POPS

POPS (privately-owned public spaces) are spaces that, in exchange for zoning concessions, are available for public use, but owned and managed by private property owners. In other words, real estate developers can build bigger buildings if they allot some of that space for plazas, atriums, small parks, etc. However, cities have had to be vigilant because, once built, some building owners shirk their responsibility of providing public space in exchange for their up-front zoning concessions. There have been cases of hard to read signs, private corporate events being hosted in these spaces, establishing cafés that make the public feel compelled to purchase something to enjoy the space, and even cues from staff that misdirect folks looking for the space in a building. Because of this, there is a sense of distrust and frustration from the public. Many articles yielded from a search of “Privately Owned Public Spaces” are titled “Secret Public Spaces,” “Seattle’s Unknown Private Spaces…That Are Actually Public,” “Secrets of San Francisco,” and so on.

Example of signage alerting passersby to the public space in this building.

So why would cities ever agree to make these concessions if these spaces are so inaccessible? And what’s the connection of POPS to the environment? I traditionally think of public spaces as parks, forest preserves, beaches, playgrounds. But in cities like San Francisco and Chicago, where space is limited, we have to think creatively about how to incorporate more public spaces into our neighborhoods. POPS allow a city to provide residents with more public space when they cannot provide it themselves or at costs they don’t have to bear. In a city like Chicago, where the open space available to residents is well below national standards, this can be a seemingly free solution to address this issue. New York, San Francisco, and Seattle are all ahead of Chicago in taking measures to bring light to these sometimes dark and elusive spaces.

New York City began implementing POPS in the 1960s. Now there are over 500 POPS throughout the city, yet when surveyed a few years ago, many were deemed inaccessible. To address this, New York City published a comprehensive map just last year, identifying and providing information such as hours and amenities of each site. There is also an NPO, Advocates for Privately Owned Public Spaces (APOPS), that seeks to inform the public, encourage public programming and special projects, monitor POPS for compliance, and participate in public policy discussions about POPS.

Seattle also introduced POPS in the 1960s, and they now have over 40 POPS. Facing a similar concern over public awareness and access, Seattle published a map with the address and type of amenity provided at each of its POPS. They also published a PDF list of POPS in the same geographic location with a photo and address.

In San Francisco, POPS were not incorporated until the 1980s, but the city now has nearly 70. In 2012 San Francisco published a comprehensive map with hours, amenities, seating, and even landscaping details. Additionally, a nonprofit advocacy group in the Bay Area, SPUR, surveyed 68 POPS in the downtown area and published “A guide to San Francisco’s privately-owned public open spaces: Secrets of San Francisco.” SPUR’s report includes a map and paragraph about each of the POPS sites; they even rate each site, from poor to excellent.

Key takeaways from other cities’ responses to POPS:

  • a map with detailed information about each site would be helpful as you prepare to go out or are curious enough to research a building that you frequently pass by. Unified signage would enable folks passing by, and in need of a restroom or place to sit down, to find a POPS while already out and about. Seattle offers a map and a breakdown of POPS by geographic region.
  • Regularly inspecting these sites would hold building owners responsible for holding up their end of the bargain. The Planning Department enforces compliance in SF. Each time it has taken someone, like a comptroller (NYC) or city council member (Seattle), to raise awareness of the issue. NYC and SF have investigated their POPS or work to hold them accountable through NPOs (NYC = APOPS, SF = SPUR).

*This blog post was inspired by research done for a blog post that will be published on the Metropolitan Planning Council’s website at a future date. When it has been published, I will add the link here because MPC is very interested in hearing from Chicagoans about this topic.

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