Moving from Living Room to Downtown: The Evolving Role of the College Union

Colleges and universities are constantly evolving and adapting to the ever-changing landscape of higher education. Increases in accountability, diverse student bodies, globalism, operating costs, demand in services and technology, as well as decreases in government funding and university resources, have reshaped how institutions of higher learning operate. College unions are not immune to these ongoing challenges. Whether they are reporting to student affairs or finance and administration, unions face similar issues. Some of these issues include a need for more space for student, faculty, and staff events and programs; calls for more flexibility in the types of union spaces; and an increase in the variety of services offered. At the same time, other entities on campus are duplicating spaces and services traditionally found in the union. Coffee shops, vending machines, and lounges  are  available in academic buildings. Programming and meeting spaces and food-related retail spaces are commonplace in residence halls. College unions must evolve to transcend the issues they are facing.

Most college union professionals know and appreciate the role of the college union. In particular, they subscribe to the idea of the college union being customarily referred to or thought of as the “hearthstone” or “living room” of a campus. This idea has been a guiding concept for many years. Due to the emerging challenges, it is necessary to expand this guiding principal. As higher education progresses, so too must the college union and those who work in them.

The role of the college union, today and in the future, is to be the downtown of campus. This can be achieved in part by studying other professional fields. It is important to still adhere to theories, knowledge, and best practices from student development, business, facilities management, and diversity and inclusion. Amid growing challenges, college union professionals can add to their repertoire of resources by adopting and adapting theories, concepts, and approaches from additional and seemingly unrelated fields. One example of a field with information that could be beneficial to college and universities in general and unions specifically is community and urban planning.

College union professionals may benefit from thinking like urban planners who are creating a vibrant downtown. Some may claim this is a matter of semantics, living room or downtown. The idea is to provide a place where people can gather. If one takes a moment to think, a downtown is so much more than a gathering place. Placemaking, a concept from urban planning literature, takes the idea of an engaging and successful downtown to a new level.


According to the Project for Public Spaces, the concept of placemaking emerged in the 1960s, but it gained real momentum and was adopted in the mid-1990s. Placemaking brings people together to recreate public spaces in order to improve a given area. The hands-on approach strengthens the connection between community members and the shared space. The collaborative nature of the process allows individuals to take part in shaping public space while maximizing shared value. Placemaking not only encourages improved urban design, it also enables creative use patterns while noting the significance of cultural, social, and physical identities that characterize the location and sustain its continued development. Placemaking is both a practice and a viewpoint.

At the center of placemaking is community involvement. Speaking with and observing people who use the space and understanding their necessities and aspirations, for both the space and the community as a whole, is essential. The approach is bottom-up rather than top-down. It makes use of the community’s resources, potential, and vision to be effective. Understanding the positive infl e of establishing a robust sense of place is critical. The results are spaces that enhance the holistic well-being of community members. The process belongs to anyone who is invested in creating a great space. Placemaking has the ability to dissolve silos that often exist within a community, particularly between those leading the development of a space or project and its eventual users. It challenges these individuals to step outside of their generally narrow specializations, agendas, and focus, which in turn can help decrease unnecessary disputes and headaches throughout the process. Placemaking requires strong leadership at multiple levels to be successful. Overall, the Project for Public Spaces placemaking is described as dynamic, inclusive, collaborative, adaptable, and transformative.

After several decades of practice, the Project for Public Spaces’ approach to placemaking has three overarching philosophies: (1) integrate diverse opinions into a cohesive vision, (2) translate that vision into a plan and program of uses, and (3) ensure the sustainable implementation of the plan. These philosophies inform its 11 Principles of Placemaking, which provide strategies to assist communities. The 11 fundamental elements are key in transforming public spaces into lively communal places. They are applicable to a multitude of indoor and outdoor spaces such as parks, plazas, public buildings—and arguably college unions.


A starting point for improving a space is to identify those who can contribute valuable knowledge, insight, history, and resources. For a union, this means talking with students, student organizations, staff, faculty, alumni, campus partners, tenants, and community members. Some important questions to answer when talking with these groups are: How functional is the space? What are the critical issues? What does the space mean to people? What is the history of the space?


The objective of this process is to move beyond just a space and to create a place. Design alone cannot accomplish this goal. This is perhaps one of the more challenging concepts to embrace. A place needs to be welcoming and comfortable. To achieve this, physical and environmental change may need to be made. In a union, it may be necessary to examine seating, visitor foot traffic patterns, and their relationship to food services and retail. These changes are meant to create a synergy within the space. In addition to being communal and comfortable, a space should have an appropriate association with nearby amenities that enhance the overall synergy. In a union, an example is a parking garage connected to the union with a welcome desk, screens with the events happening that day, vibrant way-finding signage, and restrooms. Individually each of these components are important, but collectively their value combines to enhance a visitor’s experience.


Forging partnerships is a vital part of improving a space. What a partnership looks like and when partners should be engaged is subjective and will vary depending on the objective. For a union having the support of campus and local partners is important in altering spaces. An example would be hosting focus groups for campus partners outside of the division before deciding what technology or furniture to order. Additional examples include partnering with academic affairs to hold classes or develop a class-based business venture in the union, working with campus police and risk management to improve safety concerns, or collaborating with a local arts organization to plan upcoming events.


Since placemaking is community-oriented, it should be no surprise that it calls for the vision to come from the community in which the space will be located. In the case of college unions, this means stakeholders should be involved in improvements to spaces in the building. The vision should incorporate the activities that may take place in the space, the image of the space, what will make people want come to the space, and what will make people feel proud of the space. A vision serves as the conceptual framework for designing the space. Consider what resources are available to change the space with no or minimal cost. Do any operations or facilities staff have any skills that have been underutilized and could enhance the space? A vision is important for cohesively making modest adjustments to existing spaces, not just be considered as part of a formal renovation or construction project.


