Privately-owned public space and the Knights Who Say Ni

“First you must find... a shrubbery! Then, when you have found the shrubbery, you must place it here, beside this shrubbery, only slightly higher so you get a two-layer effect with a little path running down the middle. Then, you must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest... with... a herring!”

From, of course, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. All hail the Knights Who Say Ni, possibly the first stakeholders in a privately-owned public space project.

My day job is in state government, in a program that provides development incentives to local government and the private sector. Now and then (particularly in election years), we have a public conversation about what government’s role in the private and local realm should be. Typically government creates incentives for what we want the incented – whether private or public sector – to do. How effective are we? Is it clear to those who benefit from our incentives what we really want? (Is it clear to us?!) And what's the public good that comes from our incentives?

New York, San Francisco, and other cities reward private developers that incorporate public spaces into their projects (known as privately-owned public spaces). For example, you get a zoning variance for more floors if you have a public plaza outside or public passage inside the building. 

However, there may be no qualitative controls after the variance is granted.  Some developers see the public space as an asset to their development, while for others it’s an intrusion. They make seating uncomfortable (or don’t have any), don’t put up signs identifying public space, or just make public spaces so uninviting that the public has no reason to use them. And why not? The private sector doesn’t represent the public interest. Why should we expect them to? Unless public space clearly benefits the development, we can’t expect developers to do anything more than meet the minimum requirements.

Then there’s the problem of who maintains privately-owned public spaces. It's a lot cheaper to maintain an unused concrete patch than a landscaped park with seating and trash cans that might actually be used. Remember Zuccotti Park from Occupy Wall Street? That’s a privately-owned public space. No wonder developers want to hide their public spaces from the public.

 An uninviting privately-owned public space in New York City. Spikes prevent use of the planters for loiterers. And everyone else. Spikes are now prohibited.

An uninviting privately-owned public space in New York City. Spikes prevent use of the planters for loiterers. And everyone else. Spikes are now prohibited.

Without some guidance and collaboration between all the stakeholders, you’ll end up with a smokers’ alleyway, not an attractive public asset. If developers don't benefit from the public space, they will take the path of least resistance – the cheapest or easiest option. Or the one that is unlikely to be occupied.

We need some middle ground between a big picture outcome (Thou Shalt Make Public Space) and micromanagement (a two-layer effect with a little path). It’s not government's place to tell developers where their shrubbery should be. Government could, though, use its incentives to get the kind of process it wants used to reach desirable public space. If your privately-owned public space will be a little path, show us that you went through an inclusive public planning process or at least talked to the neighbors, or that you talked to the parks people and they want a path in that location, or why you want a piece of art instead of a shrubbery, or whatever.

 

 New York City now requires signage to identify public-private spaces. The, um, shrubbery is the program logo, so it’s easy to recognize places that are open to the public.

New York City now requires signage to identify public-private spaces. The, um, shrubbery is the program logo, so it’s easy to recognize places that are open to the public.

Some places go a step further and move control away from developers to neighborhoods. In Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, zoning variances may be approved if developers contribute to a fund used for parks and infrastructure (including big 10 foot wide sidewalks) in the neighborhood. Stakeholders from the neighborhood work with city planners to ensure compatibility between development and public spaces. It's a much better system than leaving everything in the hands of developers (or government). The mandated contribution feels to me a little more like buying indulgences, but on the upside, the public amenities are more coordinated and more public good will come from a neighborhood planning process than developers who randomly create 25 little concrete plazas.

 A really cool privately-owned public space in New York.

A really cool privately-owned public space in New York.

Either way, collaboration is key. Government might facilitate, but shouldn’t be the only ones at the table. Neither, though, should private developers be the only ones deciding what public space looks like. A stakeholders process is more inclusive (though some are more inclusive than others – you could, for example, only solicit input from the other Knights Who Say Ni). Government doesn’t micromanage business or neighborhoods, but the outcome may be closer to what government wants.  With luck, the resulting public space is truly public.

Links

This article is old, but talks about New York’s approvals for privately-owned public space, and the complete lack of record-keeping after approval.  There was an estimated 80 acres of privately-owned public space at the time, and someone finally compiled it in 2000. They have continued to make progress, like the signage pictured above.

This article finds more fault with New York’s (lack of) control or oversight of privately-owned public spaces in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. The author talks about spaces that are badly designed or that closed after a period of time.

Here’s a story about San Francisco’s public-private spaces. Not such a train wreck as NYC, or maybe California’s newspapers are just nicer than New York’s. 

This is a video with a more positive spin on New York’s spaces.

This web page has nicely-balanced reporting on the private-public spaces in New York.

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