On any given Saturday, you can find approximately one-third of San Francisco at Dolores Park. Another one-third will be playing drinking games at Fort Mason. Golden Gate Park is home to some of our city’s most prized institutions like the California Academy of Sciences and the Japanese Tea Garden, not to mention huge festivals like Outside Lands and Bay to Breakers. Clearly, parks are central to the lives of many San Franciscans. This makes it all the more surprising that most people don’t know one of the neatest features of our city: the POPOS.

What exactly is a POPOS? POPOS stands for Privately Owned, Public Open Space. In 1985, San Francisco decided to piss off developers and libertarians everywhere by mandating that each new building (or major building expansion) in San Francisco’s downtown region must provide an open space within 900 feet of their property. Obviously there aren’t many vacant lots downtown where you can plop a public park, so most of these public spaces end up being located on the building’s lot.

So why have you never heard or seen one of the parks before? Well, the answer is clear if you’ve ever been to Dolores Park on a nice day: maintaining a public space is a huge pain. Constant use means more trash and more traffic. Since many of these parks are located on private property, building managers are responsible for their upkeep. Publicizing these parks would mean that they would have to deal all the problems that come with heavy traffic, and who wants that? While these buildings are legally mandated to post notices of these spaces, they end up being the least impressive signs I’ve ever seen in my life. Many of them are just sheets of computer paper. And it was way worse only a few years ago.

Okay, fine. The building managers don’t publicize the parks well. But how do you hide an entire park? One strategy is to make it look like it is actually not open to the public. The lobby of the new LinkedIn building and the atrium of 101 2nd Street are good examples of this. But the most common is also the most simple: out of sight, out of mind. Seriously, some of these architects are like Ariadne from Inception, cunningly designing buildings to hide the gem. Crocker Galleria tucks its entrance down a dark hallway between two sandwich shops. It looks like the hallway to the bathroom, until you make a 90-degree turn at the end and the sunshine comes pouring in. But most developers take a simpler approach: put them on rooftops. That’s right, some of the best views of San Francisco are open to anyone who knows about them.

And we haven’t even gotten to the best part about the POPOS yet. Turns out there’s another (awesome/paternalistic, depending on your political leaning) ordinance you should know about. It’s called the 1% Art Program. Any new building (or major building addition) in downtown San Francisco must provide public art equal in value to 1% of the total construction cost. Salesforce Tower (which was going to be the tallest building west of the Mississippi until LA got an inferiority complex) will cost an estimated $1.1 billion to build. $11 million can buy a lot of art. So, to recap: if you build a new building in downtown San Francisco you must provide a public space and public art. As you can imagine, most developers choose to combine the two. Meaning you can contemplate some seriously cool art while soaking up the sun on the rooftop garden.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably asking yourself, “Okay Steven, just where can I find these POPOS? And which ones do you recommend?” Both are excellent questions. First, my personal picks:

  • Best Overall: 343 Sansome. A rooftop garden on the 15th floor. Normally very quiet, with very few people from outside the building there.

  • Most Well-Hidden: Crocker Galleria. Already mentioned this once, but I continued to be impressed with just how well they tucked this one away.

  • Most Green: Redwood Grove by the Transamerica Building. But I’m a sucker for redwoods, so I’m a bit biased.

  • Best While Shopping: Sky Terrace at the Westfield. Shop ‘til you drop, then soak up some rays.

  • Best Security 1 Kearny. You have to sign in with the security guard before they’ll call the elevator. Makes you feel like you’re entering a VIP lounge.

Now, for the people who know what they’re talking about.

  • This is the authoritative resource with all the locations of both public art and POPOS.

  • SPUR is a great resource for anyone with an interest in urban planning and public policy, even if it is focused on the Bay Area. Here’s their take on the matter.

  • This Medium blog has a lot of great pictures. They also have an app you can download so you can have all this information with you on the go.

Hope you all found this useful!