semi-public, semi-private space

In San Francisco for the ASA, I did a little scouting around and came across a bunch of ‘unaccepted streets’ thanks to a lovely local. She told me about how these are a ‘public right of way’ that has not been built according to city standards and has not been accepted by the city’s Board of Supervisors for maintenance. These are scattered all over the town, and the residents are required to take care of them. According to the San Francisco Public Works Code:

Residents of Penny Lane Arrange a Beautification Day

Residents of Penny Lane Arrange a Beautification Day

sec. 400.1. Owners of frontage responsible for removal of rubbish or debris from unaccepted streets that are unpaved. It shall be the duty of the owners of lots or portions of lots immediately adjacent to any portion of the roadway of any unpaved street, avenue, lane, alley, court or place, or any portion of any sidewalk thereof, in the City and County of San Francisco, none of which has been accepted by the Supervisors as by law or as in the Charter of said City and County provided, to maintain said roadways or sidewalks adjacent to their property free and clear of rubbish or debris. (Added by Ord. 16-71, App. 1/26/71)

The San Francisco Public Trust has a plan to make these spaces into ‘street parks,’ but what is interesting is that many locals have enchanted these places into their own: transforming them into public gardens, or making their own mosaic-tiled parking space. I was also fascinated by the little paths and stairs that weave around people’s homes, that have these lovely pockets in which residents have decorated them with flowers, art, and mosaics.

This stands in dramatic contrast with what I have always thought of as ‘privately owned public spaces:’ Corporate-held public plazas–in which landowners could build beyond their envelope due to a 1961 Zoning Plan incentive program–detailed in Jerold Kayden‘s excellent book. The NYC Department of City Planning reports:

Approximately 16 percent of the spaces are actively used as regional destinations or neighborhood gathering spaces, 21 percent are usable as brief resting places, 18 percent are circulation-related, four percent are being renovated or constructed, and 41 percent are of marginal utility.

While in San Francisco, I also hung out with Venice Beach urbanist, Andrew Deener, and he told me that his work touches on the Venice Canals, which exist in a way similar to SF’s unaccepted streets: this one-time aspiring Disneyland/Coney Island neighborhood fell on hard times, but is now a isolated bourgeois citadel thanks to these manufactured canals. Interestingly, like the unaccepted roads in San Fransisco, the City does nothing to maintain the canals, even though they are the only way for residents (and city services) to access their homes.

Scum River Bridge

Update (2/1/10): A nice little example of Urban Alchemy is in Astoria, where residents have built a bridge over ‘Scum River’ using a nearby broken bench. (This actually received an accommodation from the office of NYC Council Member Peter F. Vallone, Jr. January 25th)

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