My sophomore year, I saw a Public Safety officer chastising a student in a hammock. The student had brought the stand-alone piece out onto the lawn near Hamilton Hall, which was apparently against the rules. Once chastised, the student promptly folded the hammock, gathered his belongings, and sauntered off without another word.
This is not, to everyone’s relief, an opinion piece about that hammock incident. Rather, this is an attempt to shed light on what that hammock incident denotes: Columbia has a public space problem.
I first noticed the problem as a first-year, walking into the John Jay lounge. What I saw was striking—an open room sparsely littered with a few uncomfortable couches on wheels, all of which were pushed up against the walls. There were barely any tables and, more notably, barely any people. The same story carries over to buildings like Wien, where residents seldom socialize in scantily furnished first-floor lounges.
Many of our outdoor spaces are similarly lacking. Outside Mudd, the noise from the building’s ventilation is loud enough to deter anyone from staying too long. Ancel Plaza, the vast expanse of grayness between the International Affairs Building and East Campus, is decrepit and uninviting. And then there are the lawn tarps. It seems that when winter arrives, Columbia seeks to eliminate public green space that serves as both physical and visual respite. For most of our time on campus, we are prohibited not only from using the lawns, but also from looking at them.
Public spaces on Columbia’s campus are often poorly designed, poorly managed, or poorly maintained. When they are not left in utter disrepair, they are so devoid of thoughtful furnishing and programming as to be rendered useless for most students. The impact of this mismanagement, though, extends far beyond the spaces themselves. Our public spaces are critical venues for social interaction, both pre-planned and impromptu. They are the spaces in which we interact with people outside of our bubbles, build a broader sense of community, and establish cultural frameworks for empathy and mutual understanding. Columbia’s widely bemoaned lack of community, then, can be traced back to the fundamental failure of our campus to foster such relationships through spaces that are accessible, comfortable, and inviting.
The urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls these spaces “third places.” While private rooms such as dormitories constitute “first places” and formal gathering sites such as classrooms constitute “second places,” “third places” occupy a sort of middle ground. They are neutral public spaces that enable us to interact with one another informally. They are our plazas, courtyards, lounges, and lawns. They foster communality at a human scale, relieving us of the anxieties of life at Columbia and in New York City. More importantly, “third places” can diminish feelings of loneliness and social isolation among their users, potentially leading to reductions in stress and even depression.
Columbia’s failure to create effective “third places” cannot be attributed to a lack of knowing or a lack of potential. For as long as I can remember, the administration has always recognized the connection between high-quality third places and student well-being. I remember walking through campus as a first-year during Days on Campus in 2016, dumbstruck by the number of things happening in our public spaces. People lounged and read on Low Steps, free food was served on College Walk, and performances celebrating the Lenape energized the lawns, all of which were open. The emphasis was clearly on spaces that Columbia wanted to highlight, leaving the dreary wasteland by EC and the loud vents over Mudd to be discovered in students’ later years.
To me, it all seemed like an orchestrated deception. Prospective students had no idea that those very lawns had been covered in gray tarps just one week earlier and that they would soon be closed again to make way for commencement preparations. What the whole scene revealed, though, was that Columbia seems to recognize the link between public space and mental health. This recognition is evident, too, in several existing initiatives to address space issues on campus spots like Lerner and Butler Library. And yet, there does not seem to be any single, comprehensive system for fundamentally changing how our public spaces are designed and governed.
There are many potential solutions to this problem, and not all of them are as expensive or complex as one might think. Simply using lighter, more versatile furniture in outdoor spaces and more comfortable, practical pieces indoors would be a good start. Changing policies regarding the use of space—opening up lawns far more often, making lounges unreservable, and giving more campus access to food vendors—would also be logical first steps.
Eventually, Columbia might hope to remove the hedges that surround our green spaces and establish a reliable governing structure for common spaces—much like Harvard has. The point here, though, is not that the University should prioritize spatial changes over other responses to the mental health crisis. Increasing access to adequate counseling and psychological services, changing academic policies to chip away at stress culture, and providing support to low-income students should be its utmost concerns. But in order to cultivate a campus culture that is healthier and more communal in the long run, we must also equip our public spaces to accommodate the sort of relaxing, informal spatial experiences that students need—hammocks and all.
The author is a senior in Columbia College studying urban studies and the history and theory of architecture. He is part of a team within Design for America that aims to address Columbia’s mental health crisis through public space activation.
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