Study and the great outdoors

Keri Beckingham explores the ways that a university’s outdoor space can maximise the student experience

While a university’s indoor teaching and learning spaces might appear to be the most important part of their campus, outdoor spaces also have a key role to play. Not only do they provide students with a place to have a break and get some fresh air, they also offer an opportunity to socialise and support key green initiatives too.

With that in mind, we’ve asked industry experts about the practical and functional aspects of a university’s outdoor space, in order to explore how the design, look and feel of furniture, canopies, bike racks and recycling facilities can help to maximise the student experience as a result.

First impressions are key

When students first set foot on a university’s campus for an open day, although it is likely to be the outdoor spaces that contribute to their first impressions, both outdoor and indoor spaces will ultimately play roles in their decision to study there. As Stephen Toone, MD of canopy and walkway supplier Fordingbridge, explained: “Once the student has made the decision to attend your university, the outdoors space then becomes about maintaining that ‘feel good factor’.

“The exterior plays an equally important role as the interior, as both the indoors and outdoors enhance the student experience.”

Design that is fit for purpose

Benchmark Design have created street furniture for a range of outdoor spaces. When it comes to universities developing their spaces, Ed Cox, Design Manager, believes it’s important to remember that outdoor environments need to work for a multitude of needs in order to be most effective. Discussing this further, he said: “There is no point in having a tranquil, beautiful space that is either out of the way, shaded all day or lacks facilities, or developing a zone designed to encourage students to study right outside the busy main campus entrance.”

Over the last 12 months, Benchmark Design have also seen the use of rooftops and terrace becoming more common, which allows designers to think out of the box and create interesting and effective spaces that are fresh and inspiring.

As part of their work with the University of Birmingham, Benchmark Design were asked to transform an unused rooftop space between two historic buildings.  Commenting further, Ed Cox said: “With the ever-growing skylines of university buildings, it’s important to consider new ways to include breakout areas, be it a roof garden or terrace, somewhere that is easily accessible from that building, but is green and spacious to entice students outside.

“With the University of Birmingham, our brief was to create an attractive and multi-functional space that would encourage people to use the area, and we designed and provided coordinated bespoke planters, benches and tables that were sympathetic to the historic surroundings, but also provided a contemporary space with a sense of purpose.”

A safe and secure community

Outdoor spaces on campus also offer universities the opportunity to promote a sense of community amongst their cohort and provide students with an opportunity to socialise, which can also aid their wellbeing as a result. As Stephen Toone discussed: “Universities need to think about creating a calm and tranquil environment so it is recognised as a place of respite and rejuvenation.

“In addition, they should also provide key points which make it easy to meet with friends and family regardless of the weather, and for students to invite those not at the university to join them on the grounds to socialise and relax together.”

In order to encourage usage of the space, it’s also important that students feel secure, and so safety elements should also be high on the university’s agenda when it comes to creating their outdoor areas. Commenting further, Stephen Toone said: “At all times of day, light or dark, there needs to be visible security measures to deter those who have untoward intentions and give peace of mind to those who are visiting for relaxation and socialising.

Better by bike

UniCycle is a scheme that has been created by the NUS, Love to Ride and the EAUC to encourage more students and staff to cycle in higher education. 2,042 students were surveyed as part of the project, with the results revealing that 6% currently cycle to university, one in three have access to a bike and that having safe places to leave their bikes on campus would encourage students to cycle more.

In 2015, Cyclehoop, providers of a range of bike storage facilities, worked with the University of Cambridge to install 678 two-tier bicycle racks in order to provide secure cycle parking for over 150 departments and faculties. Two-tier bicycle racks provide an ideal solution where space is limited, and overall the university planned to install 2,000 cycle parking spaces over two years.

Nicky Teegan, Marketing Manager at Cyclehoop believes that the campus is an essential part of the student experience as it allows a safe space for engagement and social interaction, and that it’s also important for universities to provide students with cycle parking as part of their environmental initiatives. Commenting further, she said: “We want the outdoor spaces to reflect the vision of the university which is a space of learning and innovation.

“Sustainable thinking is a crucial topic at the moment and with this in mind we need to encourage our students to think in a greener and more environmentally focused way. Providing spaces that enable students to be outdoors and engage with their environment is a great way to facilitate this thinking.

“Whether it be outdoor sheltered areas, cycle parking, repair stations or community gardens – we need our students to start actively engaging with their environment and think in more sustainable ways.”

