With the arrival of spring, Columbia's outdoor campus undergoes a transformation—lawns are uncovered, outdoor seating opens at dining halls, and students flood to Low Steps to enjoy the weather.
But in addition to the warmer temperature, the seasonal availability of Low Steps boasts a unique draw: The Steps can accommodate a number of students that no indoor recreational space can. Because of a lack of recreational spaces, students are left to congregate in areas intended for studying, contributing to campus-wide stress.
Other than cafés, interspersed rooms with lounge seating in Lerner Hall, and residential hall lounges, recreational spaces are essentially nonexistent across Columbia's campus. With the University's expansion into its Manhattanville campus quickly approaching, students and administrators are weighing options to expand student recreational areas.
Columbia's location in Manhattan breeds a chronic lack of space. In recent years, when space has become available, students and faculty have debated whether research, academics, or performing arts, among others, most desperately need it. Because these groups are typically emphasized, allocating recreational spaces where students can spend time without the expectation to study sit low on the list of priorities.
"Spaces for students to socialize and to relax and to have a space where they feel comfortable—frankly, we don't have that," University Senator Ramis Wadood, CC '16, said in an interview earlier in April. "With conversations about Manhattanville going on right now, a student union focused on social aspects of student life should be one of the top priorities of any conversation about space."
The scarcity of social space is also closely tied to stress culture and mental health, according to Mental Health Task Force member and University Senator Sean Ryan, CC '17.
"The lack of student space to really hang out and decompress is really negatively affecting students," Ryan said. "I think sometimes students need a separation from academic spaces, if only for a short while, to relax, press the reset button, and get ready for their next classes, their next day. And what we have now is academic spaces being used for those relaxation spaces. That can lead to students being more stressed."
Lerner Hall was originally intended to provide recreational space for students. However, in recent years, administrative offices were incrementally moved into the building, leaving only two non-reservable rooms and one café with lounge seating. As a result, the building is rarely used for recreation.
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"It really is not a student union in the sense that people don't come here for any reason other than clubs or organized things," Columbia College Student Council Vice President for Policy Vivek Ramakrishnan, CC '16, said.
Lerner's inability to serve as a student union contributes to a general feeling of isolation on campus, according to students interviewed.
"There's no space [in Lerner] to hang out. You can't sit on the tables on the ramps," Ananya Jain, CC '19, said. "The piano lounge is just depressing."
In addition to administrative offices, Lerner is filled with conference rooms that are used exclusively by administrators during business hours and are only reservable by student groups after-hours. Because Lerner is one of the only buildings with such reservable meeting rooms, student groups have advocated for even more reservable space within the building, making recreational space a lower priority.
Lerner's space breakdown also sets it apart from peer institutions' student centers. Unlike Princeton's Frist Student Center, Dartmouth's Collis Center, Cornell's Robert Purcell Community Center, or Brown's Campus Center, Lerner does not have any TV rooms or a game room.
"You go to colleges around the country, even other Ivy League schools, and you see a genuine student center where students don't just go to study," Wadood said. "Lerner Hall, frankly, doesn't serve that purpose."
However, some students said that they hope once Lerner's Café 212 and Café East are renovated this summer, the space will house more lounge seating and act more as a recreational area.
"If we put something disruptive in that space, like a foosball table or an air hockey table or a pool table, people will feel like they do not have permission to study, and that's what I want," Engineering Student Council Vice President of Policy-elect Sidney Perkins, SEAS '17, said in an interview earlier this month. "We need more not just lounge space, but lounge space with objects that can be disruptive."
But renovation plans for the space do not include anything "disruptive," and Vice President of Campus Services Scott Wright said that it is difficult to predict how students will use the space following the renovation.
Wright believes that there is value to expanding student space, but that not all spaces will achieve the desired positive effect. Campus Services opened John Jay Dining Hall to students outside of meal hours from 2012 to 2014, but few students came, according to Wright.
