Discover San Francisco’s secret POPOS

If you haven’t heard of POPOS, then this is the walk for you. Privately owned public open spaces (POPOS) were created to give San Franciscans more space to relax and catch a break from downtown’s glass, steel and concrete.

In 1985, POPOS were established by a planning code requirements as part of The City’s Downtown Plan, requiring developers to set aside part of their investment to pay for open space, works of art and public transport. As a result, developers of the downtown area must dedicate one square foot of public space in their projects for every 50 square feet of office or hotel space they build. Prior to the establishment of this building code, office towers simply built all the way to the edge of their property lines.

The goal of the set-aside requirement was to bring open spaces — plazas, terraces, atria and small parks — to downtown and South of Market neighborhoods. As of the last Downtown Plan Annual Report in 2013, there are at least 86 POPOS in The City, the majority of which are in and around the Financial District and SoMa. Many of these POPOS also incorporate a public art element, as the 1985 Planning Code also included a requirement commonly known as the “1 percent for art” program.

On Sunday, Feb. 18, join Walk San Francisco on a two-mile exploration of more than a dozen POPOS. Enjoy a mostly flat walk highlighting one of San Francisco’s best kept secrets of big and small retreats, designed to counter downtown’s formidable urban landscape.

February’s walk will navigate the current streetscape of SoMa and FiDi to explore a number of these downtown POPOS, including the first-ever POPOS constructed in 1969, which was initiated before the plan’s establishment.

The walk will begin at the Transamerica Redwood Park, a site that predates the 1985 code. This intimate, half-acre redwood grove includes transplants from the Santa Cruz Mountains, a fountain designed by Anthony Guzzardo and a series of Glenna Goodacre bronze sculptures.

From the park, walkers will cross a portion of the Embarcadero Center before dropping down to street level to take in a number of POPOS on California and then cross Market to Beale. Along the route, compare and contrast their designs for openness, accessibility and interconnection. Walkers will be invited to observe how different spaces, built to offer the access to greenery, street art and restful outdoor retreats, meet their intended goals to serve the public. From Beale, the walk will turn east on Howard to stop at the massive artworks of Foundry Square.

Participants can observe firsthand how these streets still reflect the planning and engineering ethos of most post-war urban centers in the U.S., which have long sacrificed human-scaled, transit-first, walkable and safe streets for fast, dangerous and heavily auto-oriented traffic thoroughfares.

From Howard, the walk will head north to Mission Street to take in several of SoMa’s most striking POPOS, now nestled next to the new Transbay Transit Center, before winding through smaller alleys that emerge just behind Market Street. After taking in a final trio of POPOS, the walk will cross The City’s major spine to end near Union Square at Ruth Asawa’s iconic San Francisco Fountain.

IF YOU GO: Going to a POPOS
When: Sunday, Feb. 18, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Where: Transamerica Redwood Park
Info: Walk space is limited; $10 minimum donation to Walk SF; RSVPs required at

Greg Andersen

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Greg Andersen

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