Story by | Thomas Bean, he/him, Guest Writer
Illustration by | Pandora Tan, she/her
When walking around Yale-NUS College, you will observe that some Residential Colleges (RCs) have courtyards that bustle throughout the day. People hold spontaneous conversations in the corridors; students discuss group projects; a few individuals sit on a picnic mat in the courtyard. Other courtyards remain silent throughout the day. What makes a courtyard active or silent, and how can we improve on the quieter ones?
Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, can help us with this. In her influential work, she identifies that the amount of activity on the streets makes or breaks a city. Busy streets filled with activity attract residents to live, visitors to engage in recreational activities, and businesses to operate and work in an area. Lively streets enable vibrant communities, economies, and cities; streets devoid of activity lead to dying cities.
We can draw on ideas from the book and other academics on public spaces to observe how activity on the corridors surrounding each RC’s courtyard makes the RC. The activity on the edges of a courtyard, not the center, determines whether an RC feels lively or dead. Edges that have diverse uses, regular users to attract other people, and porous borders ensure that a courtyard remains active throughout the day, while courtyards lacking such edges remain dead.
Diverse Uses on the Edges
As Jacobs observes, diverse uses of the edges of a space ensure that activity occurs throughout the day. A park surrounded solely by office blocks only receives footfall during the morning commute to work, lunch hours, and the evening commute home. Such a park will remain dead for the rest of the day. To promote pedestrian footfall throughout the day, the same park must be surrounded by varied facilities and amenities to generate activity, like residences, retail, schools, and workplaces.
A Yale-NUS courtyard operates in the same way. Diverse uses on the edges contribute to Elm having the most active courtyard. The laundry room, the buttery, and the patio have regular users and visitors nearly 24/7. The Elm College Office, CIPE office, and faculty offices generate foot traffic from 9 am to 6 pm. Classrooms hold classes in the day and student organisation meetings at night. In addition, Brewhouse, a student coffee project, brings in customers from 9:30 to 11 am on weekdays.
We can partially attribute the Cendana courtyard’s lower foot traffic to a lower diversity of uses. Like Elm, classrooms hold lessons in the day and student meetings at night. Unlike Elm, though, the buttery and laundry room lie on the third floor, pulling traffic away from the courtyard. Nonetheless, the table tennis setup and vending machine located near Cendana Tower B attract occasional visitors from Tower A who walk via the front of the college office.
People Attract People
The key to making a place vibrant is understanding that people attract people. Jan Gehl, the author of Cities for People, comments that the most common social activity in public spaces is “passive contact in the form of just watching and listening to other people.” Even someone who loves quiet places to study sometimes desires a spot that allows them to passively observe others from time to time.
This means that to generate constant activity in urban spaces, it helps to have regular activity that others can watch. Diverse uses around spaces do help—but we can do more. Gehl recommends observing where people stay for prolonged durations. Those observations can inform how we design public spaces. Do people hang out at the edges or the center, or do they evenly distribute themselves across the space? What sort of furniture do people congregate around? Important to our discussion of Yale-NUS courtyards is William H. Whyte’s definition of triangulation: “the scenario where two people who don’t know each other start talking due to an external event.” The Yale-NUS experience includes the spontaneous conversations that happen outside of classrooms, and we should consider which courtyards encourage triangulation.
The Elm patio, the college’s most attractive outdoor study location, demonstrates this. It seems to consistently attract a critical mass of students that draws more people to it. Throughout the day, people congregate there to engage in casual chats, discuss group projects, or study alone. Even when one walks by at night, whether on a Wednesday or a Sunday, they will still find people gathering and interacting. Good ventilation, lighting, suitable furniture, and the occasional passerby for patio users to passively observe are likely what make the patio so successful. We might want to consider replicating its success elsewhere.
The Cendana courtyard is unique in that the college office is arguably where the magic happens. The college office is located quite centrally relative to the courtyard as opposed to Elm, which has its counterpart shielded by a row of ferns and palms. Most traffic between Towers A and B passes the office, and triangulation often occurs within and outside of the office when people meet while running errands at the office. The college office frequently runs regular activities right outside at tables on the edge of the courtyard that generate more traffic and opportunities for triangulation.
See related article: Campus as Blank Canvas: The Hidden Nooks and Crannies for Art | The Octant
Spaces need porosity with their edges and other spaces to remain active and interesting. Jacobs observed that long streets lacking access to other streets do not receive as much activity as long streets punctuated by intersections to other streets. People turning corners from adjacent streets in a grid increase pedestrian traffic on each street.
Porosity between interiors and streets, or streets and parks, helps keep streets exciting. Gehl’s research shows that the most exciting pedestrian streets have doors every 4 to 5 meters. Jacobs finds that parks that remain accessible at their edges bordering streets are more active and pleasant.