In addition, Fordingbridge were also asked to design an enclosed glulaminated timber canopy bike shelter for the University of the West of England (UWE), in order to help them achieve a 20% increase in Bristol city cycling by 2020. Commenting on the project, Stephen Toone said: “The cycling solution not only endorses sustainability through the promotion of cycling, by offering a safe and secure place to store bikes, but also through the structure itself. Timber is becoming an increasingly popular construction material because it is one of the most environmentally friendly materials available.

“The bike shelter, providing a safe and secure home for bikes while adding an aesthetically pleasing addition to the environment, is only going to help in achieving student satisfaction.”

Integrating nature

According to research by the University of East Anglia (UEA), living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits. The report used evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people, in order to analyse the health of people with little access to green spaces compared to that of people with the highest amounts of exposure.

Commenting on their findings, Lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School said: “We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits. It reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration.

“People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol – a physiological marker of stress.”

In addition, Benchmark Design have also seen an increase in universities creating spaces on campus with an emphasis on natural materials and planting that attracts wildlife, in order to improve air quality and reduce stress amongst students as a result.

As part of their work with the University of Exeter, they were asked to create an outdoor space for the seven-storey Living Systems Institute. The facility is home to a collaborative research community who are looking to revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, and the University wanted something that drew inspiration from the natural environment in order to complement the work that takes place there. As a result, Benchmark Design decided to centre the furniture they created around the concept of ‘biophilic’ urban design. Biophilic design is the process of incorporating nature within our everyday lives, in order to create calming spaces that not only improve both mental and physical health, but also help to encourage positivity and productivity too.

The project involved Benchmark Design creating and manufacturing benches that would complement the architecture of a building’s courtyard roof terrace, resulting in three unique separate spaces where staff and students could sit and enjoy the surrounding views.

Commenting on the project, Ed Cox said: “The Living Systems Institute is housed in a brand new, award-winning building and they had big ambitions for a desirable outdoor space to match. The organic floating form timber benches that we supplied complemented the cellular form of the resin surface perfectly.”

“There is no point in having a tranquil, beautiful space that is either out of the way, shaded all day or lacks facilities, or developing a zone designed to encourage students to study right outside the busy main campus entrance.” 

Green thinking

Oxford Direct Services (ODS) is a social enterprise that is owned by Oxford City Council. As well as cleaning the city’s streets and collecting and recycling waste, they also use their certified CIWM Waste Audit Training to help local universities increase their recycling rates and green credentials.

As part of their work, ODS has installed 32 mixed recycling and general waste compactors across Oxford Brookes University’s campuses, in order to minimise the number of bins they have on site. When the bins fill up, the University’s facilities management staff take the waste to the compactor so that it can be compressed and then collected centrally, resulting in 45% of waste and 22% of food waste being recycled overall.

In addition, ODS have also helped Oxford Brookes University introduce a range of incentives to encourage students to recycle, such as setting up British Heart Foundation pop-up banks on campus to help students moving in and out of accommodation to recycle old clothes.

Furthermore, students have also been offered tours throughout the year to Oxford City’s disposal outlets for educational purposes, which shows them first-hand what happens to their waste. This in turn allows for a more considered approach to waste management on campus, which can hopefully be passed onto housemates and classmates alike.

Commenting further on the environmental initiatives that they run on campus, Michele Morley, Environmental Specialist, said: “Oxford Brookes University ensures that all the correct recycling bins are in place to enable recycling and segregation across all campuses and halls.  We work closely with our projects team ensuring waste segregation is designed in at the concept stage and considered all the way through the design, development, construction and the operational phase of our redevelopment programme.

“We design our outside spaces to enhance the student experience and we recognise that providing consistent messaging and waste provision is key to the success of our recycling programmes.”

“With the ever-growing skylines of university buildings, it’s important to consider new ways to include breakout areas, be it a roof garden or terrace, somewhere that is easily accessible from that building, but is green and spacious to entice students outside.

The future of outdoor spaces

So what’s next for university outdoor spaces? As the need to develop their outside areas has become a bigger focus for institutions, Fordingbridge have seen a big uplift in all weather café and outdoor dining facilities being installed. As Stephen Toone explained: “Al fresco dining is a trendy option and encourages the social aspect of student life.”

In addition, as outdoor cinemas become an increasingly popular leisure activity across the country, Stephen Toone also believes that this is something that universities should also be looking to provide to students, as well as the local community. He added: “To bring this into university grounds would do wonders for the local PR of the university, especially if it was open to all, as well as introduce a ‘cool’ vibe to educational establishments.

“This is where a canopy covering an amphitheatre would serve well as it covers the unknown of the British weather.”