Protecting the Commons

The "commons" is the land and resources (forests, fisheries, water sources, and open spaces) that are owned by all members of a society. It is an old old concept, dating back to the Roman Empire.

Unlike private property, commons are public spaces to be used and enjoyed collectively. Everyone (including state and local governments) is expected to maintain and improve shared commons for current and future use. 
We often think of national parks as the commons. There are 423 national parks, with the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument being the most recent in 2020 (How Many National Parks Are There? National Park Foundation, January 22, 2021).
But just about every community in the United States has some sort of common area, such as a town common, a parkland, a walking path, a wilderness area, an athletic field or court, a splash pad, a skate park, a playground, a historic battlefield, picnic areas, or a reflection bench beside a river or at the top of a hill or mountain.
The Boston Common was the first public open space in America in 1634. The National Mall in Washington, DC opened in 1790. Yellowstone became the first U.S. national park in 1872.
Aerial view of Boston Common from northeast. Includes portions of Beacon Hill (foreground left), Public Garden (foreground right) and Boston Financial District at Seaport (South Boston) at back.Boston Common aerial by Nick Allen is under CC BY-SA 4.0

Fundamental tensions exist between common spaces and private property (e.g., land or resources owned by a private individual or organization). Private resources are not open to everyone and exist for the use and benefit of the private owner. John Malone, a telecommunications entrepreneur, is the largest landowner in the United States with 2.2 million acres in 5 states - land that is more than half of size of Lake Ontario, one-third the size of Vermont, and twice as large as Rhode Island (These People Own the Most Land in America, February 23, 2021).

The idea of private property emerged in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to this time, land was there for everyone’s use (think of Robin Hood and his band living off the land in Sherwood Forest). Rising populations and the need for food, along with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, led to the enclosure of agricultural lands. Through enclosure, private owners could wall off or fence off land from public use (Wall, 2017).

Local, state, and the federal government are responsible for maintaining public common spaces. They get the funds to do so from people’s taxes, user fees (money paid to access a facility), public-private partnerships, and donations from supportive individuals and groups. In times of ever-rising costs and tight budgets, there is never enough money to fully cover the expenses of common spaces. Governments face tough choices about whether to sell public lands to private developers to cover other expenses. For example, the Trump Administration sold low-cost leases to private companies for oil and gas drilling on public lands, a move it defended as good for the economy.

In the following activities, you will explore local and state commons and identify ways to use media to increase interest and civic engagement in protecting a commons of your choosing.

Activity 1: Design a Social Media Video to Increase Interest in Common Spaces in Your Community

Activity 2: Suggest Ways to Use Media to Encourage Citizens to Protect Local and State Commons 

Additional Resources

Connecting to the Building Democracy for All eBook

Building Democracy for All: Tax-Supported Facilities and Services

Connecting to the Standards