The Impact of Cell Phones on Social Spaces

In 2000, slightly more than 33 percent of U.S. college students had cell phones on campus. In the fall of 2004, nearly 90 percent did. The pros and cons of this phenomenon can be debated, but the impact of the cell phone on our campuses cannot be denied. Traditional spaces designed to build community among the residential student population have become obsolete, due, at least in part, to how today’s students build social networks. A major challenge for architects and planners is how to configure facilities designed to promote interaction and socialization among the cell phone generation.

B.C. (“before cell phone”), social interactions were largely initiated via face-to-face contact, either through scheduled events or chance meetings at common gathering spaces. Physically placing yourself in a “public gathering area” was an important aspect of socialization. As a result, buildings and campuses were designed to encourage chance interactions. Gathering spots were located throughout the campus at intersections and crossroads where you could be seen; you could “hang out” and wait for friends; information was posted. In residential facilities, lobbies, lounges, and corridors were perceived as critical to social networking and designed to provide places to hang out, gather, collect, wait, observe, and eventually make contact with people.

A.C. (“after cell phones”), these spaces are being rendered obsolete. There is no need to wait in a lobby, lounge, or corridor to connect with others or read a posted notice to be informed. There is no need to take a circuitous route through campus to locate colleagues. The cell phone provides students with the ability to instantly contact friends under most any circumstance. New acquaintances are also initiated and validated through cell phone networks. These networks act as “digital lily pads,” facilitating new interactions and social opportunities by providing linkages between diverse groups.

Facilities Respond to Cell Phones

Campus facilities, particularly residential buildings, need to respond to how “A.C.” students relate to each other before they can influence how they learn to relate to the world. If it is a stigma to be seen in a public space without friends or talking on a cell phone, then corridors will not generate social interaction. Except for traditional double room/double-loaded corridor/common bath facilities, the wide corridors seen in recent residence hall design may well be a terrible waste of space. If lounges, lobbies, and common space no longer work as spontaneous gathering places, they should be re-dedicated to specific destination-based functions. The destination common room, often ineffective in the B.C. world, may be a more appropriate response for the A.C. student.

Residential corridor space, formally designed to facilitate the connection between living units, can be moved into units, creating larger “super-sized suites.” These suites, with anywhere from eight to 16 students, offer the critical mass to support private bedrooms and appropriate bath-to-bed ratios within a reasonably economical GSF/bed. In addition, capturing the corridor space within the suite helps create common spaces large enough to accommodate a variety of activities within the living unit. Finally, the larger living group avoids the social isolation that can occur with the typical four-person suite.

Residential campus buildings can play an important role in a college’s educational mission if they are relevant to the students who live there. By understanding how students build relationships in an A.C. world, we can design residences that engage students while building an academic community that reflects long held institutional values. 

Responding to Student Needs
Students are a major component of the academic community and providing a residential life experience that responds to their needs is critical to creating an effective and memorable college experience. However, as the cell phone may facilitate trust between individuals, public trust among strangers in social settings (a key ingredient to maintaining large diverse communities like those colleges and universities look to create) is being eroded. People using cell phones, BlackBerrys, and iPods are physically in one place, but their attentions are in another… thereby limiting interactions with the immediate environment. So how do we make the immediate environment of college and university common areas matter?

Even students recognize the value of a social space that is free of technology, as evidenced by Kenyon College’s unofficial ban of cell phone use on its hallowed Middle Path on its Gambier, OH, campus. However, banning cell phones is not always practical. There are two approaches to the design of common areas that can keep them relevant in the A.C. world:
  • Multiple-Purpose — provide features in common areas that will support scheduled social events effectively, converting public space to a campus-wide “destination common room.” This means power, presentation capability, accommodations for catering, and methods to store and secure this equipment is provided.  
  • Fused-Use — When not used for an event, design the space to support multiple simultaneous activities that, by the way, includes talking on a cell phone. Consider individual and group interaction and the likelihood that individuals will be using a cell phone.

Furniture selection is a key ingredient in creating fused space. We have all seen the “lounge-based” collaborative work groups available from most of the major furniture manufacturers. These groupings cloister teams and technology in open office settings and are designed to minimize disruption to adjoining spaces. For public space, the opposite approach can be considered. A minimal number of seating groups intended for casual conversation should be available. These should be open and inviting. Individual seating should take its cues from work place groupings — high-backed, access to power/data, maybe a small tablet arm.   

The A.C. world requires design responses that are diametrically opposed to those of our B.C. past. “Hang out” space has become the destination commons, roommates have become living groups, and lobbies are event spaces. In the end, the goal remains the same — to create relevant places where people want to be and can make the connections that will help the academic community continue to prosper.

Mary Jo Olenick is an architect who leads the higher-education practice at The S/L/A/M Collaborative, a full-service, multi-disciplinary architectural firm with offices in Boston, Atlanta, Connecticut, and Chicago.