The Green Team Part 10: POPS for the People…and the Developer

New York’s “privately owned public spaces” conceived to serve the common good

The public’s role in the long-term success of any landscape project cannot be overstated. After all, it’s people who use these spaces; they are the true arbiters of a well-designed space over time. To create a successful open public space requires a strategic framework that is mutually beneficial for both developers and the public. To help this effort along, the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) has established a zoning incentive program: Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS.

The primary goal of POPS is to unite function with aesthetics—to create public spaces that provide respite in the city’s dense urban fabric. In exchange for additional floor area or relief from setback restrictions the program requires a developer to provide user-friendly amenities to increase the experiential qualities of the open spaces adjacent to their properties. These spaces must meet stringent design standards to create public plazas that are open, inviting, accessible and safe.

Setting the standard for POPS, though not one itself, Manhattan’s 1967 Paley Park is a timeless landscape rich with public amenities like moveable seating, canopy trees for shade, green walls/planted areas, and water features (as permitted obstructions). Today’s zoning regulations encourage developers to build on these successes and provide public spaces that offer a variety of seating, vegetation, lighting, artwork, cafes, and other amenities. While typically located outdoors like the iconic Paley Park, POPS can sometimes be found in unique settings like lobbies, subway entrances, atriums, and building arcades.

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I recently worked with fellow Green Team member Terrie Brightman on a POPS recertification permit for 2 Gold Street (Mathews Nielsen was the original designer in 2008). This time, the new process asked us to meet POPS requirements while pursuing strong and unique designs for these spaces.

Circulation is a key aspect of POPS design. The stipulations for clear paths are stringent, with limited walkway obstructions that are meant to ease the pedestrian right of way. At 2 Gold Street, several circulation patterns are integral to the plaza’s design. The pavement extends to the street curbs and facilitates pedestrian movement into it, without hindering circulation at the site’s edges.

To meet a POPS requirement for seating, we placed benches along the major walkways. The arrangement of these elements promotes travel and also provides fixed and moveable seating opportunities in a great location for people watching.

Another key aspect of POPS design is meeting vegetation requirements, based on the overall square footage of the space. The Spring Street plaza at the Trump SoHo Hotel is an example of a through-block POPS space. Here, a passageway allows pedestrians to take a green shortcut between Spring and Dominick streets. Minimum planting requirements are ultimately determined by the final size of a planned plaza. Because the Spring Street plaza is 9,000 square feet, we determined that 13 trees and 2,000 square feet of planting area were needed to meet POPS design requirements at the time (see page 51 of the Article III Chapter 7 Zoning Resolution). The formation and spacing of a raised planter enabled us to meet these strict requirements and to form a framework for a series of five outdoor “rooms.” The raised planter also allows for an increase in soil depth to support a greater variety of plants (sufficient soil volume below grade could not be achieved due to the plaza’s location above a parking garage).

The spatial design of the plaza provides small, user-friendly areas within the large plaza. The “rooms” are backed by a green screen, in the form of a vegetated backdrop added to what would otherwise be a concrete wall.


Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects provides a pedestrian throughway parallel to a serious of "rooms".  The light tubes embedded within the green screen supports the light poles to meet POPS requirements. 

Courtesy Elizabeth Felicella

The green screen provides an additional growing surface for plants (as Terrie discussed in “Going Vertical”). In addition, it allows for the installation of light tubes to meet another often-challenging POPS requirement: adequate lighting. At the time of our design, POPS required that a minimum of two foot-candles had to be attained to aid visibility and provide a proper sense of security. The lights we selected for the site are a unique design intervention that meets this stipulation and complements the adjacent architecture.


POPS Entry plaque. 

Courtesy Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects

POPS exist throughout New York City. Often, what people don’t realize is that these spaces are designed and constructed for them, the public. So the next time you are out and about, take a moment to look around for a POPS entry plaque. Meanwhile, for more information on POPS, read Privately Owned Public Spaces, The New York Experience by Jerold S. Kayden.

In our next Green Team post, we will take you on a tour of the spaghetti infrastructure that lives beneath Brooklyn’s Fox Square.

Zeina G. Zahalan, ASLA, joined Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects in January 2012. She holds a bachelor of science in landscape architecture from Rutgers University. While pursuing her degree, Zeina worked extensively on streetscape and community garden designs for community development corporations in New Jersey. She is the recipient of the Roy deBoer Travel Grant, the American Society of Landscape Architects Council of Fellows Award, and the New Jersey American Society of Landscape Architects Student Honor Award.

This is one in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects’ Green Team, which focuses on research as the groundswell of effective landscape design and implementation. Addressing the design challenges the Green Team encounters and how it resolves them, the series shares the team’s research in response to project constraints and questions that emerge, revealing their solutions. Along the way, the team also shares its knowledge about plants, geography, stormwater, sustainability, materials, and more.

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