I think the same applies to the college’s corridors and courtyards. Corridors decorated with doors that might open and facilitate meetings with others are more exciting to walk along than long blank corridors. If a courtyard has bustling corridors bordering it but no permeability between those corridors, then the courtyards will still feel dead.
Cendana does have the smallest courtyard, but that may be an upside as its size enables it to have the highest ratio of permeable edges to unit area amongst the three courtyards. Evenly spaced outdoor tables without physical obstruction to the courtyard, which allow users to observe and/or walk into all the happenings in and around the courtyard, flank nearly a third of the perimeter and regularly attract students. It only takes a few users at these tables to make the whole courtyard feel alive.
Elm has a porous main corridor with lots of doors. As short ferns surround the courtyard, the activity on the edges brings life into the courtyard as people using the courtyard can watch activities in the corridors and vice versa. I believe that improving the porosity of Elm by adding a few more pathways that cut across the fern beds between the surrounding corridors and the courtyard will increase activity in the courtyard.
When we put the three factors we have mentioned so far together with other things Jacobs observed in active spaces, we get what she calls the “street ballet.” Jacobs finds that the metaphor of ballet best describes the movement on the streets generated by diverse activity, conversations, and exchanges found in the best city streets. In the same way, Yale-NUS has its own corridor ballet that peaks every 90 minutes when people move between classes and residences, leading to movement, exchanges of greetings, and spontaneous conversations. I would recommend looking up from your phone and fully appreciating it the next time you travel around campus.
See related article: The Spaces In-Between | The Octant
Saga’s Silent State
I have excluded the Saga courtyard from the discussion so far. One can argue that the Saga Courtyard has the best landscaping and feels very exciting when students organize events there. However, this courtyard remains quietest day-to-day. For dramatic purposes, let us declare it dead. This presents the perfect opportunity to apply what we have learnt to try and enliven a space.
My diagnosis: A lack of porous edges is the main reason for Saga’s silence. The Saga courtyard’s longest edges are dead. On one side, faculty offices sit between the corridor and the courtyard. Any life that happens in that corridor stays in that corridor. It does not spill into the courtyard. On the opposite side, the corridor is elevated above the courtyard and does not provide easy access to the courtyard for most of its length.
The college office, which generates activity for other courtyards, cannot do the same for the Saga courtyard. Being positioned about one story higher, without nearby access to the courtyard below, means it contributes less to courtyard life and does not encourage triangulation. The long corridor flanking the office lacks doors and does not excite passersby. This reduces the probability of triangulation and interactions around the college office.
Saga has the largest of the three courtyards, and the remaining two shorter edges allow limited access to the courtyard through short flights of stairs that do not invite people to sit. This means the courtyard has the lowest permeable perimeter-to-area ratio of all three courtyards. When people use the courtyard, they tend to stick to the edges. They use the two study tables at the corner closest to the busiest corridor, and people sitting on picnic mats congregate under the tree at that same corner. The other attractive study space lies at the active lift lobby, but shrubbery and railings obstruct that space from the courtyard. The lack of attractive spaces for gathering along the remaining edges of the large space means most of the courtyard often remains and appears both empty and dead.
The courtyard slopes and the alternative flat route for foot traffic between Towers A and B via the second story discourage people from walking along or through the courtyard, despite the diversity of uses around the space. The path consisting of stepping-stones cutting through the south side of the courtyard hinders people wanting to bring their laundry to the laundry room and has limited lighting at night. This encourages further use of the second floor as the main thoroughfare and discourages triangulation around the courtyard.
While there is no doubt that the Saga courtyard comes alive when people set up the outdoor movie screen and hold an event, we need to look at ways to increase regular day-to-day activities to enliven the Saga courtyard.
See related article: Unwelcome to our Campus | The Octant
Some might object to thinking about changing the Saga courtyard as they see value in having one RC courtyard that feels more like a quiet garden. Maybe the community does not need all courtyards to be active and may value having courtyards with different levels of activity. Although I understand this perspective, this article seeks to expound upon possible ways to increase activity for the sake of exploring how we can reshape courtyards.
Let us think about possible modifications we can make to the Saga courtyard to make it livelier. The key factors to modify include the porosity of the existing edges and the addition of outdoor furniture or features that invite people to stay in the courtyard.
We could start by removing some of the bushes from the edge along the busiest corridor and add a wide staircase, with stairs of an optimal height and depth and made of comfortable materials, that encourage people to sit and linger on the staircase. Retaining the trees to shade the stairs would ensure they do not absorb too much heat during the day which would discourage sitting. We can apply the same principles to the existing stairs at the center of the courtyard. Perhaps such staircases, a few picnic mats scattered around and better lighting would create the perfect location for performing arts groups in Yale-NUS to stage something similar to “Shakespeare in the Park,” like improvisational comedy in the courtyard.
