Public Space is...Public

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Last week my dogs and I went hiking in the Marin Headlands. There are 140 miles of trails in Golden Gate Recreation Area, and we were on one of the few that allows dogs. As we passed a woman on a wide dirt road, she swore under her breath about the dogs. The trail was big enough for all of us and the dogs ignored her. But to her, their very presence was a nuisance.

I was reminded of the time I took my fourth grade class to the zoo. Field trips often require schlepping 34 students on MUNI. This class was not especially rowdy and I had prepped them in proper MUNI etiquette: use inside voices, keep your feet and hands to yourself. But kids are kids, and like many field trips on public transit, some cranky commuter moaned and groaned about having to share their bus with a bunch of kids.

To be honest, I'm often the one moaning and groaning. Behind the wheel, I curse at pedestrians texting and walking too slowly. When walking, I give the evil eye to distracted drivers inching into my crosswalk. And on my bicycle - forget about it - why is everyone in my way?

In spite of all the sharing on social media, when it comes to sharing physical, common space, we forget that public space is, well, public. Winner-take-all permeates every aspect of public life. Neighbors get into fights about street parking, Trump supporters don't want to share our country with Muslims and Mexicans, and the 1% have no intention of sharing the wealth with the rest of us.

In the growing Bay Area, we're all feeling cramped. The traffic is ridiculous, the rent is too damn high, and sharing the road or the sidewalk or the park is sometimes irritating. But living in an urban area requires sharing - the kind of sharing that doesn't have anything to do with posting or liking or clicking - but with giving a portion of something to others. Without real-time sharing of actual resources, we have no chance of connecting and creating real community. When crankiness becomes my default emotion whenever I leave home for public space, I'll know it's time to move to a cabin in the backwoods.


With a Perspective, I'm Ren Volpe.

Ren Volpe lives in San Francisco. She is a public school librarian and professional dog trainer.