fair-Teiler (community fridge)—has been taken up throughout Europe by food-sharing groups in Austria and Switzerland, by the UK community fridge network, and by the solidarity fridge network in Spain and Sweden. The web platform foodsharing.de was formally launched in 2012, when a grassroots collective of dumpster divers led by Raphael Fellmer “Lebensmittelretten” (food saving) joined forces with food waste activist and documentary filmmaker Valentin Thurn to combine the food-rescue logistics developed by Lebensmittelretten with peer-to-peer food gifting via online “food baskets.” The idea caught fire with hundreds of activists and hacktivists who donated valuable tech and programming skills to further develop the website and mobile app, and eventually open source the concept and code through projects like Yunity.
The foodsharing.de platform’s primary function might be described as “just in time” surplus food logistics. Individual partnership managers coordinate matches between food savers and local businesses, who choose a dedicated time each day or week for a trained food saver to collect their surplus food. In additional to matching businesses with individual food savers, the platform is also used for peer-to-peer food sharing through geo-located “food baskets” that private households use to give away their surplus food. Several data-gathering tools are built into the platform to help foodsharing.de generate impressive statistics about the number of pickups, exchanges, and the tonnage of surplus food that has been saved from the dumpster [60
]. When looking at a map of Berlin populated with food baskets, community fridges, and statistics about the amount of food that has been rescued, it is easy to imagine surplus food as abundant, accessible, and shareable.
While a few of these data gathering features are automated, almost every single food-sharing transaction is mediated by an actual person who takes personal responsibility for scheduling and exchanging information between the donors and the recipient. The platform is not driven by an algorithm that facilitates good matches between people and food in time and space but by hundreds of volunteers, individuals, and shop owners and employees who rely on face-to-face conversations, phone calls, text messages, Facebook chats, and instant messages through the food-sharing platforms to negotiate access to surplus food. What the platform has facilitated is the tremendous scaling up of food-sharing membership and the spread of foodsharing.de tools to self-organized communities across Berlin and Germany. However, this growth has not been without growing pains—a theme I return to later.
Not unlike the 596 Acres organizers, who decided to start hanging “This Land is your Land” signs on the fence of vacant lots to make property information visible and accessible to local residents most impacted by land vacancy [4
], Berlin food sharing activists also grew concerned with the limitations of a mostly online food-sharing platform, for facilitating access to food for those most affected by food insecurity. To address this concern, they developed the concept of a Fair-Teiler (community fridge), which would be accessible 24 h a day for anyone who wanted to give or take food. As an “open-access” food commons, the fridges have raised food safety concerns—since it is almost impossible to draw boundaries, assign responsibility and liability, or ensure traceability. (See [2
] for a fuller discussion.)
Beyond logistics, the platform is used to share information about the status of community fridges. Each fridge is geolocated on an online map and has a dedicated page listing its operating hours and the stewards who clean it. On each fridge page, there is an interactive message board where updates and pictures are shared about the contents of the fridge. The map, combined with this constant flow of information, serves not only to make the food commons visible but to connect people. Sharing information helps communities self-organize around the care and maintenance of their fridges. However, information alone is not enough to facilitate joint responsibility in commons ventures. Commons of all kinds require rules for mediating use and access, making decisions, and delivering rewards and sanctions. In the early stages of the organization, many of these issues were negotiated face to face with the help of local ambassadors. However, eventually food-sharing membership and public fridge users began to grow too quickly for these face to face encounters to keep pace, and foodsharing.de began to function as a governance platform as well.
Governance rules, decisions, and discussions are chronicled on numerous food-sharing wikis and discussion pages. Governance concerns such as trust, safety, and values are codified into an online quiz that all food savers must pass in order to access surplus food from food shops. Tools such as the “trust banana,” the “violation button,” and the “I know this person button” also play an important role in rewarding pro-commons behavior and disciplining free riders (see [2
] for a fuller discussion). This ICT infrastructure has multiple security and administrative layers, and as food savers progress in the organization—attaining a higher level of trust—they can also access higher levels of the website, including forums where they can discuss important issues in their area of responsibility. Trust and accountability are further cemented through numerous offline interactions—at community brunches and dinners, at chance encounters around the community fridge, and at neighborhood food-sharing meetings. Table 2
provides a summary of the different tools and practices that support community-self organizing around imagination, access, governance, and care in foodsharing.de. I return to these themes in the discussion.