Reclaiming Public Space in San Francisco

A group in San Francisco that calls itself Rebar has launched a project, COMMONspace, that aims to “identify, map and conduct a series of performance investigations in San Francisco’s privately-owned public open spaces (“Po-Pos”).” Po-Pos are those spaces in a city where the city government has partnered with private developers to create nominally public spaces.

Sometimes, the goal is to take advantage of tax breaks while keeping the space private, by making it inhospitable to the public. The goal of COMMONspace, states Rebar, is “to evaluate, activate and reclaim these spaces as a critical part of the public realm and as a valuable component of San Francisco’s intellectual and artistic commons. We aim to determine, Just how public are these privately-owned public spaces?”

The COMMONspace blog has an aerial map of 14 privately owned public spaces website, which invites people to share their experiences in using the spaces. With regard to 560 Mission Street, for example, one commenter writes:

Security guards are out of control. I have been yelled at for locking my bicycle to a parking meter in front of the building. I was told that they did not allow bicycles to be locked up on the public sidewalk. They are also among the worst buildings for deliveries, demanding ID twice to get to the incredibly slow service elevator.

The COMMONspace project was inspired, in part, by Jerome S. Kayden’s 2000 book, Privately Owned Public Spaces: The New York City Experience. Kayden noted how developers are often allowed to build larger floor areas if they provide plazas, arcades or atriums that are open and accessible to the public. But then, once the building gets built, the building managers frequently try to shoo the public away from the spaces that they are legally entitled to enjoy. This is all about the privatization of public space and the enclosure of the commons, writes COMMONspace.

Rebar — the sponsor of COMMONspace — hosted another project that vividly made the case for public space in San Francisco. They deliberately chose a highly privatized part of the city, and “rented” a parking space for two hours to create a temporary public park, complete with grass and bench. Rebar explained:

One of the more critical issues facing outdoor urban human habitat is the increasing paucity of space for humans to rest, relax, or just do nothing. For example, more than 70% of San Francisco’s downtown outdoor space is dedicated to the private vehicle, while only a fraction of that space is allocated to the public realm.

The first “PARK intervention” was on November 16, 2005, from noon until 2 p.m. You can watch a short video of the event here. The project has actually inspired similar “PARK interventions” in the Sicilian town of Trapani, and in Santa Monica, California.