Zuccotti Park is a Model Privately Owned Public Space

With winter looming, debate has sprung up over whether or not the falling temperatures will help disperse Occupy Wall Street protesters from their lower Manhattan encampment at Zuccotti Park. Nearly a month ago, the park owners, Brookfield Office Properties, backed down from trying to legally evict protestors on the grounds of poor sanitation. Today, Occupy Wall Street maintains a downtown presence that is stronger than ever. Despite critics arguing that the park has become a hotbed of depraved activity, pointing out the confirmed incidents of sexual assault and other instances of violence, the movement endures into its eighth week. But what these incidents and the resolve of the protest should make us question is the actual role of public space in our cities. 

Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) such as Zuccotti Park come under criticism for their alleged abandonment of a traditional public park ideal for the sake of improving private real estate. However, the leniency on curfew and public conduct within the divergent POPS regulations, which essentially allowed for Occupy Wall Street to settle and grow, illustrates the potential value of these privatized parks.

What many pundits seem to ignore is how citizens from all backgrounds might actually utilize their shared space in an equitable way. Whether we use them or not, public spaces are an obviously vital component of any democratic republic, regardless of political persuasion. Based on this assumption, Zuccotti Park not only lives up to this ideal, but it also advances it due to its more flexible allowance of public space.

After the protester’s inability to organize on Wall Street itself, their exodus to Zuccotti Park has enabled them to build a functioning community and effectively designate various sections of the 33,000 square foot park for specific uses. Under the guidance of anthropologist David Graeber on September 17th, Zuccotti Park has turned into a community that helps support the movement’s core.

While Zuccotti Park was adopted as a privately-owned – and under-utilized – public space following its approval by the City Planning Commission in 1968, the park has lingered under new management since its renovation in 2006. Over 520 of these POPS have sprung up around New York City, roughly half of which have no park curfews. This lack of curfew comes since changes to the New York zoning code in the early 1960s, changes which provided incentive to developers to donate a certain amount of their property for public space for the creation of anything from pedestrian walkways to plazas in exchange for flexibility on their main structure’s height and setback restrictions. In the case of Zuccotti Park, Brookfield was given an additional 304,000 square feet – in their case, nine stories – to create office space in their adjacent property, One Liberty Plaza.

Since the start of the organized protest however, New Yorkers have slowly realized some of the possibilities for public space in their city’s vitality. If a city’s open spaces aren’t utilized for common activities, is it really even a city? Numerous auto-dependent cities across the U.S., where sidewalks remain essentially motionless regardless of the time of day or day of the week, serve instead as monuments to a fleetingly exciting architectural project or corporate merger. New York is not such a city. It’s no coincidence that New York is world renowned for its street life as well as its history of social movements.

Some critics of POPS point out how with this type of regulation via incentives for developers, it merely results in less overall revenue and worse public spaces. But this viewpoint seems to only conceptualize public spaces in a traditional sense of the term. With the promotion of such parks across the U.S., municipal governments may continue to encourage values beyond the one-dimensional notion of economic efficiency through larger, park-free urban environments. However, a main concern moving forward is whether or not OWS will merely become an excuse for stricter rules and regulations on POPS in the future.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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