What does it mean when public spaces aren’t entirely… public? And what does that mean for the people that use them? In this blog post, our Urban Planning and Design Coordinator, Max Frank, shares some thoughts on the landscape of privately owned public spaces (POPS), and some red flags and green flags to look out for when visiting them.

Fan Pier Public Green in Boston’s Seaport, a privately owned public space. Credit: Boston Seaport

Sort of Public, Sort of Private

This is not a hot take – but I love public space. In dense cities, public spaces are essential to give people places to gather, play, and relax. For a long time, public municipal agencies commissioned, funded, and even designed public spaces for their cities.  But today – circumstances are different. Land values in cities have skyrocketed, and already burdened municipal budgets simply can’t keep up with rising demand for public open space. In response, private sector developers, organizations, and funding have filled the gap left by the public sector, giving rise to a new class of spaces: not fully public, not fully private, but somewhere in between. 

When I was a student, I studied this gray area, spaces that were open to the public, yet under some degree of private control. I learned that when talking about the public realm, most folks have a gut instinct that private = bad and public = good, and there are entirely valid reasons to feel this way! Decades of underperforming and even exclusionary privatized public spaces have cultivated skepticism and mistrust among the general public. Today however, as the regulatory landscape that governs these spaces catches up to the pace at which they are built, a new landscape is emerging, literally and figuratively.

How did the private sector become so involved in public space?

A zoning experiment in 1960’s New York paved the way for privately owned public spaces, incentivizing developers by allowing them to increase the number of floors in a proposed building in exchange for a publicly accessible plaza or ground-level interior space. This was an attractive deal for developers, and there were few safeguards in place to make sure those publicly accessible spaces were actually serving the public. Long story short: this led to a lot of underperforming, vacant, and uncomfortable public spaces

Fast forward to today – a lot has changed! Today, private funding and organizations have become main characters in public space development, not just supporting cast! Even some of our most iconically “public” spaces (think Central Park in New York) are now managed and maintained by private organizations and funding. In fact, when Central Park had fallen into severe disrepair in the 1970’s, backlogged maintenance projects mandated funding well beyond the Parks Department’s allocation. In response, the Central Park conservancy formed, harnessing private funding to do what the city administration was unable to – restoring the park to its original state. Further, the regulatory landscape that governs these spaces, while highly localized and varied by city, has come a long way in protecting these spaces for public benefit.

Central Park in Manhattan, a public park that is privately managed, funded, and maintained. Credit: Aurelien Guichard

How do we know if a public space is privately owned?

When it comes to privately owned public space, transparency is key. In Boston, the BPDA hosts a Privately Owned Public Space Map, which is a great way to let folks know that those spaces are open to all (which might seem private to unaware visitors). A few cities have gone a step further, requiring specified signage and logos to be placed in privately owned public spaces to let the public know they are welcome there. Some Bostonians have argued that our city should do the same.

Bolt logo

Putting it into practice

At IP, we’ve been diving headfirst into the world of public-private spaces, working with the City of Boston, developers, and non-profit organizations to improve the process of creating waterfront privately owned civic and cultural spaces for public benefit under Chapter 91.

Someone could write an entire book on the political, capital, and social momentums required to produce public spaces (and in fact, a few already have!) What does all of this mean for ordinary people who just want to relax in a public place? Here at IP we chat a lot about what makes public spaces feel energized and welcoming, so we’re sharing some red flags and green flags to look out for when encountering public spaces out in the world.

🟢 Green Flag 1: Lots of Comfortable Seating

This one seems obvious, but it’s always surprising to me how many public spaces (whether privately owned or not) just don’t have enough seating. Public spaces should have a variety of seating types, moveable chairs with tables, benches, terraced seating with a view, and bonus points if it’s protected from wind and sun. Putting it into practice: At The Station, we took a big swing by hanging chairs from the former gas station canopy, keeping the seating playful, dynamic, and fun. Let me tell you if a gas station can become a vibrant public space anything can! Read more about our work in Fenway’s public realm.

Swings at the Station, a pop-up public space in Fenway.

🟢 Green Flag 2: Plants

Even in the most urban settings, plants are essential in public spaces. Aside from creating shade, purifying air, and providing ecological habitat, plants are also a pretty good indication that a space is being regularly taken care of. Keep an eye out: Post Office Square has become a lunchtime destination in downtown Boston, because of its abundance of seating, active programming, and summertime shade from a healthy tree canopy.

Norman B. Levanthal Park in Post Office Square, a privately owned public space that has become a go-to lunch spot for downtown office workers.  Credit: Newton Court

🟢 Green Flag 3: Lots of Public Art

Public art is a great indicator that whoever created a public space cared enough to give it character and identity through public art. It also introduces surprise and delight in the built environment, and lends a deeper meaning to the place while contributing funds to the local creative economy. Putting it into practice: At Zone 3 in Allston, IP has introduced interactive art & programming into the public realm, bringing a heartbeat to the neighborhood.

We All, a dynamic lighting installation in Allston. Credit: Justin Knight

🔴 Red Flag 1: No Invitation to Linger

Spaces that have little or no seating, uncomfortable options, and a lack of shade or shelter are not worth your time! Keep walking! Everyone deserves a comfortable space to sit and linger. A lack of seating is also typically a good indication that spaces are not cared for or maintained properly.

🔴 Red Flag 2: Too Many Rules and Limitations

In privately owned public space, signage can be both a blessing and a curse. I always recommend reading signage thoroughly (boring, I know!) because it identifies your rights as a user! But sometimes spaces come with lengthy lists of rules and regulations, restricting gatherings, noise, certain activities, food and beverage, or infamously: loitering. What else is public space for but to loiter!

🔴 Red Flag 3: Unclear Communication and Signage

In the event that privately owned public spaces are closed off, exclusionary, or simply not functioning as they should, there should be a clear and easy way for anyone to report the case to a public agency. Posted signage should identify an easy contact method like a phone number or QR code. Putting it into practice: At Recreation Station on Pappas Way, IP produced a dynamic mix of physical and digital touchpoints, creating signage and QR codes that gave visitors easy ways to access equipment and clear contact points.

Colorful signage outside of Recreation Station

What can we all do to make public spaces a little better?

The process of creating public space has changed a lot – but one thing holds true: we need more public spaces that serve their communities in a meaningful way. The best way to have an impact on the development of any public spaces is to stay involved and aware in your community. I’m always inspired by Philadelphia, where a small group of “play captains” joined forces fifty years ago to close down their neighborhood streets in the summer, creating temporary and safe places for neighborhood kids to play.

Today, the Playstreets program closes over three hundred streets every day in the summer, and delivers play equipment, meals, medical services, and cooling centers across the city through a network of non-profit and corporate partners. A few years ago, the Boston Globe Editorial Board argued we owe Boston kids the same commitment to play and public space. I have to say I agree. The lesson to learn for all of us? Start small and stay engaged! Public spaces need a lot of community support and participation to become the vibrant, dynamic, and exciting places we all love to visit. We owe it to each other and we owe it to ourselves!

In Philadelphia, the Playstreets program borrows public streets during the day to make places for play. Credit: Kimberly Paynter

Temishi Onnekikami Headshot

Urban Planning + Design Coordinator