On the Importance of Public Spaces on Grounds at the University of Virginia

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By Sophie Trawalter, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Psychology Email

Across the country, wealthy donors and philanthropists are funding public spaces. In New York City, for instance, a wealthy donor is underwriting a new public park in Chelsea. Commentators have noted that the plan for the park includes amphitheaters and gardens—amenities for wealthy patrons who do not need parks for exercise, family gatherings, and other social functions. In Philadelphia, philanthropists are redeveloping the riverfront; in Houston, a green corridor. In Tulsa, a billionaire is financing an entire park system. In Salt Lake City, the Church of Latter-Day Saints purchased a block of the downtown. And across the United States, commercial spaces such as shopping malls are replacing public spaces such as town squares. The poor and the middle class will not be denied access to these spaces, of course, but one might wonder whether these spaces will feel welcoming to the poor and middle class. One might worry that these spaces will become “playgrounds for the rich,” leaving the poor and middle class feeling like spectators or, worse, trespassers.

In our research, my graduate student, Kelly Hoffman, and I take a social psychological perspective to understand how public spaces can feel alienating to the poor and middle class, and perpetuate social class inequity. We do so in the context of higher education, where social class differences are increasingly reified. We find that socioeconomic status (SES) consistently predicts perceptions and use of public space on Grounds, and sense of belonging at the University. Specifically, we find that lower-SES students perceive public spaces on Grounds as restricted—as requiring an invitation or permission. Not surprisingly then, we find that lower-SES students prefer smaller, more private spaces on Grounds (e.g., their dorm room) whereas higher-SES students prefer larger, more public spaces (e.g., the Lawn). These differences matter. Lower-SES students report feeling “out of place” at the University to the extent that they do not use public spaces on Grounds; higher-SES students report feeling “at home” at the University to the extent that they do use public spaces on Grounds. In other words perceptions and use of public spaces on Grounds seem to contribute to SES gaps in students’ sense of belonging at the University. Given these findings, our current work is testing ways to decrease (and perhaps eliminate) these gaps. We are finding that informing lower-SES students that public spaces on Grounds are in fact public is surprisingly effective. Indeed, merely telling lower-SES students that the Gardens are public—theirs to use without an invitation or permission—can boost their sense of belonging at the University. Moreover, empowering students to use public spaces on Grounds such as the Rotunda can boost their sense of belonging. Taken together, our work suggests that students’ relationship with public spaces on Grounds is critically important; it determines whether students feel at home or out of place at the University.

Maya Angelou once wrote, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” At the University and presumably many universities, wealthy students seem to have that luxury. They feel at home wherever they find themselves. Relative to lower-SES students, they perceive public space as public without restrictions, they use public space, and they derive a sense of belonging from those spaces. But if we believe that higher education is the great equalizer, that it will reduce social class gaps in attainment, then, lower-SES students ought to have that same luxury. The present work suggests that we might be able to accomplish this through empowered use of public space.