Interest in our mental health and wellbeing has grown exponentially in the past two decades and, like any other sector, the UK’s universities and colleges have recognised that the physical, mental and emotional health of everyone on campus is crucial to a happy, productive living and working environment.
This increased interest has taken many forms – mentoring programmes, enhanced gym and fitness facilities, ready access to mental health facilities – but one key area for staff and student wellbeing is the design of the physical campus environment.
It’s now well recognised that access to green space and views, an easily walkable campus, and some degree of plant and animal biodiversity can all help boost mental health and wellbeing across a campus community.
Is there, though, a general philosophy when it comes to landscaping around campuses, particularly in relation to wellbeing? What are the key aims and best practice here? For example, is it a simple case of providing as much green and open space as possible, or is it more complex than this? Are certain landscapes and features particularly desirable?
Alethea Ottewell is landscape architecture lead at HLM Architects, who have completed projects for UK universities including Sheffield, Keele, St Andrews and Glasgow. “I’d say there is a degree of nuance here,” Alethea reflects. “In particular, a visual connection with nature and the presence of water are so important. These can be achieved in many ways, from the materials you select to well-connected pedestrian routes.”
We give careful consideration with our estates teams to all the rare species that we have here on campus, and in particular bats – Stephen Godber, University of Bath
HLM’s policy is to combine form, materials and planting in a recognition of each location’s own particular culture, history and ecology. Alethea: “We use the Urban Greening Factor [a green ratings system for new infrastructure and architecture projects] to ensure that our projects don’t result in a loss in habitats, and we strive to improve site biodiversity through the types of vegetation we propose.”
Encouraging wildlife habitats is a core part of so-called ‘biophilic design’, where good practice ranges from large areas of species-rich wildflower meadows to maximise biodiversity cover across the site, to reduction of night-time lighting in order to encourage bat habitats.
Is there a distinction to be made, when it comes to planning, between spaces (where people gather), and walks around campus? “With any design we need to consider both spaces and walking routes,” Alethea confirms. “Circulation around a campus must identify the most popular routes between destinations, alongside those that are used in other ways, such as recreational walking.
“Spaces can provide a different function to routes, as they can be more complex in their requirements. With the added layer of social distancing now, spaces and routes need to work on several different levels – particularly around a busy campus environment, where there is a higher footfall in certain concentrated locations.”
Recent HLM projects have included new student accommodation at Hollis Croft, Sheffield, whose steeply sloping site provided both challenges and opportunities. HLM’s designs worked with the topography by designing a multi-level landscape environment, giving access to green views from the ground floor all the way up to the podium roof terraces. Elsewhere, the tree planting worked with the drainage strategy, provided structure, and improved the air quality and greening of the surrounding walkways, while the diverse planting areas and raised beds provided additional spaces in which to relax.
The impact of our environment on our wellbeing has never been clearer than in 2020, when many of us have spent so much more time in our homes – Roger Fitzgerald, ADP Architects
Across town, HLM’s design approach for Sheffield University’s central concourse set out to regenerate this previously forgotten space into a new social hub. Featuring some of the highest footfall on campus (from staff, students, commuters and visitors alike), the area needed to be both a functional thoroughfare, and a striking backdrop for landmark university events such as open days and graduation.
The planting design was a fundamental element of the scheme, designed to respond to the site’s particular conditions, climate and aspect. The existing tree cover was enhanced with additional native tree planting, which also provides a visual, sound and pollution buffer from the road above. A large liquidambar – or sweet gum tree – was selected as a landmark for the scheme, thanks to its bold autumn colours and striking form.
Sited in a large area of open space overlooking the city, and next to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the University of Bath has prioritised landscape design that makes use of its dramatic setting and works with the various habitats around campus.
Stephen Godber is director of estates operations. “Our estates team works to ensure that the university campus fits with the local environment,” Stephen explains. “This is crucial given our proximity to an SSSI: there are many important ecological considerations in and around the university, not to mention Bath’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“We work alongside ecologists, landscape consultants and tree specialists to obtain a balance between, on the one hand, protecting the environment and supporting the local flora and fauna; and, on the other, providing important green space for students, staff and the local population.”
Bath’s campus features a blend of different land uses and habitats, from open green fields, via woodland walks to a lake. “Whilst traditionally we have had grass and flower beds, we have increasingly moved towards more wild ‘meadow’ grasslands – which are friendlier to the environment, whilst still leaving enough space for both sports and more informal recreation,” Stephen continues. “Over the past few years, we’ve increased our wildflower planting areas, with the particular aim of encouraging the local bee population.”
Beautiful it may be, but the site also presents its own challenges. One of the highest campuses in the UK, Bath’s is exposed to many different weather patterns – so planting needs to favour hardy species. The campus also features several public rights of way, meaning that both university spaces and walks must be considered (the university grounds form part of the very popular Bath Skyline walk).
