As architects and urban designers, we all devote considerable thought and effort into designing public and semi-public spaces that will be a joy to use, by client and public alike. Going back to William Holly Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980, many architects, landscape architects and urban designers are well versed in the do’s and don’ts of designing spaces that are intended to keep the public coming back.
What a disappointment then to see these spaces dirty, trash cans overflowing, and misused by those who would convert them into their own living room and bedroom. Police and public works departments are typically unprepared, underfunded, and unwilling to jump into these situations. The middle class is frightened and disgusted, and before you know it, these carefully designed spaces become, as Jane Jacobs wrote in her 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “…tired landscaping festooned with old Kleenex.”
Beginning in Toronto in 1970, private landowners began forming partnerships with cities to take the maintenance and management of public spaces into their own hands, through what are usually called Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). Today there are 1200 in North America, including some 73 in Toronto, 67 in New York City, 38 in Los Angeles, 19 in San Diego, and 13 in San Francisco.
BIDs are public private partnerships, formed by property owners with the blessing of local governments, that can provide a range of services that are either supplemental to or different from what government provides. “Clean and Safe” services are the backbone of BIDs, but increasingly they are involved in destination marketing, streetscape improvements such as installing and maintaining street furniture, street trees, and even construction of new parks and plazas.
In North America, adjoining property owners are largely responsible to maintain the sidewalks surrounding their building even though they are on City property. This means frequent sweeping, and in busy locations, power washing and steam cleaning. Instant graffiti removal is the key to avoiding that scourge, and topping off of trash cans (and removing those pesky used Kleenex of Jane Jacob’s ire) is just good housekeeping. And when done by a BID that serves 20 or 30 or 50 blocks, there is an efficiency of scale that actually saves property owners money over doing it themselves.
It has oft been said that personal safety is one of the most important human “rights.” But how many of us actually are that comfortable walking down “Main Street” I-phone in hand, and checking when the next bus arrives, or the address of that specialty store we need? Two thirds of violent crime in San Francisco is now cell phone theft.
Many police departments around the country are underfunded and understaffed for the demand in today’s central cities. BIDs routinely provide “ambassadors” or “community guides” whose role is deterrence not enforcement. Working with the police and with social service organizations, and with visitors’ bureaus, these highly trained uniformed teams become the eyes and ears of the police, walking beats, helping both visitors and homeless, as necessary. BIDs can also install and monitor security cameras in high risk areas.
What is the secret sauce of BIDs that is causing them to expand rapidly in large and small cities, now not only in North America but in northern Europe, South Africa, and Australia? First, BIDs are private, not government, although operating under a charter from local government. That means they are nimble, flexible, and efficient, all things we don’t usually associate with government. They are managed by the local property owners who form them. If something is wrong with the ongoing services, the neighbors know whom to call. And if it doesn’t get fixed, they can fire the responsible staff.
The money is collected locally (typically on the annual property tax bill, but remanded to the BID by the city), and is spent locally. For these reasons, business people who normally vote NO on new taxes vote YES on BIDs – professional business-like management, and local control.
BIDS are even creating new public spaces. In San Francisco, the Union Square BID obtained a $900,000 grant from Audi to build and maintain the Powell Street Promenade, where parking was removed from two blocks of this busy touristy street to widen sidewalks and create sitting areas. The Yerba Buena Community Benefit District (CBD is just another name for BID) commissioned an urban design plan for their district, which has resulted in plans for a number of disused alleys in the neighborhood. The first pedestrian space will be built in early 2014 on a half block of Annie Alley, near SPUR and Yerba Buena Gardens.
In Philadelphia, the Center City District issues bonds to build and rebuild public plazas, install new street trees and street furniture, and even maintains the subway stations.
I think both Jane Jacobs and Holly Whyte would be pleased to see that property owners are putting their money where their mouth is, and making extraordinary efforts to maintain and improve public spaces in major cities around the world. And property owners and architects are more willing to develop extra special spaces knowing they will receive extra special maintenance and management.
Image is cover of Yerba Buena Street Life Plan