Privately owned public spaces as a challenge to public transparency


  • Liat Eisen The New School
  • Rachelle Alterman Israel Inst of Technology; Neaman Research Institute for National Policy


private-public agreement, privately owned public spaces, land-use regulation, zoning incentives




This paper analyses one of the less visible modes of urban design and action:  The role of privately owned public spaces (known as POPS in NYC).   Behind this phenomenon – quickly growing in recent years – is a sophisticated moulding of the legal and economic context to creating POPs in specific location with specific urban function and design.  The empirical research is a comparison of POPS in New York City and Tel Aviv - two geographically distanced locations, with very different legal frameworks.  The comparative analysis shows both commonalities and differences in the legal instruments used and their impacts on the urban environments – both negative and positive.  

The tendency of governments to transfer the responsibility for the supply of public services to the private sector has become a widespread phenomenon in neoliberal cities in recent decades. This tendency raises deep theoretical questions. This study questions the validity of this approach and the potential impacts on democracy and capitalism. By examining the POPS in NYC and Tel Aviv, the study explores the urban design and social implications of the shift in involvement of the public sector.  There are implications for the public awareness of the restrictions entailed by POPS.  They reshape the relationship between urban design and the public’s right to the city. The findings of this study contribute to the ongoing debate about the commodification of urban public space and the consequences of public-private partnership in urban development.

The empirical research focused on specific POP sites selected as case studies in each city. The comparative method was kept similar and encompassed three stages: 1) the legal framework:  identification of the land-use regulations affecting the site, search for the private public contract relationship (or interviews for missing information) and attempt to understand the financial aspects (if available).  2) site visits to experience the architectural, urban design and environmental ambiance of each case study, with a special eye on issues of maintenance and access   3) interviews with passers by (or residents) using a semi-open schedule, to gauge their understanding of the access rules or restrictions and their overall assessment of the site’s function.

The findings illuminate many fine-grain issues which one could not hypothesize in advance.  Different legal-financial and management configurations deliver a variety of     on-the-ground situations.  There were often tensions between the private interests of keeping the public as much restrained as possible, but the degrees and solutions differ.  One overriding finding is shared by both NYC and Tel Aviv:  The difficulties encountered by the municipality in coping with the dynamics of the new urban “creatures” that POPS constitute.  The usual regulatory and service provision modes of municipalities are not created in advance for the challenges that each POP may present.  The most significant difference between the two cities is the learning curve:  NYC’s experience with POPS dates back to the 1960s.  There were many problems along the way.  This  became a challenging of adjusting the tools from time to time.  NYC also benefited from a “gift” rarely available to municipalities:  Eminent scholars (White 1980; Kayden, 2000) researched the POPS legal and urban design processes and delivered crucial findings that helped the city to accelerate its learning.  Tel Aviv started experimenting with ad hoc POPS in the 2000’s.  The research findings have been shared with Tel Aviv, and we hope that this will accelerate its learning process.  One of our recommendations was to establish a dedicated department to monitor and survey POPs to develop a sustainable policy for the future.


Whyte, W. (1980). The Social Life of Small Urban Space.

Kayden, J. S. (2000). Privately Owned Public Space