Opinion

renée Loth

Public, but hidden: Boston needs to call out its secret spaces

7/30/2015 - South Boston, MA - Lawn on D - The McKeigue sisters (Mia, Libby and Georgie, cq) spent a hot, hazy afternoon swinging on the rings with their nanny Jackie Hixon, cq, at the Lawn on D in South Boston on Thursday, July 30, 2015. Photo by Dina Rudick/Globe Staff.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Privately owned public spaces: What could be more oxymoronic? But Boston is full of seemingly public places — like Post Office Square Park, which is controlled by a private developer, or the popular “adult playground” called the Lawn on D, which is owned by the quasi-public Mass. Convention Center Authority — that can be restricted at will. And there are many seemingly private spaces — like office lobbies and rooftop decks — that are actually open to all. Welcome to the ad hoc, hodgepodge, public-use puzzle that is Boston.

Imagine knowing where to find a warm, dry spot to sit with your laptop without having to buy a $5 latte, or knowing where the public restrooms are located along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, or where there’s a telescope you can use to view the harbor islands. It’s all there, free and open to the public. You just have to know where to look.

And there’s the rub. Most of these privately owned public spaces, or POPS — negotiated by developers in exchange for getting around zoning rules — are hiding in plain sight. Property managers don’t want the rabble wandering through their sleek lobbies or snoozing on their benches, so they post minuscule signs or expect visitors to rely on ESP to find them. “Identification is fundamental to public use,” said Jerold Kayden, a professor at Harvard’s design school and coauthor of a book about POPS in New York City. “If somebody doesn’t know its there, it’s not public.”

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In New York, advocates have just launched an international design competition to develop a uniform logo for the various plazas and arcades set aside for the public. As of this writing, the competition had received 607 entries from 58 countries. The proposed logos are welcoming and clever, showing open doors or park benches, or familiar Manhattan icons: a “big” apple, Liberty’s torch, pigeons. The public can vote for their favorite until April 2.

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Kayden, who sits on the jury that will choose the winner, says the competition is the outgrowth of 2017 legislation passed in New York that requires all POPS to be clearly labeled. Boston should do the same. Bold, visible signage is the only way to assure that these spaces are truly public. The first step, though, is assembling an authoritative list establishing how many POPS we have in Boston, and where.

Because of Chapter 91, the 19th-century state law that allows public access to the waterfront for “fishing, fowling, and navigation,” many of Boston’s POPS are along the Harbor. A good example is the new Converse headquarters on North Washington Street. Its Chapter 91 agreement requires several public amenities, including a visitors center and 3,411 square feet of outdoor terrace “for public enjoyment of the panoramic views.”

The open space advocates at Boston Harbor Now have done a terrific service developing an online tool showing public access points along the Harbor Walk, from Dorchester to East Boston. A map links to each property’s Chapter 91 agreement, where the truly dedicated can squint through the pages of regulations to learn what each owner is required to offer the public.

Also encouraging is the news that the Boston Planning & Development Agency is “more than 80 percent of the way” through the painstaking work of documenting all 120-plus POPS in Boston, according to BPDA director Brian Golden. “Each deal is unique and individual,’’ Golden said, explaining why the project is taking so long, “and some of the documents weren’t drafted that great” during the city’s last development boom, in the 1980s. Later this spring Golden plans to unveil an interactive map and website listing the location, hours, and amenities of every privately owned public space. “We’ve gone through all this effort to extract these public benefits, and [without proper notice] the space is meaningless,” he said. A comprehensive list can’t can’t come soon enough: The first snowdrops are blooming in the sheltered spaces along Fort Point Channel.

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For decades, American society has abandoned investments in the public realm, filling in the gaps with private compacts — from selling naming rights to creating “business improvement districts” to brokering exotic development deals. Making sure that even our tiny, tucked-away public spaces remain visible, accessible, and free is the least we can do — claiming not just our territory, but the joys of urban living.

Corrrection: An earlier version of this column misidentified the owner of the Lawn on D. It is the quasi-public Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.