8. Urban Public Spaces on Private Property

Otherwise blighting views of private parking lots can be beautified with murals

While most of what one would readily identify as urban public space exists in the public domain, there are many examples of places where people gather for rest, recreation or en route to somewhere else that exists on private property or is owned by non-profit corporations.  Many of these are extremely successful and some, including the development bonus plazas studied by Holly Whyte (chapter), are utter failures.

To be regarded as a public space on private property, the owner encourages public use, generally for the owner’s profit. While some rules may be applied, they cannot be so stringent as to effectively deny public use.

This chapter provides illustrations in the following categories:

University campuses

Lobbies for tarrying

Grand railroad stations

Public markets


Private sidewalks above and below the street

Sidewalks abused by private interests

Spaces that are unused by people but which are nevertheless useful.

University Campuses

Early campuses reflected the colonial pattern whereby land in the center of towns was set aside for grazing and sometimes for military drilling. These commons were surrounded by buildings much as the spaces that later emerged as universities grew. The planned campus of Columbia University at Morningside Heights is one such and that of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is another.

When town-gown relations were not at their happiest, universities looked inward and many still employ uniformed security to help keep non university people outside this protective cordon. As urban crime preoccupied more Americans, including the parents of undergraduates, more of what students once sought off campus—movies, food, clothing—became part of the on campus offerings. Outsiders were discouraged from entering and students were encouraged to stay on campus. These may  be termed ”closed campuses”, not urban public spaces.

In recent years, many universities and municipalities have established more constructive relationships.  An “open campus” form has emerged where at least one side of the campus is open to the non university world.

A recent example exists at Thomas Jefferson University in central Philadelphia. Residents, visitors and local workers cross the campus as they journey to and from work and other destinations, adding a busyness factor even  when university people are little in evidence. Neighborhood people will bring their lunch and/or something to read, perhaps arriving in pairs and enjoying the fountains and the crowds. At peak times in spring and fall, students are studying, playing active games, chatting in groups of a half-dozen or more. The seating is admirable and might well have been taken from Whyte’s prescriptions. There is plenty of sun, abundant trees and plantings and interesting public art. There is no on site food, although students bring it from the adjacent University cafeteria and there are many places offering sandwiches and more exotic fare within a  half block or so. As an urban public space, it is obviously successful.

Lobbies for Tarrying

The Ford Foundation building’s lobby in Manhattan is justifiably applauded for its transparency and its flora. Looking out, the pedestrians and the automotive traffic are  engaging. From the sidewalk, the full size trees and shrubs are an impressive contrast to the pavements and buildings of midtown Manhattan. It is successful as a show off headquarters building, but less successful as a place to sit and read a book. For the casual pedestrian, the exterior does not suggest that this is an indoor space for you

The Comcast headquarters building in Center City Philadelphia was designed to draw visitors to its lobby, including those  without any business to conduct . The level below grade has an active market where people from within the building and those outside can purchase food to take home and can enjoy lunch. That lower level connects directly with the underground concourse leading a few blocks away to commuter trains serving the city and the region.

The distinguishing and perhaps unique feature is the giant video screen stretching across the entire north wall of the lobby. Hundreds of different presentations captivate the dozens who stare at the constantly changing offerings including films of old airplane wing walkers, Busby Berkley dancers, Christmas themed films, seemingly never used twice. Lots to do and see in this wholly welcoming urban public space.


Built to show off their cities as well as the railroad companies, some of America’s best architects designed the provincial palaces that sheltered  passengers arriving from and departing to destinations large and small as well as those waiting for connections on different lines run by different companies. Long distance railroads were highly competitive enterprises. Only the best would do. Five complete sections of the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited—that is five entire trains—might be scheduled from Grand Central Station carrying the well to do to Chicago. At the stations, often the best meals in town were served and families might go there even if no travel was planned. Extraordinary public spaces were created, some of which remain.

Grand Central Station is a breath-taking visual experience. Entering from the west, one looks down on the busy concourse across a vast space that never seems to empty. High above, stars twinkle in the ceiling.  The famous Oyster Bar still sells shellfish sold according to the distant locations from which they are harvested. Aficionados may select from dozens of sources. There are more  food choices in a food court and there is a new restaurant above the concourse with wonderful people  watching opportunities. With several entryways, there are constant streams of pedestrians using the station as  shortcuts. The long distance trains are gone, but hundreds of commuter lines take men and women between home and work, with only a slight pause on weekends.

Union Station, Washington, DC, was built to accommodate the Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Ohio and Southern rail road passengers, part of a plan to minimize the worst effects of railroads—the Pennsylvania’s station was on the Mall and its tracks traversed what is now seen as a sacred national place—and to facilitate the best features gathered in a single location. Presidents used the station as the start of long distance travel and they greeted foreign dignitaries in a special reception room designed for Presidents, prime ministers and kings. For ordinary passengers, there were barbers and restaurants and newsstands and lots of seating. Arriving from an overnight train, one could arrange for a shower, shave and shoe shine before a morning appointment.