"It has to be the right kind of space—it has to be spaces that are inviting and have the right kind of services," Wright said. "It isn't just, Make some place available,' it's to make the right places and then equip them correctly to make those available."
In addition to Café East and Café 212, students said the cafés across campus—Brad's Café, Joe's, Blue Java, and Uris Deli—can serve as recreational spaces but are too often dominated by a work-driven atmosphere.
"I run into people I know in Butler Café, but that's a stressful place to run into people," Elle Wiznicki, CC '17, said. "I want to run into people in a way that we can just hang out, take a study break, work on some casual work, and not have to be in that intense environment of Butler all the time when I want to run into people."
For some students, residential hall lounges are a primary space for socializing. However, others have said that dynamics vary significantly from hall to hall, making the presence of a social climate unpredictable.
Charles Blackmon-Luca, SEAS '19, said his floor lounge in John Jay Hall is a prime social space.
"But I feel like I might be an outlier in that case," Blackmon-Luca said. "It's only because there's usually one person I know will be in the lounge at any given time, who I can rely on to come to the lounge and say, 'What's up?'"
Nonetheless, not all students see their dorms as a social space.
"In the winter, it can get really dreary, isolated, and lonely for a lot of people, especially if you're in a single. I remember in the winter I hardly came out of my room because it was so cold," Jain said.
When planning recent renovations of residential hall lounges, including these of McBain Hall, Carman Hall, and Ruggles Hall, administrators have attempted to design areas that will attract more students to utilize them, according to Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm, who added that such a consideration should be made in future renovations.
"Carman was a lifeless pit, is how the architects described it, before the renovation of that lounge," Kromm said in an interview earlier this month. "What is the fun that students are looking for? If we could figure that out, there might in fact be some spaces that already are here. ... Let's refresh it and make it space that you'd want to hang out in."
But similar to Lerner, planning renovations reveal tensions between the need for social space and the need for group study space or student group meeting space, according to Director of Residential Life Tara Hanna.
"It's kind of a competing priority, though, because I think student groups are always looking for additional spaces, and then there's also this desire for just a lounge or a place to hang out," Hanna said in an interview earlier this month. "Depending on the student you talk to, they might see one as a priority over another."
Although recreational space is currently sparse, it may expand in the future. As some graduate schools begin moving to Manhattanville in the coming years, freeing up space in buildings such as Uris Hall, students have said they hope that new recreational spaces—such as an entirely new student union—will become possible.
Currently, the Morningside Space Initiative—a subcommittee of the University Senate's Student Affairs Committee—is compiling student concerns regarding the use of the space that becomes available, according to Ryan. But while the subcommittee is aware of the need for more recreational space, Ryan said students themselves should push for such spaces in the coming semesters, as the Business School will not be moving out of Uris for at least another six years.
"A top priority will be securing a large space on the Morningside campus that would function as a student center where students could relax, hang out with friends, eat, and start to come together," Ryan said. "On the Senate side, we'll certainly continue to voice these concerns, but it's really important for all students to continue to advocate for more space."
Rather than creating a new student union, Wright said new space might allow for administrative offices to be moved out of Lerner. In one possible scenario, which Wright said was inspired by the student health center at NYU, offices for Counseling and Psychological Services and Sexual Violence Response would be removed from Lerner.
These offices would then be combined with Health Services, which currently occupies the second through fourth floors of John Jay, and Office of Disability Services, currently located in Wien, into a single office.
"On that map of, 'Here's what Health takes up in Lerner,' we're happy to give it all back," Wright said. "Maybe that changes it enough that we could ... begin to take big steps forward to meeting what students' expectations for a student center are."
Regardless of the specific measures taken, students see an increase in recreational space as crucial to building a stronger social community.
"We're very disjointed and in our niche communities, and I think we don't have a space to convene," Wiznicki said. "We're doing a disservice to our students by not having a larger community space for people of all backgrounds, all walks of life, all identities, and all student groups, where we can hang out."