Laying the foundations for new-world campuses

Laying the foundations for new-world campuses

In years gone by, a university’s history and reputation were the only things that mattered, but as tertiary education has expanded and competition tightened in the bid for students, new factors come into play. The campus is one of these. Now, the criteria has evolved to a point where the aesthetics and ambience of a campus environment embraces architectural design and materials and even landscaping. If a place feels good, then it probably is.

Having provided landscaping and ground maintenance services to a range of higher education establishments, including Cardiff Metropolitan, Cranfield University and others, The Nurture Landscapes Group has long recognised the connection between student wellbeing and a campus’s environment, layout and upkeep. Paul Bean, sales director, explains why this is important.

We humans are sentient creatures – decisions are often made through a combination of the emotional and the rational, in that order. We need to feel comfortable and fully confident in our choices, and it is often the heart that has the final say!

For most students, and particularly freshers for whom a university campus is the first bridge into the adult world, a sense of family and community remain important. They look forward to feeling part of a community, not just as members of an institution, whatever its academic profile.

Through their design, landscaping and upkeep, a campus can foster a sense of community and safety. Over half of the two thousand respondents of a survey conducted recently by student community forum, The Student Room, cited genuine concern about being unable to attend a physical university open day due to Covid-19 restrictions.

While there might, naturally, be some apprehension when it comes to large gatherings, having open spaces where peer groups can come together safely provides reassurance that opportunities to socialise are being prioritised.

As different campuses are scrutinised by undergraduates before making a final choice, being able to clearly visualise themselves going about the campus is bound to be important in their decision-making. So much so that location is now considered one of the top three deciding factors in selecting a university. And in a post-pandemic world, so is safety and the balance between health risks and environmental and social considerations that a campus environment can so successfully embody and convey.

Utilising and designing space not only become an important aesthetic consideration, but one of student wellbeing and peace of mind; the challenge is how to get a balance between encouraging students to socialise and study together, keeping them all as safe as possible at a time of heightened awareness of health, and designing a campus that they want to be at in the first place.

As is happening more within workplace and office settings, open plan study zones for independent working can add to a sense of being in a productive yet socially cohesive community environment. And the same goes for outdoor spaces. Meanwhile, careful use of natural plant displays and living walls as dividers, all help promote wellbeing, bringing the outside environment and sense of space indoors.

The wellbeing effects of plants have been well documented, especially with regards to emotional and mental health. In fact, student mental health has been a serious issue even before the pandemic and continues to impact heavily on their experience. Being surrounded by nature proved to be of huge support for many during the first UK lockdown, with a general rise in appreciation for the natural world as a result.

From the planting of flora around a campus estate, as demonstrated at both Brunel and Newcastle Universities, to creating green backdrops for enclosed spaces or peaceful places for students to meet and socialise away from a bustling cityscape, are all ways in which the buildings and campus environment begin to play a more important role in the student experience, and in their choices.  Well-maintained outdoor space provides a welcoming and inclusive space for students, whilst living walls and rooftop gardens can make a real impact on students’ lives and studies.

The Malet Street Gardens, owned by the University of London with whom Nurture has had a longstanding relationship, are a perfect example of how carefully designed and managed outdoor spaces enhance the atmosphere on a campus. Judicious selection of new plants and regular upkeep of green areas transformed Malet Street Gardens, creating revitalised environments for students and local office workers to share.

Sustainability initiatives such as recycling and giving space to entice wildlife have also placed the University of London in the public eye as a campus which is driving environmental awareness forwards. Indeed, students are placing ever greater emphasis on sustainability, examining the degree to which campuses are aligning their facilities - and their management - with their own and all other young people’s deep concerns for the environment.

A campus can improve its environmental credentials in a myriad of ways, starting perhaps with sourcing building material locally, using organic plant feeds and pesticides, and making use of natural light for indoor areas as much as possible. These measures amongst others become living proof to discerning young adults that their university of choice is taking their responsibilities to heart. And, furthermore, living walls make for great Instagram posts!

Continuing along this lighter but no less important theme, students sharing their experience on social media is perhaps one of the greatest assets that a campus has for bringing in future cohorts and in particular, overseas students. Prospective arrivals for future academic years will want to see that their university is an enriching environment, and that message enjoys greater impetus when it comes from fellow students.

Returning to the environment and the priority placed on this by students, campus vehicles and equipment deployed by facilities managers in the site’s daily upkeep is under closer scrutiny, as much from the wider supply chain as from students. At Nurture Landscapes Group, we have been pleased to witness a growing recognition in the FM and landscaping industry of the importance aligning and sharing goals and practices in preserving the environment’s health. The use of electric vehicles (EVs) on campuses has surged in recent years, to the extent that more than 100 universities in the UK are ranked specifically for their EV accessibility.

The complete electrification of a fleet, as with any major programme of change, takes time but pays dividends amongst an ever more eco-aware student community.

A stitch in time saves nine, they say, and nowhere is this truer than in FM. All the hard work in creating a welcoming campus estate is quickly undone without proper regard to the campus’s daily care and maintenance. Preventative maintenance and planning are bywords for avoiding greater cost and problems down the line. Throughout the year – academic and calendar – campus management is an ongoing process and is essential for giving a post-pandemic student generation every opportunity to thrive.  

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