In the 21st century, every student has the right to an inspiring physical learning environment. More importantly, every student has the right to contribute to making their university a stimulating, innovative and energizing place to be.
I am deeply aware of the physical challenges facing postsecondary institutions today – crumbling infrastructure, students who feel isolated, sprawling campuses, limited parking space and a lack of funding to improve these problems. But despite these realities, universities also contain unique tools and opportunities for confronting these issues because they have long been sites of great social transformation and action, and they continue to be powerful engines of innovation. I believe that they can also be powerful agents for change in making physical environments more people friendly.
First of all, let’s take a moment to reflect on our experience of the built environment on Canadian university campuses. Is the campus used throughout the day? Is this a place where you would choose to meet your friends? Are pedestrians prioritized over vehicles? Are there choices of things to do? Do you leave campus inspired? How many different types of activities are occurring in public areas – are people walking, eating, playing baseball, chess, relaxing, reading? Because the more activities happening on campus that people have an opportunity to participate in, the better.
These questions are critical to begin thinking differently about the ways we create, plan, and experience university campuses, because campus spaces – especially library and classroom set-ups – are key to facilitating learning and social interaction.
It seems that the people who planned our universities did not prioritize the compact, multi-use ideal. Currently there are far too many inaccessible buildings, abandoned lots and poorly maintained spaces that make campuses unattractive, unwelcoming and ultimately unsafe for people. For instance, there have been numerous sexual assaults on several campuses nationwide; these would be better prevented through proper lighting and elimination of secluded areas. Also, the dominance of parking lots and roads that cut through campus do not contribute to the wellbeing, collectivity or cultural richness of university campuses. Indoors, poorly planned classrooms can actually create barriers for students and professors because they can discourage participation and encourage students to be passive observers of the lecture. Making a classroom interactive and stimulating is key to making it a successful learning environment.
Another important consideration is how accessible the campus is to the larger urban network. It is possible to evaluate this by looking at its connections to the surrounding neighborhoods. A successful campus is easy to get to and to get through. It is visible and identifiable from a distance. The edges of a campus are very important and shouldn’t be parking lots or large, blank walls of buildings. The campus needs to be accessible for pedestrians, bikes and public transit. Transit stops must be conveniently located next to important campus destinations. If we make our campuses more accessible then they will attract students and the general public to come onto campus.
So where can we start? The first step is to make campuses places where people have invested meaning. A place that has a unique cultural and social identity is defined by the way it is used and the people who use it. By doing this, the physical, social, environmental, and economic states of campuses are taken into consideration. If we want to see students challenging the way that their campuses are planned on a larger scale, we need to focus on developing the social engagement and networks that are vital to innovation. Students need to articulate what’s not working for them in the campus environment and then be able to identify what they want. Gathering to discuss a vision for a better campus environment is an ideal way to build the social capital needed to change the existing structures. It’s a process that strengthens existing ties, creates new ones, and invigorates communities with the knowledge of how they can make campuses better learning environments.
This is the ninth installment of our series Student Voices written by the 10 Canadian postsecondary students who were named 2014 3M National Student Fellows, awarded by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada.