When looking for a place to take a break at the University of Toronto, students are often hard-pressed to find a space.
I have taken naps under a table at Graham library, on a patch of grass behind Innis College, and in an armchair at the Buttery. When it gets cold, my study breaks switch from talking with friends outside to hushed conversations in the Robarts Library. Sometimes, after a few annoyed looks for disturbing the sanctity of silent studying, I end up aimlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed instead.
U of T is home to 42 libraries across all three of its campuses. When in need of a space for individual studying, there is no shortage of options. There is Robarts Library with its looming industrial-style concrete, Jackman Law Library and its towering windows, and Graham Library, where you can be sandwiched between stacks of books, to name a few.
The number of options for study spaces fits the stereotype: U of T students are head-down, hard-worker types. But in the wake of concerns over a generational mental health crisis, it has become evident that we need greater investment in spaces for relaxation and socialization.
In the 2016 National College Health Assessment, it was found that 88 per cent of U of T students were “overwhelmed by all [they] had to do,” and 45 per cent said they were “so depressed [it was] (hard to function).” This is a trend reflected across Canadian postsecondary institutions. It is an indication that universities need to change their approach to mental health.
If universities want to produce a generation of healthy and happy students, there needs to be a switch toward a holistic, preventative approach to mental health. It needs to be a systemic change ingrained in every facet of university life, including in its architecture and space provision.
To understand how space can impact student lives, look no further than the Southern California College of Art and Design. In 2017, the university was the subject of a case study to gauge the impact of a new multipurpose space on the student experience. Through student testimonials, the case study found that the creation of a centralized space created a shift toward a more social campus. The study mentioned that “one student noted that where students previously ‘would tuck themselves away by returning to a nearby off-campus apartment,’” they now were more likely to convene in the commons.
In a guide for “Post-Secondary Student Mental Health” written by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), it was found that creating spaces for students to “gather, socialize, and connect” is linked to better mental health, adaptability and resilience, sense of purpose, and academic performance.
As for what multipurpose spaces should look like, the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health outlines a variety of things to include that are directly linked to better mental health outcomes, among which are green spaces that feel safe, are accessible, and are “pro-social.”
While they are not a replacement for improved access to health and wellness services, changes to the mental health framework, and reducing waitlists, student spaces are necessary for better campus mental health. That is why the construction of the Student Commons is so important.
The Student Commons is a University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) project that will transform 230 College Street into a multi-purpose space, complete with a lounge, event space, UTSU services, and a home for a variety of student groups. It will be similar to endeavours that already exist at UTM and UTSC, and similar to UTSG’s Sidney Smith Commons.
The construction of the Student Commons is an example of how students are fighting for spaces that foster a sense of community on campus. It signals to the U of T administration the importance of a meaningful university experience beyond academics, and the necessity of a physical space to facilitate it.
While we have yet to experience the benefits of the Student Commons, I hope that its construction serves as a reminder to U of T as it pursues new construction projects that space has a huge impact on students. There needs to be more effort placed in consulting students and creating every new space with mental health and wellness principles in mind: accessible, green, social, and safe.
Marium Nur Vahed is a third-year Diaspora & Transnational Studies student at Trinity College.