After a near disaster as an unsuccessful visitors center, Union Station was redeveloped as a kind of festival market in the style of James Rouse—lots of shopping, dining, a book shop and places to watch the crowds. Toward the end of the era a long distance trains, one could get a pretty fair dinner at the station’s restaurant; now you can eat at a dozen places, some better, some worse. But the view is much better. Train service has more than doubled as have  the crowd watchers.

Public Markets

The open space in front of medieval churches often served as the marketplace. As cities grew, special facilities were created to make the necessary connection between producers and consumers. Convent Garden in London, Les Halles in Paris were world-famous before their destruction.  Still serving the public  are the Great Market Hall in Budapest,  the Havel Market in Prague and many others.  There are at least a dozen in the US, including the Eastern Market in Washington, DC , the Pike Street Market in Seattle and Baltimore’s central market. Customers come to know and rely on the merchants. The produce man in the Eastern Market (“Chris” to everyone) was quick to learn the names of promising new customers.

The Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market was created as a consequence of the Reading Railroad’s construction of an elevated train shed above a long-standing open air market. Poor management and changing tastes almost did it in 30 years ago, but excellent new leadership, a renewed interest in traditional foods and markets plus a growing downtown population preserved and improved it. The two acre facility was completely renovated a decade ago with the requirement that, after installing the improved lighting, air conditioning and paint, it should look pretty much as it did before. The advent of the adjacent convention center brought additional economic life.

In addition to purveyors of meats, fish, poultry and vegetables, the market has several food courts which provide convenient places for people to meet on purpose or by accident for lunch and breakfasts. Chatting engages groups of as many as a half-dozen. As a public urban space, the Market rates well in terms of food, seating and people watching. On most lunches and Saturday breakfasts, the place is jammed. Beyond its commercial functions, the market is an urban public space spectacularly successful as a meeting place.


As sporting events attracted growing crowds in the past century, ever larger stadiums were created to accommodate them. In the post world war era, fewer fans walked to the events or used transit (the Brooklyn Dodger’s name emerged from the Nineteenth Century slang name for the locals as “trolley dodgers”).  Accommodating the autos, vastly increased the amount of land required. Parking lots soon took more land than the stadium, isolating the facility as an island in a sea of pavement. Increasingly, stadiums were sited farther from the centers of commerce. These drive to facilities are hardly urban public spaces.

In contrast, as part of redeveloping unused rail yards near downtown, Baltimore created a stadium for the Orioles on transit, within walking distance of the commercial center, its hotels and restaurants, and with pleasant views from the stands of the city’s skyline. A hit with fans, many believed that a new generation of stadiums might be born with a decidedly urban orientation.

One Oriole referenced opportunity emerged as the Philadelphia Phillies released market research illustrating  how a new stadium near existing structured parking and a fifteen minute walk from downtown restaurants, hotels and transit  would better serve the team and produce significant off site sales and municipal revenues. The political forces for the central site were not strong and the NIMBY opposition managed to force the Phillies into a remote site, a hike from the nearest subway station, no hotels, few nearby fans and dispersed restaurants accessible only by car. Not an urban public space.

About the same time, Memphis, TE and Trenton, NJ were among the cities that encouraged and even financed stadiums for minor league baseball teams, a better physical fit for Downtown and nearby Downtown locations. With help from the Rutgers University branch, an especially attractive stadium was built for the Camden, NJ Riversharks. The facility also serves as the University’s athletic facility. A few well-known former major league players turn up among the team’s players, but the principal attractions are the entertainment package the team puts forward to attract whole families. Some of the boys attend in little league uniforms and during the stretch kids are welcomed on the field. The team’s mascot poses for endless photos with kids and there are games and bits of entertainment between innings. Plenty of sunshine, good seating, abundant food, lots of things to do and see—the formula for lots of people. A successful urban public space.

Downtown Removed from the Sidewalks

Among the strategies adopted to counter the loss of retail to out-of-town shopping centers were two that dealt with the presumed advantage of the latter facilities to cope with adverse weather. Allentown, PA was among a few that created transparent shelters over the main  shopping streets intended to protect the pedestrians from rain and snow. The investment produced shelters, but, as with pedestrian malls, they failed to deal with the actual problem; there were fewer and fewer desired goods and services offered in Downtown, just as there were growing numbers of these at drive to destinations elsewhere. Years later, the city paid to have the canopies removed.

