From the smallest private college to the largest state university, the safety of students who live and learn on campus has become a core conversation. Integrating security technologies—ID scanners, automatic door locks, propped-door alarms—into how schools plan and build residence halls is standard operating procedure on most campuses.
Yet, residence halls cannot rely on physical security measures alone. Addressing security means going beyond technological barriers and monitoring devices; higher-education institutions must create living environments in which students feel secure.
Designing for double duty
Research shows that the security students feel in their living environments is linked to their sense of belonging to the residential community. Design elements and floor plans that promote community have been shown to help students feel safer within their living environment.
This is good news for campus leaders, many of whom have strived to establish a sense of community and belonging in residence halls. By designing residence halls to encourage a bond between students and their campus homes, institutions also are boosting the students’ sense of psychological security and awareness of the physical space in which they live. This bond, often referred to by researchers as “territorial claim,” increases the likelihood that residents will take a proactive approach to protecting and watching over their living environment.
That’s because a strong sense of community naturally triggers a sense of responsibility for “our place” and discourages intrusion by those who aren’t part of the community. Residents who know their environment well and recognize the other people who live and study there are more confident of where they fit into that environment and tend to be more vigilant about monitoring who’s in the space and what they’re doing.
Managing access and entry
Often, one of the first steps in addressing security concerns is to control and monitor access to a building. Research backs up the idea that designating a clear traffic flow through the entry and exit points of a residence—such as through a central courtyard or creating a master flow throughout the hall—does enhance the psychological sense of security that people feel inside that building, as well as create opportunities for physical monitoring of who comes and goes.
Similarly, paying attention to the quality of doors and locks, the placement of security cameras, and the style of windows, and providing clear views into and out of a space helps send a message that an institution takes the security of its students seriously. But access-control systems are most useful when they are integrated seamlessly into student lifestyles. Autospring hinges, for example, enable a door to close and lock behind students, even when they are in a rush to leave and not paying attention. Alarms can be installed to sound anytime a door is propped open. Card-readers can be programmed at varying levels of sophistication to restrict access to stairwells, corridors, wings and individual rooms. Internal and external security cameras make it easier to monitor entries and exits.
Controlling access to residences that include dining halls, study or administrative spaces, or living-learning communities with classroom space is not always simple. Many students prefer to socialize, work on group projects, study and enjoy quiet time in a see-and-be-seen environment. That means residence halls have more spaces that are public and semi-public. To make these buildings work for everyone, several considerations must be weighed beginning in the design phase—from the university’s philosophy on access, to the security needs of residents, to the needs of the departments managing the public spaces.
Creating zones of privacy
It may be a challenge to provide—and pay for—non-revenue-generating spaces within a residence hall, but offering a variety of spaces is key. When students have access to layers of privacy and community, and the choice to move between them, they gain a measure of control over their environment, which helps them feel at ease and familiar with the space. Residential environments that include a mix of private, semi-public and public spaces help generate a sense of ownership among residents.
In studies of community-oriented environments, clear and consistent behavior patterns emerge based on the residents’ awareness of and transition between public and private spaces. For example, residents tend to strictly protect those areas that they wish to keep private, such as bedrooms and individual living spaces. However, that sense of protection also can extend outward to shared and semi-public spaces they may “lay claim” to, such as their favorite study nook, a community bathroom or their favorite table in the dining hall.
Spaces also should be flexible enough to accommodate degrees of personalization and customization. Like levels of access, this also happens in zones. The highest need for personalizing a space is in the most private spaces, such as bedrooms and personal living spaces. Layout and building materials can determine whether students treat a space as if it is their own: cinder-block walls and fixed furniture, for example, can prevent students from personalizing and feeling ownership over a space.
As students move into semi-public and public spaces, the sense of ownership and identity—and resulting feelings of safety in the space—can correlate to whether there is potential to claim or personalize that space. For example, allowing students to decorate a social space with artwork or community murals increases the likelihood that they will keep that space clean and safe, and pay more attention to who’s using it.
Right-sizing the space
In small residence halls, or those divided into smaller communities, students often find it easier to get to know the people they’re living with and more quickly claim their place in the community. So it’s no wonder that smaller residences may feel more secure. It’s how people are socialized: When people can easily create cultural reference groups, they are better able to identify who “belongs” and more likely to call attention to those who don’t.
Establishing personal reference groups isn’t just a community issue; it also is critical in the development of college students’ personal identity. Smaller communities, whether in a small population residence or one that’s been subdivided, enable students to connect, share more intimate living experiences and intuitively find their way through the building.
But it’s not just the human scale that makes size a factor in security—the physical space matters, too. The ability to see into and out of a smaller space helps us to be aware of space and connect with our surroundings.
For example, shorter corridors, clearly placed stairwells and patterned floor plans can put minds at ease as well as create clear paths for navigating to a safer location during an emergency. When walking into a building, if students can see to the outdoors and quickly identify the exits, they know exactly where they are in space, and where on campus they will be when they walk out the door.
In designing residences that feel—and are—safe and secure, remember one important rule: The more that students identify with and care about their living environment, the more they will develop, watch over and protect it and the people in it.
The most successful environments for security are not necessarily the residence halls with the most advanced technologies. They’re the ones that are intentionally designed to promote strong communities while using access and monitoring technologies and design features in ways that enhance student lifestyles and naturally trigger feelings of safety and awareness within the community.