Atlantic Cities

Uncover the Secret Oases of San Francisco

Uncover the Secret Oases of San Francisco
Noah Christman

San Francisco’s downtown business district, a flatland where the office towers are tall enough to blot out the sun, doesn’t have much park space. And when the goof-off options during business hours are limited to trips between a private office and a private restaurant for lunch, the city can start to feel a little inhospitable. Where to find a place to sit in the sun, a table for eating a homemade sandwich, a planter of flowers, a flat surface on which to momentarily set down one’s coffee?

According to the nonprofit urban think tank SPUR, downtown alone has more than 50 such places — they’re just well hidden. "The issue is that a lot of people don’t know these spaces exist," says Karen Steen, publications and communications manager at SPUR. "They’re not well marked. Sometimes they’re upstairs, on a roof, or sometimes it’s an interior atrium and there’s no way of knowing it’s a public space."

To call attention to these oases of urban respite, SPUR and the developer Escape Apps have released an iPhone app that documents and maps downtown’s indoor parks, rooftop terraces, urban gardens, and bamboo forests (yes!).


This sun terrace at 100 First Street is accessible via a staircase on Mission. On your way up, grab some grub from the deli at the foot of the stairs.

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The app, SF’s Secret Spaces and Hidden Oases, sheds light on downtown’s uncataloged network of privately owned public open spaces, or POPOS (also POPS), as they are known in urban advocacy parlance. In 1985, the city strengthened its public-space requirements by asking developers to provide one square foot of open space for every 50 square feet of occupied office area; over the past few decades downtown has accumulated a nice share of POPOS. The app features plenty of snippets and sun terraces worth discovering, but there are also some hard-to-miss large plazas.

The trouble, explains Steen, is that even obvious plazas can look like no-trespassing zones, and there are no signs that say otherwise. "The developers are following the letter of the law to create these spaces, but they’re not necessarily letting everybody know that they exist," she says.


The Citigroup Center, at Sansome and Sutter streets, owes its skylit atrium and marble arches to the 1912 Paris-London Bank building, which was hollowed out to make way for palm trees, a crêpe stand, and your afternoon coffee run.

The app works like a guidebook to downtown, with tips on park closing times and suggestions for improvements like better signage or the need for a restroom. The project grew out of a 2009 report from SPUR that evaluated San Francisco’s POPOS, which in turn was inspired by a 2006 assessment of the spaces by the art and design studio Rebar.


560 Mission Street is an urban garden with a high bamboo grove. The path steps down to a granite plaza with tables, chairs, and delis close by.

If you’re in Boston or New York, not to worry—another urban research group, ICE-POPS, has got your back. Tally up your local POPOS and check out the guides that are still in progress. Seattle and Pittsburgh, you’re next!


The sun terrace at 150 California Street is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Don’t be deterred by the lobby guard—just sign in and head on up.


Open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., the indoor park at 101 Second Street is a five-story skylit atrium with café seating on the mezzanine.


The urban garden at Empire Park beautifies the site of a demolished building with big brick planters, café tables, and a sculptural fountain.

Top image: Think of the indoor park at 135 Main Street as your multilevel living room in the middle of downtown. Inside, several floors of couches and carpets beckon the lunchtime napper. All photos courtesy of Noah Christman

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

Lamar Anderson is a San Francisco–based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Architectural Record, ARTnews, the Hairpin, and Salon. All posts »

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