Last week I attended a very interesting talk at SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research) focused on POPOS in SF and POPS in NYC. POPOS is an acronym for Privately Owned Public Open Space, while POPS stands for Privately Owned Public Space. The talk had an amazing panel of landscape architects, planners, and professors and was moderated by John King, the well known design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. The talk filled the entire floor of SPUR building, spilling into the lobby and down the stairs…it was quite impressive!
The panel came together to discuss POPOS and answer questions such as: what are POPOs and where can you find them, what makes a successful publicly owned open space (both in design and regulation), and how do the POPOS help the city– do they help the city?
POPOS are spaces that came about as an incentive by the planning department to allow developers to increase vertical development in exchange for making an open space for public use. The concept was to create little bits of nature in the downtown area that could be a welcome escape from the bustling city environment. Now these spaces are required as part of new development, and as such, there are some amazing designers exploring how to create wonderful public open spaces, regulations being refined to ensure quality areas are developed, and controversy over both.
Tom Balsley (Thomas Balsley Associates, New York) started the discussion with how to make great public open spaces from a design perspective. In NYC there are over 500 POPS, and therefore, the City has learned a lot of lessons such as how to keep a space activated, where it should be located, how much fencing is appropriate, etc. It seems as though in NY the regulations are pretty defined and dictate a lot of the design decisions (for example, POPS can’t be on the north side of a building). Perhaps this is a direction SF regulation should move?
Next Jerold Kayden(Professor of Urban Planning Design at Harvard) talked for a bit about how we should think of creating public spaces, and what needs to happen from a planning perspective so that cities are encouraging creation of well purposed and enjoyable open space. He talked about how 41% of NYC’s POPS are really “bad spaces” (not a lot of daylight, poorly programmed, etc) and that 50% are out of compliance with current regulations. He thinks we need to focus on making bad spaces good, and focus on regulations to make proposed spaces “worth it” for the cities and residents. We should be thinking holistically about an area and what it needs. He coined “decentralized central park” as a way to think about what types of open spaces are needed in certain areas.
Josh Switzky represented SF Planning and discussed how the planning department is thinking about all these concepts. They are trying to determine how to create some roof top spaces, some plazas, some sidewalk expansions, and how to make sure that SF doesn’t land up with all roof top open spaces that are hard for the public to access.
Access seems to be the number one thing that San Francisco could improve. Very few people know about these spaces, generally there is only a very small plaque distinguishing them, and they can be very complicated to get to. When telling my roommate about this talk, she was psyched I went just because now I had the “inside scoop” on how to find some new, fun lunch places. While that is true, it’s probably not a good thing that she thinks you have to be a designer and SPUR member to find out about these “public” spaces.
Margret Crawford (Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley, College of Environmental Design) discussed something I hadn’t thought of yet. These spaces are good at breaking up the urban fabric of the downtown area, and a nice place for the working class to sit and eat lunch, however they are limited and do not invite ALL types of public. The very fact that they are limited to the financial district/downtown area of the city limits them to a primarily working public that is comfortable in a corporate environment. It’s interesting to think about how to strike a balance between designing a space for everyone, and one to serve your downtown target audience.
Lastly, Marta Fry (Marta Fry Landscape Architecture, SF) who just designed a beautiful rooftop POPO at 1 Kearny St in San Francisco discussed how some POPOS really aren’t very public at all. For example, 1 Kearny, requires you to check in at the front, travel up to the 11th floor (go back down for a key to the restroom if needed) and really doesn’t make one feel like an invited guest. How can the city change that? There are innate controversies when you have private investment developing a space that for public improvement– what is the best way to make the investment beneficial to both parties?
This got me thinking about other public open spaces that I know about through working at Sherwood. Two of our past projects, Mint Plaza and Davis Court, seem like POPOS, however they are a bit different. Both of these spaces are very inviting public areas, but what sets them apart from other POPOS, and how could new POPOS be designed in similar ways?
Mint Plaza is actually publicly owned, however it was redeveloped privately and is maintained by the “Friends of Mint Plaza.” Davis Court is privately owned, however, as it is part of Davis Street, it needs to function as a corridor for vehicular and pedestrian traffic; the developer also wanted it to be a space that was inviting to public to walk through and maybe stay a while.
In both cases the developer wanted to make the space attractive, safe and accessible to the public as that helps attract businesses to the surrounding retail space and customers to those businesses. The developer was also helping to embrace sustainability goals with open space and community concepts (not to mention wonderful, green, LID Stormwater Management designed by Sherwood!)
Is there a way to make POPOS that are easy to find and used by all types of public more common? Maybe allowing some retail/cafes at POPOS would help incentivize the private shareholder to make them more accessible. Tom Balsley mentioned that in New York, POPS can have cafes as long as they have as much seating for the general/non-paying public as the customers. Maybe this model would be good for some of the POPOS in SF.
As you can see from this lengthy post, the talk was very interesting and changed my perspective from “of course POPOS are good, what could be bad about an awesome, new, rooftop garden I’m allowed to go to…” to really thinking about what makes a good space vs. an unused “waste of space.” Luckily, planners and designers have been thinking about this for a while and are trying to build those elements into POPOS that are in design now, and into regulations for the future.
So get out there and visit POPOs when you can, below are some links to help you find them all!