Environmental considerations are also to the fore. “We give careful consideration with our estates teams to all the rare species that we have here on campus, and in particular bats,” Stephen reveals.
“We know that bats use several routes around the campus to get from their roosts to feeding grounds. Knowing this not only impacts our approach to planting, but also to our estates strategy – as consideration has to be given to light pollution and other man-made factors that could impact their flight paths.”
Consideration of wellbeing and user experience in the design of space and place plays an integral role in creating healthy environments that have a positive impact on people’s lives and promote connection with nature – Alethea Ottewell, HLM Architects
Success stories around campus include the woodland perimeter walk, which was restored in recent years and has been hugely important – in particular this year, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent heightened need for recreational space for staff, students and members of the public. Elsewhere, the lake at the centre of campus is a focal point for a number of activities, and is heavily frequented by students and staff during their leisure time, in particular in spring and summer.
Roger Fitzgerald is chair of architecture practice ADP, which has extensive experience of campus design across the UK and abroad. “The impact of our environment on our wellbeing has never been clearer than in 2020, when many of us have spent so much more time in our homes,” Roger reflects. “In a recent survey by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), 70% of respondents felt that the design of their home had impacted their mental health. Spending more time in their current home has made people more stressed (11%), anxious (10%) and depressed (10%).”
Roger believes that the survey results from homeowners are just as relevant to students and university staff.
“One of the effects of Covid-19 has been to highlight just how much we value social interaction, and particularly how external spaces and landscape setting play vital roles in contributing to staff and student performance and wellbeing.
“The needs of the higher education sector are constantly evolving, most recently and urgently to address the demands set by the pandemic. We see the need for different types of external spaces where students and staff can engage, requiring varied types of seating and land use. Group meeting pods, external podiums, outdoor screens, extending ‘green walls’ and other planting from inside to outside – these can all be used to increase staff and students’ active use of external spaces.”
Roger echoes Stephen in citing the importance of understanding what makes each site unique, and engaging with staff, students and communities to fully understand every campus. “We combine bespoke analysis with our own research and expertise to unlock the full potential of a site. Masterplanning plays a crucial role, bringing together a university’s broad vision for the future, its academic, research and social aims, and any individual capital projects.”
Over the past two decades ADP has worked with the University of Sussex – first on a strategic masterplan, and subsequently on individual projects. The university’s original plan, by the well-known architect Sir Basil Spence, integrated buildings and landscape on its beautiful South Downs setting.
After Spence’s involvement ceased in the early 1970s, however, the campus was developed in a piecemeal manner. ADP’s role, from the early 2000s, was to reinstate some core principles. “Firstly, we thoroughly evaluated the site, its beautiful landscape setting, and the significance of its 10 listed buildings, all designed by Spence,” Roger explains.
Spence saw the campus as a living organism, as though it had grown out of the soil of Sussex to become a natural part of its beautiful site, referring to the “delicious glimpses of the surrounding downland country”. Working with the landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe, he created formal settings for his buildings, using hard landscape, water, grass, planting and sculpture, all of which contrasted strikingly with the informality of the surrounding woods and grasslands.
Spence saw the campus as a living organism, as though it had grown out of the soil of Sussex to become a natural part of its beautiful site
“Reinforcing this philosophy, our approach maximises the site’s ecological and landscape potential,” Roger continues. “ADP’s new buildings, integrating passive sustainable design, have been used to define new landscaped courtyards, including a new space at the heart of the campus; two quadrangles shaped by the three wings of the student residences; and the Jubilee Building, which provides a fitting climax to Spence’s formal axial spatial sequence through the centre of the campus.”
The result, says Roger, is a well-judged mix of man-made and natural landscapes. “Hard landscape provides the main pedestrian routes, and creates places where people can meet and engage in outdoor social learning and activities. Original mature trees along the valley bottom have been retained, and complemented by new soft landscaping and broad sweeps of grassland in keeping with the natural setting and the confident simplicity of Spence and Crowe’s approach.”
“Consideration of wellbeing and user experience in the design of space and place plays an integral role in creating healthy environments that have a positive impact on people’s lives and promote connection with nature,” Alethea Ottewell reflects.
“We aim to integrate buildings and landscapes, and to connect students with the nature around them. We believe that healthy places make students feel safe, comfortable and at ease – and also increase social interaction, reducing feelings of isolation and stress. Healthy places optimise opportunities for working, learning and development – and can be restorative, uplifting and healing for both physical and mental health conditions.”
HLM Architects: hlmarchitects.com
University of Bath: Claverton Down campus www.bath.ac.uk/locations/university-of-bath-claverton-down-campus