What Makes a Great Privately Owned Public Space

What Makes a Great Privately Owned Public Space

 Four Nights With Three Lectures: Part 2

A three part lecture review by David J. Mitchell, ASLA

map of san francisco privately owned public open space

On Tuesday, January 14, 2013, SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research), a member-supported, non-profit organization, hosted a panel discussion regarding privately owned public open spaces (POPOS), as an alternative to publicly owned spaces in meeting the public need for outdoor spaces in the built environment.  POPOS are a critical part of San Francisco’s downtown open-space network.  As San Francisco contemplates new POPOS to come — including one twice the size of Union Square planned for the new Transbay Transit Center — it’s a good time to ask:  What makes for great POPOS and how do we ensure that these spaces are widely known and fulfill their public role?  Landscape architects Tom Balsley of New York and Marta Fry of San Francisco, UC-Berkeley Professor of Architecture Margaret CrawfordJosh Switzky from the San Francisco Planning Department, Harvard University Professor of Urban Planning and Design Jerold Kayden and San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King explored the impacts of POPOS in San Francisco’s downtown.


Urban open spaces should be the pride and joy of any city.  After all, these spaces define the charter of a city by providing plazas, parks, gardens and walkways where we can sit and relax, meet with friends, eat or read in the open air, and engage in the timeless urban pastime of people watching.  These urban open spaces are where we get a glimpse of nature amid the hardscape of the downtown urban fabric.  A way to provide such spaces is through the use of POPOS.


POPOS have moved from flat plazas to usable public spaces due to proper legislation.  In New York City, POPOS were created in return for larger development projects beyond the existing zoning requirements.  The trade-off has provided New York City with 20 million square feet of additional retail/residential spaces for 80+ acres of POPOS. These POPOS are concentrated in Manhattan’s midtown and downtown business centers, although a substantial number are in east midtown and the upper east side. The results of the POPOS program have been mixed in New York City.  An impressive amount of public space has been created in parts of the City with little access to public parks, but much of it is not of high quality.  Some spaces have proved to be valuable public resources, but others are inaccessible or devoid of the kinds of amenities that attract public use.  Approximately 16 percent of the spaces are actively used as regional destinations or neighborhood gathering spaces, 21 percent are usable as brief resting places, 18 percent are circulation-related, four percent are being renovated or constructed, and 41 percent are of marginal utility.

Most of San Francisco’s POPOS were created through incentive plans to encourage the development of more open space in the downtown area.  Although San Francisco’s downtown office district now provides work and living space for more than a quarter of a million people, it has almost no publicly owned and managed open space. The district’s large public parks are Union Square, Yerba Buena Gardens, St. Mary’s Square, Portsmouth Square, Justin Herman Plaza and Maritime Plaza are on the peripheries of the downtown office district.  The only publicly provided places for sitting and relaxing downtown are the five benches and ledges around the statue in Mechanics Plaza and the sitting ledges around the BART entrance at the intersection of Market and Montgomery streets.

The Transamerica Pyramid (at Washington and Montgomery Streets) was the City’s first privately owned, publicly accessible open space. The tower design included, at its base, a paved clearing enclosed by a cluster of redwood trees, as well as a fountain, public art and park benches. Its design welcomed passersby and simple amenities invited them to stay.

Prior to San Francisco’s 1985 Downtown Plan, commercial developers included 45 POPOS in their building projects under three general circumstances: voluntarily, in exchange for a density bonus, or as a condition of approval.  Since 1985, 23 POPOS have been created pursuant to the requirements of the Downtown Plan by developers.

POPOS are an alternative for the municipal to provide public open space without the direct costs to own and operate such spaces. These spaces, adjacent to public rights-of-way or access areas, include plazas, small parks, and gardens on ground level or roof tops. They are places where one can take a break from the daily grind of life, relax, meet friends, read and/or have lunch in the outdoors.  Below-grade facilities have proved not to be successful spaces.

The key to successful POPOS is to have eyes on the space by encouraging people to move through it, but also to engage the space. POPOS must attract people and invite stopping to use the space amenities.  A simple way to achieve this is by a having a food vendor to attract additional users to the space and also provide a management presence for the POPOS.

Problems of past POPOS have been the bland, flat design space of the areas. POPOS must always provide an usable environment for people to bathe in the sunlight.  Another problem factor is the change of ownership of POPOS from commercial developers to actual the land owner and/or business districts underwriting the maintenance of POPOS.  Current land owners begin to limit the public access to POPOS, which benefited the developer in constructing the POPOS. Therefore the panel agreed that:

    1. A city should have at least one person dedicated to overseeing the design and use of POPOS.
    2. A nonprofit support group, like SPUR, must bird dog the process regarding POPOS.
    3. Ensure public access to POPOS from adjacent right-of-ways.
    4. Educate the public through signage and other means that POPOS are truly public spaces for them to use.
    5. Public adoption of poor spaces to renovate them into usable POPOS.
    6. More social-type spaces, like playgrounds, should be included in POPOS.

Expanding on a project called “COMMONSPACE” started by REBAR, a local art collective, SPUR surveyed and evaluated existing POPOS in San Francisco. The SPUR report was guided, first, by an investigation into the creation of various POPOS before and after the adoption of the Downtown Plan. In evaluating the individual spaces, SPUR asked a set of basic questions: Is there sunlight? A place to sit? A sign stating the space’s hours of operation?  Then, SPUR laid out a series of recommendations to improve existing POPOS and guide the development of such spaces in the future.  To formulate those recommendations, SPUR asked: Is the existing network of open spaces serving the needs of the downtown area of San Francisco?  How can we expand and improve on what we already have?  And what role should the private sector play in providing publicly accessible open spaces as our downtown continues to grow and change?  The SPUR report is online here.


Further Reading

SPUR Report on POPOS Inspired by Rebar’s Commonspace project.
SPUR “Agenda for Change”
 Includes a discussion of POPOS as part of the fabric of San Francisco’s public spaces.

The New York Department of City Planning, the Municipal Art Society and Harvard professor Jerold S. Kayden joined forces several years ago to develop an electronic database with detailed information about every one of the public spaces created as a result of the city’s incentive zoning program. The database findings led to the publication of “Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience.”  This book describes the evolution of incentive zoning in New York City and profiles each of the 503 public spaces at 320 buildings that were granted additional floor area or related waivers in exchange for providing these spaces.


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