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How campus layout influences social ties and research exchange

Shorter distances between departments and offices can boost communication and exchange. But proximity is not the only way that campus design influences interactions among the university community

Andres Sevtsuk's avatar
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
5 Oct 2022
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Colleagues meeting in the street

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University campuses are places for exchange – of people, knowledge and ideas. By concentrating students, researchers, faculty and staff in close proximity to one another, campus layouts not only facilitate interaction but also direct it in particular ways, making it more likely for certain people to encounter some colleagues rather than others. Such daily encounters can impact social relationships and research collaboration over time.

Past studies have shown that physical proximity between departments and office locations can result in more frequent communication and exchange. But besides mere proximity, how else do campus layouts influence social interactions between their users? In a recent study of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we obtained data illustrating anonymised volumes of email communication among researchers, faculty and staff at different office locations throughout the campus. This allowed us to examine how spatial relatedness can influence social and research relationships in ways that go beyond mere distance or proximity between office locations.

I summarise our main findings here to highlight what they could mean for campus design.

First, proximity matters. We measured proximity between office locations along walking paths through buildings, corridors, staircases, courtyards and streets. Generally, the closer the researchers’ offices are to each other, the more frequent their email exchange. But that is not the whole story. The influence of proximity on communication patterns is mitigated by several important factors.

The MIT campus is known for its “infinite corridor” system; a network of indoor walkways connects tens of buildings to each other so users need never have to step outside. However, not all office pairs benefit from a convenient indoor route between them; sometimes crossing an outdoor courtyard or street offers a far shorter route than a circuitous indoor alternative. Our data suggested that if the likely paths between office locations included outdoor links, the influence of proximity was dampened and communication frequency between colleagues dropped. Colleagues whose offices were conveniently connected via indoor routes tended to communicate more frequently than those whose visitation routes included outdoor links. Given that our email communication data were captured in February 2020, the difference between indoor and outdoor proximity is possibly explained by the additional burden of traversing cold snow and windy conditions outside.

The corridor-encounter effect

Social exchange depends not only on proximity of office locations but also on the likelihood of passing each other’s office on the way to or from work. We built detailed probabilistic estimates of routes that people are most likely to walk to their offices from various campus arrival points – from public transit stations, parking garages, bike parking lots and pedestrian approach routes – and adjusted these estimates based on a campus commuting survey. We found that the more likely one is to walk past another person’s office on the way to work, the higher the communication frequency between them, regardless of how far their offices are from each other. A higher likelihood of physical encounters leads to more frequent electronic communication.

Interestingly, this corridor-encounter effect depends on two additional factors: how crowded the corridors are and whether the pair of colleagues work in the same department. If the corridor in front of an office one passes is more crowded – and they do get crowded in some parts of the campus – then the likelihood of email exchange with the office occupant diminishes.

On city streets, when two people walk past each other, they are more likely to meet eyes or start a conversation when the street is relatively quiet. Such interaction is less likely if the pair passes each other on a crowded street. A similar dynamic appears to impact email communication between colleagues inside campus corridors. Furthermore, while routinely walking past each other’s offices explained more frequent communication between unfamiliar colleagues from other departments, if people work in the same department, lab or centre, we found that walking past each other’s offices could lead to fewer email connections instead. For familiar colleagues, a higher rate of in-person encounters might bolster face-to-face communication instead of email.

Finally, our research examined how access to eateries might impact email ties between colleagues. We found that if a pair of researchers, faculty or staff are located closer to the same eating establishments, they have more frequent email exchange. Interestingly, the effect of crowdedness here works differently than in corridors – the more people an eatery attracts, the more likely the email communication between its visitors. Canteens are spaces where verbal and visual communication is an important part of eating culture, especially in a research environment. A more crowded cafeteria could thus provide more opportunities to engage in group conversations, where new social ties can emerge between people who are introduced by mutual connections. In corridors, however, encounter appears to be adversely affected by crowding.

Implications for campus design

What do our findings suggest for campus design?

  1. People whose offices are located at more-trafficked locations are more likely to establish links with colleagues from other departments and labs. Understanding this effect could help departments strategically position junior faculty, researchers or research centres for whom it is critical to expand social networks and interdisciplinary connections at key locations where such ties are most likely to form. Having junior faculty offices at locations that no one passes, even if otherwise centrally located, might help them focus but will probably also diminish their opportunities to expand interdisciplinary social relationships. At the same time, too much foot traffic in front of an office doesn’t help; the more crowded walkways are best kept for public amenities.
  2. Eating venues tend to foster social connections. They could be strategically planned to ensure both ease of access and sufficient size to maximise the chances of social encounters over lunch. Rather than numerous micro-cafes throughout a campus, having fewer but larger mid-size cafeterias can foster broader social ties with colleagues.
  3. Finally, given the overall benefits of proximity, a denser campus, with more people concentrated on a limited land area is probably going to lead to more frequent exchanges among its users. But this doesn’t mean that tall buildings produce most encounters; there the encounters could be limited to not-so-comfortable shared lift rides. Low-rise, high-density buildings with interconnected walkways and shared public spaces are more likely to maximise encounters in more comfortable spaces that support interaction with seating, natural lighting and food. In colder climates, having indoor walking paths between buildings can help ensure that encounters continue during colder parts of the year.

Anticipating how each of these spatial qualities might affect the social life of a campus requires an assessment of alternative campus development designs. We see this as a promising area for spatial analysis that could inform and improve interactions within newly planned buildings. As the next step for our own research, the findings for this study were recently used to evaluate the locations of public facilities and offices in the planned extension of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning.

Andres Sevtsuk is Charles and Ann Spaulding career development associate professor of urban science and planning in the department of urban studies and planning, where he also leads the City Form Lab, at MIT.

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