To increase porosity between the college office and the courtyard, we could consider adding a long ramp or staircase. The difference in elevation might mean these solutions take up a lot of space though, so I propose installing a slide and a playground climbing frame that entices people to sit and stay in front of the office. This might seem unrealistic, but the whole point of this reimagination exercise is to explore different possibilities.
We could add some picnic benches along the dead edges so that we utilize the attractiveness of edges. The benches should have tabletops without gaps or holes in the surface so students can work on them. We could add a patio, maybe with a roof and ceiling fans over it, right beside the reflecting pool so that that edge of the courtyard has more activity. Students could come out and eat there on the nights the Saga buttery opens. Maybe we could add two large chess boards with large movable pieces on another edge. The possibilities are endless, but the idea is to utilize existing edges and increase the amount of activity occurring on them.
See related article: Detailing the Distinct Architecture of Yale-NUS | The Octant
Remaking other Corridors
We can also reimagine corridors and courtyards in other RCs. Currently, most courtyards remain too dark for most activities at night. Making it possible for students to increase the availability of lighting at the flick of a switch in the courtyards might encourage new activities to occur in the college.
We cannot add new rooms or change the location of facilities, like the laundry rooms and butteries in other RCs, so we must get creative. Adding artwork to pillars and walls can make corridors less boring. Perhaps painting false doors and adding paintings of windows which show people inside carrying out activities could initiate interest in the corridors. Painting art on the white pillars so that pedestrians have something visually stimulating to look at every two meters would make walks more exciting. The painting of these blank surfaces could be community activities which would allow students to bond and make the school feel more vibrant.
I like the idea of painting the courtyard-facing façade of the block housing the Elm buttery so that it looks like a row of shophouses. The corridors do draw inspiration from five-foot ways of shophouses, after all. Imagine if Shiner’s Diner decorated the walls and pillars outside like a restaurant in a shophouse decorates its exterior.
Apart from art, movable furniture—like foldable chairs and tables which allow us to turn corridors into pop-up dining or study areas—offer interesting possibilities. We have already discussed how Brewhouse encourages triangulation and makes Elm courtyard a great space to watch. Now imagine people bringing out additional foldable chairs and tables and putting them on the courtyard.
To stretch the possibilities of how we can use movable furniture further, imagine closing the Oculus on one morning when a Common Curriculum lecture occurs in the performance hall. Then, Brewhouse can set up there and students can pull out the foldable furniture to turn the entire Oculus into an outdoor café for the morning.
In line with Yale-NUS’s goal to grow vegetables to meet 10% of its demand, we could also turn some of the plant beds that surround courtyards into community gardens growing edible crops. This would lead to people watering and tending to crops occasionally, and passive observations of the fruits and flowers, increasing opportunities for triangulation. We should arrange the plots so as to increase the porosity of courtyard edges.
The physical structures of our RCs influence the amount of activity that happens in their courtyards and corridors. The amount of activity makes or breaks an RC and determines if it lives or dies. While organizing more events in our courtyards can bring about more activity, and we should definitely make it as easy as possible for students to hold events in the courtyards, I think this article shows that one cannot overemphasize the importance of regular activities and visitors’ contributions to courtyard life.
As pandemic restrictions begin to loosen, I hope this article can inspire more conversations about the shared spaces in our college, their functions and the possibilities that can allow us to unlock the full potential of the courtyards. We should be imaginative and willing to entertain any and all ideas.
I wish to end with a speculative thought. Perhaps the perception that each RC seems to have its own culture stems not from the students living in them (because they should not statistically differ between colleges save for some secret procedure) but from the physical structure of the RCs, which determine the amount of activity that happens in and around their courtyards.
|Wall (Represented by bold line)|
|Door (Represented by quadrant)|
Gehl, Jan. 2010. Cities for People. Island Press
Gehl, Jan and Svarre, Birgitte. 2013. How to Study Public Life?. Washington: Island Press
Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House
I am grateful to The Octant’s Editors, Xie Yihui, Michael Sagna, and Ryan Yeo for insights and suggestions which greatly contributed to the quality of this paper.
I am grateful to Pandora Tan for translating my untidy sketches into tidier digital drawings.
I am also grateful to numerous others, including but not limited to Joshua Vargas, Shaharaj Ahmed, Michelle Tan, Vanessa Thian, Kyle Foo, and Prof. Justin Stern. I discussed the ideas of this article with them before I wrote it and I thank them for their suggestions and observations, many of which I included in this article. I have borrowed the idea of using the Oculus as a shared space from Prof. Stern who noted that many buildings have grand but underused driveways and drop-off points. I note that most of these discussions arose from triangulation.