The battle over the right to use public spaces on private property has been played out throughout the US over the last half century. Many developers, in exchange for a more favorable floor-to-area ratio (FAR) allowance, were required to build ground level public plazas. Unfortunately, most of these plazas were public only in name; all too often, property owners and building managers discouraged people from using them, in direct violation of the law. The problem, which continues to this day, is exacerbated by the fact that the spaces often feel private and univiting, and as a result are heavily underused.
PPS got its start in the late seventies working on many privately owned public spaces, convincing owners to make them more inviting and then adapting them to actually work for people. Rockefeller Center remains one of our strongest examples of accomplishing this transformation. When PPS was established, it was thought that the organization would not need to exist after a few years when everyone saw the value of making public spaces truly public and understood the simple principles for designing and managing them to be inviting to people.
Of course, the struggle continues today. A group of city officials in Seattle recently organized a tour of these Privately Owned Public Spaces–or POPOS–to spread awareness of the issue to both the public and property owners. During the tour, the issues at stake arose almost immediately; as reported by an article in the Daily Journal of Commerce, the group was asked by a security guard to leave the premises. The officials politely informed the guard that they were on public property.
Cities that have offered similar incentive programs, including New York City and San Francisco, have also continued to wrestle with this issue. Early successes there, as well as in Seattle, include new signage that clearly identifies these spaces as public areas. This is, of course, a long way from realizing the full potential of creating gathering spaces on privately owned property, for both social benefit and private economic gain. And at PPS, we will keep working untill the last of these spaces is actually a public asset.