99% Private

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible.

Stephanie Foo:
That’s Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
And this is Stephanie Foo.

Stephanie Foo:
The plaza and seating area of this building are provided and maintained for the enjoyment of the public, from 8 am to 6 pm. Privately owned public open space.

Roman Mars:
POPOS

Stephanie Foo:
P-O-P-O-S

Blaine Merker:
“And it has this logo that says ‘public open space’ with kind of this little tree shaped like a house. And all of them have the same logo. The city requires that logo to be on there.”

Stephanie Foo:
“It’s a cool logo.”

Blaine Merker:
“Yeah. Pretty small sign though.”

Blaine Merker:
My name is Blaine Merker. I’m an artist and part of a group of artists and designers called Rebar. We’re based in San Francisco.

Blaine Merker:
POPOS. They’re kind of a unique set of spaces that were required to be provided by the developer as a condition of approval for the developer’s building.

Roman Mars:
So the POPOS are on private property. They’re owned, most likely, by the owner of the building.

Blaine Merker:
They look like public space. They feel like public space, for the most part. This one that we’re standing in has granite walkways and fountains and grass.

Roman Mars:
But technically speaking, these are totally privately owned.

Blaine Merker:
The only catch is that the developer is legally obliged to make this open to the public and to allow anyone to use it.

Roman Mars:
And no one’s quite sure what’s allowed here, who’s in charge, and what the codes of behavior should be. And just because they’re public doesn’t mean they’re easy to find.

Blaine Merker:
“So this is sort of a strange environment to walk through to get to a public space.”

Stephanie Foo:
“Yeah, it’s got nice art though!”

Blaine Merker:
“Yeah.”

Stephanie Foo:
“536 Mission.”

Blaine Merker:
“It feels like walking into a library.”

Blaine Merker:
“You’ll see when we walk through security, there’ll be this moment where you’re like ‘okay, I just crossed the threshold.’ Making eye contact with people in authority and sort of acknowledging them – that’s not something I ever feel in a park, right? Like I don’t walk into Dolores Park and have to nod to someone like ‘yes, it’s okay that I’m here.’”

Blaine Merker:
“There’s cameras. One, two, three cameras in here. You wanna try some badminton?”

Stephanie Foo:
“In here?”

Blaine Merker:
“Yeah, why not?”

Stephanie Foo:
“Yeah, let’s do it.”

Blaine Merker:
There’s a whole set of invisible codes and regulations that shape our behavior. Most of us aren’t really consciously aware of them. How you hold yourself in public, where you think you can sit down, who you can talk to. It’s only by doing something to push back against those codes that you actually can see the codes. Sort of like a scientist firing an electron at an atom to see where it is. If you fire an electron at an atom, you actually change the course of the atom. When you’re in one of these spaces and you actually push back against the codes of behavior, you actually change the codes of behavior while you do that.

Stephanie Foo:
“And nothing happened!”

Blaine Merker:
“Nothing happened!”

Stephanie Foo:
“Everyone was just like ‘alright.’”

Blaine Merker:
“We definitely played long enough to get noticed on camera, right?”

Stephanie Foo:
“Right? And nobody came.”

Blaine Merker:
“Nobody came. Score one for public space.”

Roman Mars:
But if you really want to test the tolerance of a privately owned public open space, badminton may not be the best test. I mean, if you really want to make someone in authority uncomfortable, the most subversive act, especially right now, maybe doing nothing at all.

Blaine Merker:
There are a few behaviors that you can sort of possibly do that allow you to be idle, like fiddling with your phone or smoking or reading a book. But to just like lie down and do nothing, not okay. It draws attention to do nothing.

Roman Mars:
The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, which has been better known as SPUR, has a great guide to all the POPOS in the city and recommendations about how to improve current and future POPOS. Including a proposal to codify some of these rules for the social aspects of privately owned public open spaces. I think it’s key to keep in mind that POPOS will never fully supplant the need for a true commons, for true public spaces in a city. POPOS can be these great hidden gems in the nooks and crannies of a city, but even if you’re allowed to play badminton, the fact that you have to test for it means these spaces aren’t really ours.

Stephanie Foo:
This episode of 99% Invisible was produced by Roman Mars and Stephanie Foo, with support from Lunar. It’s a project of KALW, The American Institute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design.

  1. Andy Behrens

    One of the best-known POPOS is Rockefeller Center, visited by hundreds of thousands of people every day. It is closed one day a year to symbolically mark that it is privately owned.

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