When we talk about the public spaces of a city, we are talking about the character of the city itself. The city’s ability to foster meaningful community relationships and individual fulfilment is dependent on its very structure. As students, many of us are living in small, rented apartments, or full family homes. And so, we lobby for student centres and are aggrieved by confusing library opening hours. But more than that, we instinctively recognise the need for meeting spaces that allow us to feel not only safe, but welcome. Throughout the pandemic, many of us bemoaned Portobello’s fences, the closure of public parks, and the monetary requirement for social outings in pubs and cafes at a time of great social deprivation. We know that public spaces offer immense benefits to mental and physical health; they bond and bridge communities and allow for political and social mobilisation. These benefits are only achieved through the creation of comforting, freely-accessible space.
It can be further proposed that the power structures and common cultures within a region are reflected in the organisation, planning and use of public spaces. Ben Rogers argues that dynamic, accessible and welcome urban spaces nurture communities that have greater levels of equality and contentment. Communities flourish under physical structures which are designed for them. It’s easy to see public places for simply their practical benefits — a place to play, eat, run — or their aesthetic, environmental, or economic value. This view of public space is true to some extent, but it disregards the most important contribution they make; space is where we draw a more deep-rooted sense of belonging. Due to differing functions of public space, and their importance for community development, public spaces need an ability to cater to the individualised needs and desires of specific communities. It is because of this that urban designers have started to champion the idea of “placemaking”. Placemaking refers to its theoretical concept and its application to community planning. It centres around the needs of a community, and encourages “crowd-sourced” collective reimagination of public space. In this way, public spaces are not dictated by “top-down” approaches but by the “bottom-up” creativity and ingenuity of evolving social and cultural communities. While this proposes a more radical re-imagination of community locations, it is also important to note that welcoming atmospheres and easy accessibility are necessary conditions for public space to achieve its full value and support its community. The use of public spaces cannot be fully realised without welcoming and easy access.
It is against this backdrop that Trinity’s relationship to Dublin City becomes troubling. When the rest of the city is flush with commuters and parties, Trinity is often quiet. And sometimes, Trinity actually locks up. Empty pathways, cricket pitch grass you’re not allowed to tread on, overheads you’re not allowed to shelter under. This, of course, has been exaggerated by COVID-19, where College has been accessible to staff & students only — but the sentiment predates it. Trinity is physically walled in, with only a few narrow entrances; it attracts wealth and then pigeons it between cold gates.
“Trinity is both intimately connected with Dublin and seemingly hovering above it.”
Trinity is both intimately connected with Dublin and seemingly hovering above it. I felt isolated from it when younger and yet eager to gain access to something that seemed (at least a little bit) unattainable or exclusive. And when I started attending in my teens, I quickly became furious about its inaccessibility, the wealth I encountered, and the inequity that Trinity perpetuated both internally and on a global and national scale. Physical access to Trinity is an important determinant of wider public perception of the college, something a college that often claims to fight elitism should care about. Beyond that, it is also simply something the people of Dublin deserve.
For a public space to thrive, one must consider its links to surrounding areas, such as through open and accessible pedestrian entrances, as well as strong disability access. Trinity’s sense of community, sociability and connectedness to the city’s community could be strengthened through public events and cultural activities.
“When my nanny asks me ‘Is Trinity open?’ I say ‘only to students’ (and, now, tourists). This process is a formal declaration and institutionalisation of what was already implicitly enshrined in our social codes.”
Over the past year, however, while attending this ghost college, I have started to recognise something greater. When I enter campus, I scan my personalised student card and step out of bustling Nassau Street into empty Fellows Square. When my nanny asks me “Is Trinity open?” I say “only to students” (and, now, tourists). This process is a formal declaration and institutionalisation of what was already implicitly enshrined in our social codes. We have access to something others don’t. In fact, our access to this is only valuable specifically because it is exclusive. As students in higher education, we derive our value from the necessary exclusion of others.
As we look towards a return to an “open” and “in-person” campus for students, College must not just prioritise access for paying tourists. We must be cognisant of this physical manifestation of institutional privilege. Trinity is a college, yes; but it is also a place.