Enhancing public spaces can be multifaceted. The expectation to make all necessary changes immediately or all at once is often unrealistic. Start with the easy wins. Make the improvements that seem doable and see how the community responds. Then make further plans accordingly. In the union, this may appear in the form of new paint, furniture, lighting, signage, institution-specific branding, etc.


According to William “Holly” Whyte, in his book City: Rediscovering the Center, “Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other.” In college unions, triangulation can be activated through intentionality and the organization of distinctive components in association with each other. For instance, if lounge furniture, a charging station, and a vending machine are randomly placed, individually, they may each be used on a limited basis. However, if they are placed in close proximity to each other, people will effortlessly come together or triangulate in that space.


While engaging in the process of placemaking, inevitably union professionals will encounter obstacles. Professionals often view projects from the narrow scope of their knowledge and experiences. Aiming for smaller community referred improvements while on the road to larger ones may help with overcoming roadblocks. An example is if facilities staff claim that sloped floor auditoriums are problematic or obsolete. While that may be the case in other areas or buildings on campus, it may not be the case in the union, especially if the data or feedback from the community doesn’t match this premise. Another example is in the case of lockers. There are many naysayers when it comes to lockers, and sometimes this doubt is warranted. However, perhaps a union’s lockers are underutilized simply because they are not large enough, are poorly situated, or people do not know how to use them. Sometimes the issue may be more complex than stakeholders think.


In their article, “Design in 2015: Form’s Effect on Creativity and Real Estate,” Interior Architects stated: “Form plays an important role in the way that we perceive space.” They went on to explain: “Form supports function and function informs form. It provides cues on how to use space, and it defines wayfinding and orientation.” While design is an important element to achieving the vision for a space, the desired function must first be understood. Many beautiful spaces end up being underutilized, just as community can be built in even the drabbest locations. Union professionals must experiment, observe, and consider the input of students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members, and other stakeholders to appreciate a space’s purpose and how the environment can best be crafted to achieve that vision.


Once the basic infrastructure of a space is in place, the cost of additional elements is minimal. Moreover, when the campus community becomes involved, costs are further reduced. Following these steps to generate more enthusiasm around a project will result in the community viewing the cost more broadly as it may be outweighed by the benefits.

For example, once a space reaches a “white box” stage, in which all systems are in place and the ceiling, walls, and floors are constructed and prepared for finishes, most of the major costs have been encumbered. By incorporating the campus community in the next phase of development, supplemental costs such as furniture, technology, staffing, and décor can be either overcome or overlooked. They can be overlooked if the community is vested in the project, understands the value of the space, and therefore accepts additional or higher than anticipated costs. Alternatively, cost can be overcome if the community is vested in the project and they offer their financial support or other resources to help defray expenses. For instance, additional funding from student government or the information technology department offering its services at no cost to the union could serve to enhance the space affordably.


Maintenance and adaptation are necessary to building a great union and, subsequently, a great campus. College unions must adapt to the changing needs and opinions of the campus community. Proper management of good public spaces also involves upkeep of the facilities.

The Power of 10+

The Project for Public Spaces created the Power of 10+ to assess and assist in placemaking. The concept indicates that spaces that successfully facilitate a sense of place are those designed in such a manner that people have 10 or more reasons to be there. Not only should places be multi-functional and engage multiple senses, they can incorporate the history and culture of the community in which the space is embedded. On a macro-level, locals and tourists alike begin to change their perception of a city or town when it incorporates 10 destinations that adhere to this concept. As it relates to college unions, professionals who work in these spaces can evaluate why users come to their spaces and seek ways to increase the number of reasons they have to do so. This concept directly connects to the idea of unions being the downtown of their respective campuses; few other spaces on a campus can provide their community with 10 or more reasons to engage with their space.

Some of the reasons to come to the union are:

  • Events and programs
  • Food
  • Retail
  • Student organization offices
  • Recreation and leisure activities (bowling, art center, gaming, etc.)
  • Printing
  • Classes/group work
  • Culture and arts
  • Mail and shipping
  • Computer and cell phone services
  • Test preparation
  • Employment
  • Gathering/socializing
  • Safe/restful spaces
  • Reflective/meditation, spiritual, or religious space
  • Business transactions (ATMs/banking, ticket office, etc.)

Why the College Union?

The concept of placemaking and its approaches are significant in creating successful downtowns. Vibrant downtowns contain places to be entertained, eat, work, learn, experience culture and arts, gather, and handle business. Similar to a downtown, people come to the union to get things that they generally cannot get in other places. This is true of all college unions regardless of size, location, type of institution, or reporting structure.

The metaphor of the downtown of campus is also more fitting than the traditional comparison to a living room. A living room is a single space that is generally used for gathering. Unions have evolved far beyond this. Many of the amenities that unions now offer cannot be encompassed or articulated by the idea of a living room. Unions are a fusion of multi-use space, programming, and retail. A union serves a diverse array of constituents. It should be a space where everyone feels welcome regardless of the reason they are there. The union has the distinct ability to be malleable; it can represent different things to different people. Unions are far more than exceptional edifices; they are beacons of student engagement. Embracing placemaking is a way to achieve this vision.


  • Dorsey Spencer

    Dorsey Spencer Jr. serves as assistant director for student organization development and engagement in the Oglesby Union at Florida State University. Previously, he was the executive director for student engagement at the American University of Nigeria. He earned his bachelor’s degree in sport and recreation management from Temple University, holds a master’s degree in higher education administration from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.

    View all posts