Thomas Balsley is one of the foremost landscape architects in New York who happens to hold a special distinction as the person who has designed more Privately Owned Public Spaces, better known as POPS, than anyone else. A zoning anomaly until Occupy Wall Street made them famous, POPS have become an important part of the city’s landscape, and their fate is no doubt going to be debated in the year to come. Here, Mr. Balsley shares his thoughts on the vital importance of these spaces in our city and what their future holds.
In the recent flurry of newspaper accounts about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, we read a lot about how Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park was a Privately Owned Public Space, a small, publicly accessible park maintained by private owners in exchange for zoning incentives.
As an urban landscape architect in New York City, I’ve designed dozens of these spaces. I’m proud to say I’ve been called (in Jerold Kayden’s Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience) “the most prolific of the city’s public space design specialists”; I’ve even had one named after me, Balsley Park, on West 57th St. And it’s precisely because I’ve seen firsthand the power of POPS to enhance our urban existence that I’m such a strong supporter of the zoning rules that created them. Almost 90 acres of POPS have been installed throughout the densely developed island of Manhattan, without a cent of public financing. Imagine what the city would have had to pay to acquire the land to build and then maintain even half of these!
Now that the occupation is over, however, the city is left facing some daunting questions about the ambiguous nature of these parks and plazas. Do they belong to the public, or to their owners? Should they be, and feel, more civic in character, or quieter and more sequestered? What limitations should be placed on their use? Some of these same questions were asked in the 19th century by the creators of our city’s great public parks. What’s remarkable is how, after over a hundred years, we as New Yorkers still haven’t come up with an adequate urban solution to the pressing social need that public demonstrations like OWS represent.
POPS were always intended to perform a more complex role, and my experience with them has taught me some appreciation for both their public and private aspects. In a POPS project my firm designed directly across the street from our West 27th Street office, any given weekday will find a crowd of outer-borough shop goers with their big plastic bags, bike messengers playing cards, and groups of chatting students. This is just the sort of social hodgepodge, messy but stimulating, that is so vital to a rich urban environment. The highly respected urbanist William Whyte, an early proponent of POPS, claimed that livable, creative cities needed to make room for these messy moments in the urban core. He was right.
At the same time, everyone has a right to expect clean and inviting public spaces that don’t look like urban campsites. New York City’s publicly-managed parks close at night—but unless they apply for a special permit, owners of POPS are mandated by law to keep their plazas open 24 hours a day. For some POPS with approved nighttime closings, we’ve devised a city planning-inspired alternative to the tall daunting fences that spell the death of public spaces: narrow bollards (some with lights) along the plaza edges that leave the space open and inviting during the day. At night, low removable panels are placed between each post to deter entrance and make the closing enforceable. This gives POPS owners a choice, and introduces some flexibility into the way vulnerable spaces are protected.
Successful POPS require just this kind of design response to fulfill their dual duty to the public and owners. Putting aside the legal and constitutional issues that have been the focus of the Zuccotti debate, design really can help balance the competing imperatives of openness and order. And in fact Zuccotti Park’s particular design manages this relatively well—it certainly can’t be faulted for having made the recent situation any worse. In theory, if Zuccotti had been designed more as a kind of sanctuary, as opposed to a single open space, it may have been less attractive for such a large gathering. (You don’t see people demonstrating in the middle of Union Square; you see them at the open edges.) But the design character of the park, and its semi-public character, are but one part of a host of concerns.
Most of all, I’m worried that Zuccotti park—and POPS in general—may end up being the scapegoat in the whole Occupation debacle. Many developers seem to be fretting that if they set aside public space adjacent to their buildings, they could end up with an occupation of their own in the future, just like Brookfield Properties has. Hopefully they will see that that fear is unfounded. The Occupation trend may have been exported to Oakland and Boston, but it’s unlikely to get exported to other POPS sites throughout Manhattan.
Some worry that the extended protest is setting an example, demonstrating that POPS can be camped out in by anyone who feels like it. Whether the city’s homeless—who were so prevalent in New York City parks just two decades ago—will suddenly return to the benches of POPS citywide is still to be seen. Yet here, too, it’s important that we keep things in perspective. Banquettes, lounges, tables and chairs, and other amenities may seem like just the thing to invite overnight guests; but we know from years of Whyte’s observations that only the quality and comfort of these spaces can ensure their broad public appeal. Whatever the repercussions of Occupy Wall Street, no one should be led to believe that uninviting design is an appropriate response.
In other words, neither the quantity nor the quality of Privately Owned Public Spaces should be spared going forward. But more than that, the Zuccotti debate should put us in mind of an even bigger public-space issue in New York that’s gone unaddressed for far too long. Trafalgar Square in London, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Cairo’s Tahir Square—these are spaces that have always been understood as arenas for political expression. Most world-class cities have one. How extraordinary, then, that New York, the self-proclaimed Greatest City in the World, center of democracy, has no such space! The fact that a tiny POPS park was made to act in lieu of a dedicated civic forum for popular protest should serve to remind all of usof NYC’s greater obligation to create a new and more innovative kind of public space to do what POPS can’t.