It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, and San Franciscans are perched at cafe tables enjoying lunch 15 floors above the city’s Financial District. A small slice of the bay can be seen in the distance. High above downtown’s noise and grit, this relaxing sun terrace is tucked away out of sight.

You don’t have to be a member of some exclusive club to enjoy this.

Once you find this lovely roof garden on the 15th floor at 343 Sansome Street, you’re welcome to stay a while. It’s one of San Francisco’s 68 privately-owned public open spaces, known as “POPOS” for short.

POPOS, while privately owned, are open to the public. Between 1959 and 1985, 45 were created throughout the city. Since the 1985 Downtown Plan, all developers constructing new buildings in downtown SF are required to provide spaces accessible to the public.

The plan was developed as a way to protect the city’s “delicate ambiance” in response to citizens’ concerns that rapid growth was destroying the area’s natural beauty. The concern also was, as the New York Times put it in July 1985, that “office building construction will turn SF into too much of a white-collar city, make it too expensive and eliminate its celebrated ethnic mix.”

The 15th floor sun terrace at 343 Sansome gets fairly crowded at lunch, but at off times you may even have the space to yourself.

The Downtown Plan protected 251 architecturally or historically important buildings from demolition and shifted development from SF’s Financial District to SoMa (South of Market). The plan also includes a Public Arts Program that requires all new developments provide public art equal to at least 1% of the total construction cost.

San Francisco’s POPOS range from roof gardens and a redwood park to modest lobby seating. The newest of these POPOS, located in the lobby of the LinkedIn skyscraper at 222 Second St, has an impressive polished wood interior with a cafe, long rectangular wooden tables and Bertoia chairs.

Walking around downtown SF you may notice subtle “Public Open Space” signs on certain buildings. But the signs are often tucked away and not always obvious. Many efforts have been made to help raise public awareness of these community spaces:

  • In 2011 and 2012 the SF Planning Department created a comprehensive map of all the city’s POPOS and required Public Artworks.
  • The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) also created an extensive POPOS guide with ratings and descriptions of all 68 spaces.
  • During the 2013 DiscoverSF Hackathon, the winning app was the SF POPOS app, built to help people find and learn about these cool and often hidden spaces.

Unfortunately, the app no longer exists, but read on for a list of some wonderful spaces.

101 California makes things extra cozy with seat cushions among the planters.

Best POPOS for work & free wifi

POPOS with free wifi

  • 50 Post St sits above the Crocker Galleria shopping center. Bask in the sunshine while you work on this rooftop deck
  • The Roof Terrace at One Kearny is one of San Francisco’s newest POPOS and lies within the city’s free Wi-Fi zone
  • 100 1st street's designer cafe tables and chairs make this popular sun terrace and garden a great space for work and lunch.

Best views

  • 343 Sansome St is a lovely 15th floor sun terrace offering views of downtown SF and a place to soak up your vitamin D.
  • One Kearny Roof Terrace is a small but charming 11th floor garden bordered by the ornate mansard roof of its neighbor building.

Most relaxing

  • 101 California has an expansive public plaza, surrounded by three granite stepped pyramids topped with planters and seat cushions
  • Redwood Park was built in 1972, and its towering redwood trees create a tranquil space for lunch or a break from your computer
  • 101 Second St is a five-story greenhouse decorated with designer cafe tables and chairs
  • 199 Fremont St was built in 2000 as a collaboration between sculptor Paul Kos and poet Robert Haas
It’s tough to go wrong with redwood trees in the middle of the city.
And here are some quick bullets from a 2009 assessment on the 1985 Downtown Plan:

  • Downtown SF commercial space has grown by 26.2 million square feet since 1985.
  • The Downtown Plan successfully shifted new commercial development to SoMa (South of Market).
  • Many of the POPOS are connected by a network of pedestrian paths as requested by the Downtown Plan.

SF POPOS are a great resource for digital nomads, remotes, and freelancers. Let us know when you find a space that’s great to work in!