Imagine trekking across this campus as an outsider. To us students, it seems so simple. Swipe your way through here, pass down this corridor and duck across this courtyard. But I’ve recently found myself wondering how low-income populations perceive the Yale campus. It is easy to overlook that the design of campus speaks to the relationship between the city and the institution. Beyond that, the layout of a campus can influence town-gown interactions by altering and expanding the points of contact between the two parties.
My fear is that Yale has grown more insular through the construction of gated courtyards. Our inward-facing community can often inadvertently alienate this developing city of 130,000 inhabitants.
The story of the gated campus begins with Timothy Dwight V. In 1871, before he became president of the University, Dwight declared “the great quadrangle should look inward” such that “College life, so to speak, must find its center within its own borders.” He reasoned that an inward-looking campus would encourage students to focus on their studies and cultivate an intellectual community within the College. From there, courtyards began to take shape. Before this trend, Yale was porous. The campus was accessible to everyone; the brick buildings on Old Campus were surrounded not by imposing walls but expanses of grass.
Then, campus grew insular. The fortified Old Campus we know today began to take shape with the construction of Farnam Hall in the 1890s. Farnam Hall was just as much a wall as it was a building. Meanwhile, New Haven gained a large immigrant population. Perhaps Yale officials saw these walls not only as a way to further Dwight’s vision of an intellectually introspective University but also as a response to the rising low-income and foreign communities strolling through the Elm City.
In 1919, architect John Russell Pope suggested a reversion to the open campus.
Pope, famous for designing the Jefferson Memorial in 1937, proposed an open campus with buildings centered along a Wall Street pathway — a throwback to the campus row from the 1800s. But the Yale Corporation rejected his courtyard-free blueprints, citing the overexposure. “College life should be secluded by such enclosures,” the Corporation said. The rejection of Pope’s blueprints indicates that, by the time, the administration had settled on a campus of courtyards, distinct from the city.
As Yale entered the technology age, campus security was taken up a notch. ID scanners were placed on doors, gates and entryways alike. Nowadays, to weave across campus is rendered impossible for those without an access card. Instead, Elm City residents have to walk the perimeters and make the corners that we so easily avoid. What does it imply to the community when students duck behind walls? How can Yale forge amicable relations with its surrounding citizens when it becomes a fortress? Prioritizing safety is a must, but the Yale police patrol campus day and night to achieve that end.
In addition, an insular campus perpetuates a dismissive relationship between students and locals. New Haven residents forge this city’s identity with diversity as strong as that of the Yale student body. Strong town-gown relations rely on frequent interaction between students and residents.
Consider Brown University’s campus. What amazes me about Brown is the walkability of campus both for students and locals. In fact, it is common to see Providence locals, dog leashes in hand, strolling through the main quad on weekend mornings. Buildings, of course, are secured, but the university on the whole is porous.
Yale should strive for this degree of accessibility. But digital renderings of the two new residential colleges don’t look too promising. By creating walled courtyards, the administration sends a subtle message to students that New Haven residents have nothing to contribute to the intellectual vitality of the University. Even worse, the walled gates imply that the University needs to protect its students from the city.
In one sense, the Yale campus is already doomed by its architecture, but there are other ways for the University to open its campus to the community. Perhaps we could eliminate swipe access on college gates. This would, at least, exemplify that outsiders are let within the walls.
The administration should be applauded for granting public admission to museums, including the Yale University Art Gallery and the Center for British Art. It’s an indication that the institution stands for civic learning. But we should keep in mind that the physical layout of the campus sends a strong message to local communities. It’s best that we make New Haven residents feel at home, at home.
Nathan Steinberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.