A good number of public leaders and merchant organizations were convinced that the enclosed malls’ advantage consisted of heat, air conditioning and shelter from rain and snow (mall managers, however, would explain to any who would listen that their advantage lay in their leasing strategies and abundant parking). So, some cities in north ( including Duluth, MN, Newark, NJ and Cincinnati, OH) created elevated skywalks that enabled shoppers to escape the weather as they moved from destinations from destination a story or so above sidewalks. These “skywalks” were often a mix of publicly owned space and privately owned segments. In the private sections, management often employed uniformed security personnel intended to deal with potential crime, but also to enforce the owners’ rules such as forbidding photography without written permission from the management.

Some retail and service businesses moved to or were formed specifically to sell to the largely middle class denizens of the elevated walkways. These pleasant, shirtsleeves environments took the most affluent customers from the businesses on the sidewalks below. Critics complained that the skywalks created a two class Downtown population, one largely white above and the other often black or Chicano down with the weather.

Dallas and Houston, TX were among the cities that created  an extensive system of underground walkways, a successful alternative to the heat and humidity that was thought to deter downtown shopping. Pretty much the same population and income differences experienced in the skywalk cities resulted and considerable amount of new  retail and services became part of the new  walkways below grade.

Somewhat later, Crystal City in Arlington, VA was built with an underground weather protected place for shopping and dining that connected directly with the METRO subway station. Initially, the office buildings had almost no street level retail; the main street existed without a shop or eatery for blocks. After a decade or so, management decided that more diversity was needed and the setbacks that helped contributed to lifeless sidewalks were filled with sit down restaurants and some retail.

The Prudential Corporation redeveloped blocks between Downtown and the Newark Penn Station, a busy rail center with Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and PATH service to New York City and commuter stations in New Jersey. Five large office buildings were connected to each other and to the rail center with a skywalk. Some dining and shops are available above grade and the hotel is difficult to access except via the elevated walkway. The income and racial differences of those at street level and those above are regularly cited as social ills. While there are guards, they are less evident than in some other skywalk projects. The largely suburban office population seems comfortable there, as Prudential intended.

Unlike city sidewalks to which well-behaved pedestrians have unquestioned access, private passageways may be limited in pedestrian freedom. One may be forbidden to photograph  the place, for example. Are these skywalks urban public spaces? Not entirely.

Sidewalks Abused by Private Interests

Where municipalities are indifferent to pedestrians and civic organizations tolerate erosion of the appearance of commercial centers, some businesses can be sure to exploit opportunities for profit in the public domain.  Commercial signage spreads from retail establishments to the sidewalks themselves. One merchant places a sandwich sign facing the pedestrians and, absent enforcement of codes that prohibit this, all merchants on the block soon have such signs in the public way.

During a period of lax enforcement, a restaurant built an extension of its sitting area onto the sidewalk amounting to 600 square feet of serving space on the principal street. This prominent position, in addition to offering more space for diners, also served as a giant advertisement for the enterprise.  This expansion enabled diners to sit in climate controlled comfort while watching pedestrians outside.

When sidewalk tables and chairs  became essential restaurant offerings, pavements of fourteen feet shrank to four or five feet of useable waking space. One establishment had tables at the curb as well as alongside the premises, offering only two feet for passersby and movement by the wait staff.

All of this has the public benefit of producing busy sidewalks, a vast improvement over the days when pedestrians were few. It does, however, constitute a substantial subsidy to the businesses. One early business improvement district included in its law that any revenue produced in the public way came directly to the BID which was responsible for the area’s maintenance and security. Few others if any have similar arrangements. Food vendors occupy about 80 square feet of sidewalks for their carts, waste receptacles and waiting customers. Fees charged by municipalities, when they do, are usually token annual payments, hardly reflecting the real estate value of the use conveyed.  Where walking volumes reach 2-3000 persons per peak hour (8-10,000 in Manhattan), space used by restaurants should produce a charge equal to the highest rent paid for first floor use in that block.

Unused but Useful

Atlantic City’s decades long effort to regain its place as a premier resort town faces empty lots often the result of arson used to reduce property taxes on land being held for the highly speculative increase in real estate values. While some redevelopment has occurred, many parcels remain without improvements, eyesores that collectively remind the world that the “Nation’s Playground” remains a troubled place.

The Business Improvement District took on this major public relations problem with a simple solution within the BID’s skills and financial capacity. The unattractive lots were designed  with grass and plantings that the BID keeps trash free. The result is a series of places that resemble urban public spaces although they are not expected to produce many if any on site sunbathers, brown baggers or other typical users of small parks. The locations were selected, not because they were near major population concentrations, but simple to make the place look better. The distinguishing features are the signs on each landscaped place that announces that the land is available for sale and lists the contact information for any possible purchaser. Sales have been limited but the decorative conversions are popular.

Sometimes one private use invades another as this billboard blocks the river and park views of several apartments.

In a reverse application, sometimes private users invade public land.

Some of the landmark rail stations have been restored and have become popular urban public spaces for many who may have no travel plans

Ugly blank walls can be improved with public art.

%d bloggers like this: