What is Public Space?

Here is one definition:
"A public space or a public place is a place where anyone has a right to come without being excluded because of economic or social conditions." [Wikipedia]

That last part is important, "without being excluded because of economic or social conditions". The economic part means that a public place ideally should not charge anything, money or services, in return for the use of the space. No entrance fees, no minimum purchase, no reservation fee, etc. The social conditions part encompasses a lot. Mainly it stipulates that no one can be barred from entering or using a public space because of their race, appearance, movements, gender, political affiliation, loudness, hair color, clothing choices, etc.

Why wouldn't someone pay a relatively small fee to reserve the Carrboro Town Commons? In our society it appears to be fair request. But the very idea of ANY fee being associated with what is advertised and promoted as common to all is contradictory to the above definition. If a fee isn't affordable to EVERYONE there shouldn't be fee.

There are means with which we can change the funding model of the Carrboro Town Commons without charging the people who use it. Such as using Town funds, non-profit funds, private donations, etc.. I understand where most of these fees come from. So lets use our imagination and not fall back on the old canard that "Nothing is truly free." There are really really free gifts given every day.

I see a great value in our discussion of the definition of public space. Its here we may strive to better understand one another. What is your definition of Public Space?



The Carrboro Greenspace Collective is trying to establish a truly free public space in downtown Carrboro-- one that embraces personal expression and promotes sustainability. Check out the USUFRUCT! event details below. A more formal schedule of events, performances, tours and skill-shares will be posted soon...

Come out and support the kickoff event to make sustainability in Carrboro a reality!

This Sunday, September 10th 3PM-late
116 Old Pittsboro Road
Come and experience what your Greenspace could be like… Art, Music, Games, Film, Theatre, Local Food, Sustainability Projects, Skill-sharing and Community Building!*

-the Carrboro Greenspace Collective

*If you are interested in putting on a scheduled workshop or
performance, please email us by Thurs. Sept 7 (or just show up with skills/art/music to share).

USUFRUCT is a Roman law which allowed the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another's property short of the destruction or waste of its substance. In a time of blatant infringements upon the use of public space there is an immense need for a space in which sustainable practices like gardening, animal husbandry, art, green transportation and dance can thrive, educate and expand within our community.

A group of Carrboro residents are fighting to save 10.5 acres in the heart of downtown Carrboro from development. The Greenspace currently houses the ReCyclery and Carrboro Community Garden, a walk-in theater, and we are working towards establishing a space in which community, sustainability and hope can thrive. We need your help to make this a reality!!

Carrboro Greenspace seeks to be a public space where all people can enjoy and engage with their local environment(s) and work to developing truly sustainable ways of living. For us, the term environment includes but cannot be limited to nature. Our political, social and cultural environments clearly affect our treatment and perceptions of nature, and vice versa. As such, environment necessarily implies a combination of natural, social, cultural and political aspects. This is why this Greenspace is also a center for community and sustainability, two terms we believe are mutually and inextricably related, and emphasize the kinds of political and social we believe are necessary for real and effective forms of sustainability. In addition, in contrast to the prevailing tendency to separate public, community and recreational spaces, from research, educational, and deliberative entities, the Greenspace seeks to integrate them.

I think you miss the point. You're paying a fee to reserve the space, which in turn may prevent others from using it for a finite amount of time. If you don't pay the fee you just take your chances.

I also think that Wikipedia may not be the best source, I'm as liberal as the next person but a truly public space reallhy only needs to follow the laws regarding discrimination, which I believe only covers age, gender, ethnicity, religion, and handicap. It doesn't cover things like movement, clothing choices (you can be required to wear a shirt or shoes) or even sexual preference.

I also believe that the economic part means that you can't charge people differently or tax them in different ways to use a space.

The only place really left is your own yard...

In all fairness I must point out that the Carrboro Town Commons is free for people to use casually. It costs a fee to reserve for other uses. The Bruce dancing issue at Carr Mill Malls appears to be the opposite. They are objecting to how the lawn is used casually. Though these separate issues seem unrelated I think they both bring up a similar discussion about community values concerning public space.

As for the Wikipedia definition... it may be on Wikipedia but its a definition I believe. I'm not concerned about mistrust in Wikipdedia. If it has info I agree with I quote it. If it has info I disagree with I don't quote it.

Instead of simply reacting to what I wrote... what is your definition of public space?

"If it has info I agree with I quote it. If it has info I disagree with I don't quote it."

Glad to see you've joined the "truthiness" corps Brian.


I have used the Town Commons space for "free" several times, when my son and I played at the playground; when we attended 4th of July activities; and when we visited the Farmer's Market. There was no cost to us directly for any of these activities.

Ultimately, however, the Town Commons isn't "free" regardless of fees paid for reservations or not. As a Carrboro resident, I pay taxes to support the Town Commons and the staff who administers it. A small reservations fee for groups who wish to reserve a space for their exclusive use in advance, which off-sets the administrative costs otherwise passed onto to taxpayers, sounds extraordinarily reasonable to me and especially mindful of the taxpayers supporting these facilities. Especially given that the Town Commons is available to folks beyond this particular town.

I just don't see a problem with this. And I think the comparisons to Bruce (who wasn't trying to use anything exclusively or formally) are a stretch.

It is impossible to define "public space" without reference to the space's intended purpose. We tolerate, and indeed see value in, all sorts of restrictions on many places that are set aside for public use and enjoyment.

Grand Canyon National Park is a kind of public space. But I can't go down the Colorado in a submarine, even if I really dig submarines.

Mammoth Cave National Park is a kind of public space. But I can't touch the stalactites, even if it would be a deeply spiritual experience for me to caress them.

The well of a courtroom in the Orange County Courthouse is a kind of public space. But there are all sorts of restrictions on when I can be there and when I can't, and what I am and am not allowed to say when I'm there. I probably can't paint there, or play the tuba.

A public library is a public space. Indeed, it's a public space devoted to free expression. Yet if I speak loudly there, I can be thrown out.

And I could go on.

In short, I just don't think there's any way to define a public space generically.

While your examples may be completely accurate Eric, I think the issue being raised by the RRFM is that no one can go down the Colorado River in a submarine--not just those who have the resources to pay for the trip. No one can play the tuba in the well of the Orange County courtroom--no matter how much money they have. And everyone should be able to use the town commons--regardless of whether they have money or not. Money should not be the marker of citizenship, or citizen access to town services/resources, in Carrboro.

Brian, I re-read your original post and realized that I didn't really speak to the question you are asking, which is must loftier than I addressed.

The fee for up to four hours at the town commons is $100. I understand the idealism at stake here, that public space should be free and freely accessible. However, if we're looking at access, I'd rather see money put towards more buses to the library, for example. Free is fine if you can get there, but if you can't, "free" is irrelevant.

But why should I, as a taxpayer, pay for a group to hold a gathering at the town commons? I would be interested in hearing the answer.

Terri, I'm just addressing the question that was asked:

"I see a great value in our discussion of the definition of public space. Its here we may strive to better understand one another. What is your definition of Public Space?"

My reply is that the question is framed so broadly that we can't really answer meaningfully. It's impossible to define a public space without reference to the space's purpose.

If the question is instead whether a public space ceases to be a "public space" if one must pay money to access or enter it, then I think the answer to that is pretty clearly "no." There are all manner of "public spaces" which one must pay to enter or access.

Grand Canyon National Park is one. (So are the rest of the National Parks and Recreation Areas.) It's as public a space as we have in this country, and you have to pay to enter it. (Most people also have to pay a lot to get there.)

The food court in Concourse A at RDU is a public space, but you can't access it unless you've paid a sizeable amount of money to a private corporation for an airline ticket.

I could go on. The point is that there's nothing about a "public space" that means that one must be able to access it without any cost.

None of this means that I think it's good policy to force people to pay to use any particular public resource in Carrboro. I'm not saying anything about that. I'm just saying that to the extent the claim is that the "public" nature of the space ought, as a matter of definition, to bar the town from charging money, I think that claim is wrong.

To address Brian's question and Eric's concerns: I think the town commons is one form of public space that should be freely available to citizens. I think the community benefits when people come together without financial constraint for events like the July 4 celebration, the Carrboro music festival, the Farmers Market (although I suspect there is a fee for farmer's market), and the RRFM.

However, I also believe that citizens who use the town commons have the responsiblity to leave the space in the same condition as they found it in, if not better/cleaner. And they should not use the space for activities that cause harm to the town--such as risky behavior that could raise town insurance rates through liability claims.

A group of Carrboro residents are fighting to save 10.5 acres in the heart of downtown Carrboro from development. The Greenspace currently houses the ReCyclery and Carrboro Community Garden, a walk-in theater, and we are working towards establishing a space in which community, sustainability and hope can thrive.

In an effort to create public community spaces, I think the sentiment above does more harm than good. Many, if not MOST, of the best public spaces in the world, are lively and full of interaction because of integrated and adjacent development.

For example, it is quite possible that a significant and compelling public space could be created on a portion of the 10.5 acres as well as developing much-needed housing. Using the current model in town is not perfect, but adding 15-20 small housing units with 10-15% of units deeded to OCHLT would be a positive step in working on the affordable housing crunch in Carrboro.

It would also add residential density near the public space, which tends to encourage usage and add natural surveillance. By building these units, at least 2-3 families who could not otherwise afford to live in Carrboro would be able to do so. By building market-rate units in town, 15-18 families don't have to live far out in the country, and will spend less time commuting and polluting to work and shopping. With housing so close to downtown Carrboro, per capita car ownership could certainly be lower.

People of good will can certainly disagree about whether or not this example is the best use of these 10.5 acres, but let's not set this up as "development vs. sustainability." This is a false choice.

Could the RRFM legally set up without a reservation and paying a fee if they were prepared to leave if someone else had a reservation?

The fee seems to me to be a guarantee of exclusivity in this regard, not a "user" fee.

Terri writes, "I also believe that citizens who use the town commons have the responsiblity to leave the space in the same condition as they found it in, if not better/cleaner. And they should not use the space for activities that cause harm to the town–such as risky behavior that could raise town insurance rates through liability claims." This makes a strong case for a formal reservation with somebody's name on it.

The Farmers Market pays a fee. Carrboro Day, Independence Day, and the Carrboro Music Festival are town-sponsored events. Sponsorship = money. I doubt that the town will elect to sponsor the RRFM.


Are you saying that only government sponsored events should have free access to town common space? Don't Carrboro residents pay taxes to support the town commons? Isn't that a form of payment?

The taxes we pay don't go toward staffing Town Commons or the Century Center on weekends and after hours. Staffing ranges from public safety to clean-up. Hence the usage fees. Our taxes keep the lights on and the toilets flushing. Doors open costs extra.

I'm not making a political statement here. Yes, it would be great to liberate all public property. The Town of Carrboro simply doesn't have the dough to do that and maintain it at the same time.

Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the town budget does not allocate funding to pay for staffing Town Commons or the Century Center on weekends and after hours? That's a choice of how to use tax revenues based on priorities.

What staffing is needed for an open air commons? Trash/clean up is all I can think of....thus my earlier statement that space should be made available at no charge, and citizens using the space should clean up after themselves. Since Public Works collects trash at Town Hall already, there isn't any additional cost associated with emptying those trash receptacles as long as everything is properly contained. If a group breaks the covenant after a first use, then a fee could be assigned for future uses by that group.

Isn't the focus on money and cleanup kind of a sidetrack? Aren't there are some bigger issues around use of Town property? For instance, how would y'all feel about a bake sale for the Ku Klux Klan on the Town Commons? A fringe Right to Life group recruiting and harassing?

Fact is, we delegate some serious judgement calls to the Board of Aldermen, who are then accountable to the people for their decisions. In my opinion that's kind of a good thing. Be careful what you ask for: blanket permissions, come all ye, could result in some curious consequences.

The nature of the activity is a serious judgement call. In fact it's a can of worms. It was only a matter of time before somebody pointed this out.

Why is it a can of worms? We live in a democracy where everyone has the right to free speech and the right of assembly as long as those beliefs to do not violate our laws and policies. The RRFM cannot trade young children. The Farmer's Market can't sell pot. Alcohol can't be sold on the streets at the Music Festival. The KKK can meet and parade, but they can't burn crosses. I don't have to approve of the KKK and you don't have to approve of the RRFM, but this is a discussion of principle rather than preference.

One more issue of public space: it doesn't have to be physical space. The FreePress and many other media rights organizations have campaigned for years now to maintain the freedom of the air waves and the Internet. The federal government made a serious error when they gave Big Media proprietary control our digital space. Local leaders could step up and offset that misjudgment through the creation of a public wireless network, another form of town commons.

I'm not a big fan of the telco/cable attempts to control the internet, but local leaders really have a limit to the impact they can have.

Local leaders can create a municipal extranet, but once that network is connected to the internet, it has to connect to the internet backbone, which is controlled by telcos at this point, where content filtering can still occur.

I'm sure you're aware of the difference, Terry. But there's a common conflation of "digital commons" with "town commons" that doesn't work completely as an analogy, which is the whole point of current net neutrality bills. I was going to say "pending" bills, but that doesn't seem very likely, given present leadership.

Bill, to access top-tier connectivity, you can avoid dealing with the major supporters of net throttling. Or you can source out your traffic to multiple endpoints and average out the problems. And with Internet2 taps available in RTP, we could pretty much bypass the local monopolists.

But forget the wider 'net for a sec. We could make sure that local access to the local "Town Commons" was open and unfiltered.

Regardless of whether or not the RRFM is required to pay a fee for the use of the town 'commons' (and I don't agree, tactically, with simply announcing public events and then insisting the town play by your rules), the Bruce issue has brought up the inadequacies of public space in Carrboro (notwithstanding that the situation here is better than in most of NC). Except when there are events, people rarely use the commons. It is actually a nice place to get some quiet reading done much of the time. It lacks the vitality of a public space where crowds of people move about because that is where they find themselves. Such a space would more likely be located in the area around Weaver St. Market, most notably the street directly in front of the store. Although its nice to see that the Bruce situation may have a positive resolution, it should be said that public space, if the concept means anything, includes some rights to be annoying--to panhandle, evangalize, speechify, etc.

While we are on the topic of public space, let me mention an interesting misconception in this area. I once proposed tabling and selling various printed matter (books, bumper stickers, etc) on Franklin St. and Columbia on behalf of a group I was involved with. I was told, by several progressive people, that this was not allowed in Chapel Hill. Unless Chapel Hill is not a part of the US, such behavior is in fact covered by the First Amendment, and the town could be sued if they violate people's free speech rights. This was confirmed when the authoritarian Giuliani administration attempted to get rid of people selling books on the streets of NYC (it is widely suspected that the stock being sold is pilfered from delivery trucks). The courts told them that this would unequivocally violate their free speech rights. http://www.openair.org/alerts/artist/nyarrst6.html

This post coming to you from the Weaver Street Lawn. Aside from enjoying this space, I would like to see a livelier Town Commons.
Charging a fee to groups using the Commons for commercial space (Farmer's Market, Arts and Crafts Market, proposed KKK bake sale) seems reasonable to me. As does encouraging more noncommercial uses of the Town Commons - workshops, free markets, musicians, potlucks - by alllowing sign-ups without a fee. Much the way shelters work at the parks (unless that has changed and I didn't get the memo - it's been a long time since I checked) and with the caveat that groups that don't follow clearly written checklist of clean up procedures and usage rules don't get to use it again.

I am always a little hesitant to use the words "my taxes." They're really our taxes and by our I also mean all the renters who pay Carrboro rents so that Carrboro property owners can continue to pay Carrboro property taxes. We're in this together. How can we make it work for all of us ?

It seems like there's room to mention the classic "Tragedy of the Commons" here. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons)
As the first sentence of this wikipedia article states,"The parable demonstrates how free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation." There have to be some sort of controls or else it all goes down the tubes.

(On wikipedia, as others have deftly stated, wikipedia is only a starting point for getting information; it is not a primary source. I quote it and link to it here because I know from having examined primary sources--some of which are given in the wikipedia article--that this wikipedia article is basically correct in its present form.)


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