Take it outside

Simon Fry examines how outdoor estates can contribute hugely to the student experience

Just as a continental café culture has transformed our eating and drinking habits in recent years, so too universities have embraced the al fresco ambience when looking to attract students and offer unique selling points. Many initiatives embody environmental awareness, in keeping with potential students’ values, while horticultural projects can incorporate nutrition and wellbeing into their remit. A proximity to nature can be both calming and energising.

“Universities have always been innovation hubs and we are seeing it increasingly in their approach to sustainability,” said Iain Patton, chief executive of the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC).

He added: “This might be by tackling biodiversity with a rooftop garden or a bug hotel in busy city centre. Using the campus itself as a living lab brings the opportunity for applied learning and employability skills for students and a real-world learning experience for academics.”

Taking charge 

In September 2016, Leeds Trinity University installed electric car charging points at the heart of their campus in Horsforth, Leeds for staff and students to use for free.

Two Charge Master charging points capable of charging four cars were implemented alongside a 20-bay cycle store last year, as part of a new student accommodation block. The installation cost for the charging points was £5,000 with Leeds Trinity covering the cost of the electricity, meaning staff, students and visitors can use the charging points for free.

“Feedback for the charging points has been excellent, with a number of staff and visitors using the facilities,” said Len Windle, Director of Estates and Facilities at Leeds Trinity University.

“We’re proud to be developing a modern and sustainable environment for everyone here at Leeds Trinity, and we’re already looking at installing more charging points in the future.”

Taking root 

The University of Derby also realised the benefits of investing in outdoor space, when it opened its outdoor learning space last year. The space is split into two distinct areas; one with purple and silver plants to evoke a sense of calm reflection and provide an area for quiet study; and the other with vibrant red and orange plants to spark creativity and lively group discussion. “The balconies offer a completely different learning space for students and an escape from the stress of studying and exams, explained Dr Ayres, who leads the University’s Future Learning Spaces Group.

The University’s on-campus Student Growing Space, Rooted, is an outdoor study space and biodiversity area designed to give students (and staff) new opportunities to engage with gardening. The project is accessible and open to all, and aims to provide opportunities to get outdoors and improve physical and mental health. To support the project, the Estates Maintenance Team used their expertise to install onsite an outside tap and create the space’s wooden planters, wheelchair accessible pathway and three-phase composting system, which will be used by the University’s grounds team as well as those involved in the Rooted project.

A taste of home 

The student experience at Coventry University is enhanced by a taste of home, according to grounds manager Stephen Beasley. “We actively encourage taking the inside classroom outside, whether it is geography or building construction students carrying out surveying tutorials or therapy students using gardens for practical activities.”

The University’s edible campus garden, the undoubted star of its outdoor space, has become a meeting place for many. It uses edible plants to provide a landscape that is attractive, useful and fun. A changing range of crops are grown and students are welcome to pick them, be it salad leaves for their sandwiches or soft fruit to enjoy afterwards. A number of more unusual crops, including Chinese cabbage and pak choi, have also been grown as they are familiar to many of of the University’s overseas students. Stephen added: “The garden was initially constructed in 2012/13 and we change it slightly annually based on what research projects we are supporting and user feedback. A key driver for part of the project is encouraging healthy eating and activity, but it also provides significant opportunities for research into invertebrates and pollinator species and has been used as an exemplar by students working on a project to grow produce supporting the city’s low-waged families.”

Chew the fat

Over at the University of Winchester, staff and students are working with Gumdrop Ltd to recycle chewing gum and it has a number of distinctive, bright pink Gumdrop bins located across campus to collect used gum. Chewing gum contains a high plastic content and the collected gum is sent to a UK manufacturer where it is recycled and processed into a range of new plastic products, including Gum-tec Americano mugs.

The University has given away 3,000 of these mugs to students and staff as part of a new initiative to reduce takeaway disposable cup use. The University’s campus management team has reported a noticeable decrease in the amount of gum on the ground in external high-traffic areas, since the Gumdrop bins were installed in September 2016. Meanwhile, sales of drinks in reusable mugs have jumped from three in every 100 drinks to 33 in every 100, saving over 25,000 disposable cups.

Combining the Gumdrop bins with the reusable cup initiative has helped students play their own part in closing the recycling loop: having cups made in part from a waste product collected on campus, has definitely captured everyone’s imaginations.

Sustainability is also a key focus in The Midlands. The 184 students living in the University of Birmingham’s Green Community share a passion for sustainability. Residents can leave a legacy by working with the University’s accommodation team to install new features in the area for subsequent students. They can also volunteer for a charity, monitor energy usage and organise their own sustainability events.

Set in a gated complex at Tennis Courts on the Vale Student Village, the Green Community features its own courtyard, 272 solar panels on its roof, 12 apple trees, living walls, bird boxes and more.

The Green Community has received positive student feedback. One described it as, “A lovely place to stay and it definitely lives up to the idea of a ‘community’ and feels that way.” Another said: “Everybody has been really friendly and sociable so it was super easy to form true friendships. It’s odd but we all feel like we have known one another for months already, it’s only been four weeks!”

Pedal power 

The installation of the latest lockers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in July this year confirms the ongoing ascent there of pedal power.

Joanne Talbot, the University’s sustainable travel coordinator explained: “We installed our first 10 Velo-Safe lockers from Cycle Works at our University library in 2010 when 1% of our students and 5% of staff cycled into campus. Now the figures are 4% and 7% respectively and growing all the time.”

The University currently has 48 bike lockers, including 34 of the Velo-Safe variety.

For UCLan, the wedge shape design means the aesthetically-pleasing Velo lockers can be configured in several ways without needing a large designated area. Students and staff like them because they don’t need to remove any equipment from their bikes and they also have the capacity to store helmets and other cycling gear. Joanne continued: “Enhancing the student experience year-on-year is something we’re all focused on at the University and the cycling-friendly initiatives we’re implementing are proving popular with our students. Cycling to UCLan is now seen as a realistic transport alternative.”

Making the most of outdoor estate brings numerous positive benefits to students and, hence, the universities seeking to attract them. Landscaped areas are not just aesthetically pleasing – they can reduce stress or, by using vividly-coloured plants, sew the seed of creativity in a student’s work.

“Several universities are investing heavily in landscaping, creating focal points and ‘spines’ through their campuses with notable examples at Bournemouth, Sheffield, Lancaster and Nottingham’s Sutton Bonington campus including water features, seating, green walls and roofs and wildflowers,” said Andy Nolan, director of estates (sustainability) University of Nottingham and member of the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE). “Being closer to nature, even in very urban areas can support physical and mental wellbeing.”

Installing features to facilitate greener living is crucial to support the environmentally-conscious lifestyle chosen by many students, while an ingenious solution to chewing gum disposal will be noted by students raised on neat innovation in the home, technology and beyond. Outside estates will become increasingly important to the student experience, the great outdoors growing ever greater.

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