POPOS In the Heart of the City: How Public Spaces Pump Life into Metropolitan Living

By: Madeline Walsh
May 12, 2014

While the bustle of a city may signify its vitality, the calm of its parks and public spaces represent its humanity. Much like the famous skyscraper, city parks have become an important element of a city’s identity. As New York City’s chief city planner Amanda Burden explains, public spaces make cities work. In her TEDxTALK on the subject, Burden cites New York City’s Paley Park as a prime example of thoughtful development. Burden recounts each element that contributed to the park’s success, through attention to detail and consideration for creature comforts. These elements included movable furniture, greenery and other people, all of which feed our needs for both social interaction and personal space.

Paley Park Manhattan, NY Photo: PPS Image Collection
Paley Park
Manhattan, NY
Photo: PPS Image Collection

 

Paley Park’s rearrangeable furniture, striking waterfall and cheap hot dogs attracted several New Yorkers. Nestled between a group of high-rises, Paley highlights the context of living in metropolitan areas. As the park’s page on Project for Public Spaces explains, these elements combined to create a space of serenity for many people in hectic Manhattan. The park’s instant popularity highlighted the space’s importance as a city sanctuary. The park brings out the natural instincts of those living in an unnatural environment. We can also find similar features in Bay Area parks and public spaces.

Central Park Manhattan, NY Photo by Keyur Khamar for Bloomberg
Central Park
Manhattan, NY
Photo by Keyur Khamar for Bloomberg
Golden Gate Park, 1997 San Francisco, CA Photo by Frederic Larson from Chronicle File
Golden Gate Park, 1997
San Francisco, CA
Photo by Frederic Larson from Chronicle File

Traditional parks such as New York City’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park bring greenery into the concrete jungle. Even in a super-fast high-tech world, these parks prove it is still important to stop and smell the roses. City landscaping, in some ways, is the ultimate interactive public art. The immersive experience of parks and gardens can positively impact people both physically and mentally. Golden Gate Park is an impressive 1,017 acres, beating out its eastern competitor, New York City’s Central Park. Developed in the 1870s, the three mile by half mile public space is home to many attractions, including the De Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences and San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden. Also, host to many concerts, festivals, and public gatherings, Golden Gate Park offers both personal and intellectual enrichment.

Image of POPOS Plaque San Francisco Photo: SPUR
Image of POPOS Plaque
San Francisco, CA
Photo: SPUR

However, while the Bay Area boasts a wonderful collection of enriching public parks, contemporary public spaces are hard to find. Enter: POPOS. Privately owned public open spaces (POPOS) can come in the form of plazas, parks, walkways or atriums found within San Francisco’s commercial center. The project began as an expansion of local art collective REBAR’s COMMONspace project. COMMONspace, actively sought to support San Francisco’s public park system through the mapping, exploration and evaluation of the city’s privately owned public spaces. To stimulate growth of POPOS, REBAR conducted research and established a web database for publishing field reports from each site. REBAR also focused their efforts on activating POPOS through performance art.

Crown Zellerbach Building  San Francisco Photo: DOCOMOMO/NOCA
Crown Zellerbach Building
San Francisco, CA
Photo: DOCOMOMO/NOCA

Since it’s early days, POPOS have come a long way. Crown Zellerbach’s headquarters, located at the intersection of Bush, Sansome and Market was one of the first corporate buildings to include a POPOS in its architectural plan. The post-WWII building featured a sunken plaza, bronze fountain, cobblestone features, but also had a high granite walls and no seating.

Transamerica Redwood Park San Francisco, CA Photo: LandscapeVoice
Transamerica Redwood Park
San Francisco, CA
Photo: LandscapeVoice

The Transamerica Building set the POPOs bar in late 1960s and early 1970s with its Redwood Park. The park was the first privately owned public accessible parks in San Francisco at the time. Still a favorite today, the park features a cluster of Redwood trees, a fountain, simple design elements and plenty of of places to park it and soak all the nature in. The Redwood Park is truly a natural oaisis for the working people of the city.

Broadway Boulevard during its traffic experiment in 2010 Photo by Michael M. Grynbaum for The New York Times
Broadway Boulevard during its traffic experiment in 2010
Photo by Michael M. Grynbaum for The New York Times
Latham Square during its urban pilot project, 2014 Photo: Oakland North
Latham Square during its urban pilot project, 2014
Photo: Oakland North

Public spaces, like public artworks can revitalize an area. Both use design and detail to engage city dwellers and add meaning to a specific location. A prime example of this phenomenon can be seen in the development of New York City’s Broadway Boulevard and Oakland’s Latham Square.Both projects demonstrated a reclamation of city space for city people through design and functional details. In recent years, Latham Square has been home to several concerts, community events and a BLOCK Gallery public art installation (on display until August, 2014).

Image of SF POPOS Map Via: San Francisco Planning Department
Image of SF POPOS Map
Via: San Francisco Planning Department

As the San Francisco Planning Department’s interactive map shows, there may be more POPOS out there than we know. A major issue facing people and public spaces is a sheer lack of accessibility. Not enough people are aware of these great city spaces and how they can be used. And, as SPUR discovered through their POPOs Survey, “not all [spaces] are created equal” either. Too many spaces lack what Burden stresses: good, thoughtful design.

Empire Park  San Francisco, CA Photo by Mark Costantini for SF Gate
Empire Park
San Francisco, CA
Photo by Mark Costantini for SF Gate
555 Mission Sculpture Garden San Francisco, CA Photo: LandscapeVoice
555 Mission Sculpture Garden
San Francisco, CA
Photo: LandscapeVoice

Even with our well kept traditional parks, city preservation and beautification needs to be on-going. City spaces are constantly destroyed to make way for developments that serve narrow, short-term economic interests. Like our cities’ growing histories we must strive to build upon existing foundations instead of just ignoring or replacing them. With the rapid growth of the Bay Area’s population, carving out space for new residents is a valid concern. Despite popularity, public spaces should not be taken for granted and need constant champions. At the core of city development lies human interest. As Burden asserts towards the end of her talk, we must take the long view in developing our cities. There is a power in public spaces to help how we live and feel in our cities.

For more on the subject of urban planning and development, check out these blogs:

StreetsBlog

The Dirt

Planetizen

AND Berkeley’s symposium “REIMAGINING THE URBAN.”

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