Sep. 21, 2017

On the Importance of Public Space: Are Universities and Colleges Welcoming to All?

Batten’s Sophie Trawalter, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Psychology, is one of the speakers tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 23 at the Dialogues on Race and Inequity presentations on UVA Grounds. Her talk, On the Importance of Public Space, will be at 1 p.m. at the Alderman Scholar’s Lab in Alderman Library. This essay is adapted from an essay she submitted to the website of the UVA Center for Design and Health, in the School of Architecture. The complete list of speakers and topics is here.


Across the country, wealthy donors and philanthropists are funding public spaces.

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.

My collaborator, 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.

Our research focuses on higher education, where social class differences are increasingly reified.

(At UVA), we find that socioeconomic status (SES) consistently predicts perceptions and use of public space on Grounds, and (a) sense of belonging at the University.

Specifically, we find that lower-SES students often 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 in part whether students feel at home or out of place at the University.

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Associate Professor of Public Policy and Psychology
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Garrett L004B