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Mental wellbeing firmly on FM agenda

When students, many international, became isolated in their term time residence during Covid-19 lock down, one Scottish university transformed two car parks into appealing, functionable social spaces to offer an outdoor escape during an extremely stressful period. It was the beginning of an ongoing project to develop the University of the West of Scotland’s (UWS) Paisley campus, an initiative which extends to the institutions four additional locations in Ayr, Lanarkshire, Dumfries and London.

Donna Vallance, director of estates and campus services, explained that as the country locked down in March 2020, ‘it became obvious, especially on the urban Paisley campus, that whilst there was plenty of outdoor space it was mainly grassed areas and wasn’t functional outside social space.’

She said: “We wanted to get people outside in the fresh air as it’s really important for mental wellbeing.”

Passionate advocates of biophilic design, a design concept which describes the innate need for humans to be connected to nature as a means of maintaining positive mental health, the team at UWS set out to bring solutions to the campus to increase the connectedness of students and staff to the natural environment.

GP Plantscape have been working with the estates and campus services team to help deliver the results in the external landscape to enhance the student and staff experience.

To generate instant impact, the university team laid Astro turf on one car park before GP Plantscape installed wooden benches with built in planters and living walls to entice passers-by to stop a while and enjoy the outdoor atmosphere. Half barrels planted with summer bedding dotted along the perimeter help to define the seating areas and in the second car park, located beside the main road, artificial buxus hedging was added to the perimeter fence to bring some privacy and enhance the feeling of seclusion.  A large round wooden planter was installed as a focal point and across the campus, igloo structures with seating and surrounded with planting provide a welcome retreat for more inclement weather.

Of particular concern were students in residence, isolated from their families during lockdown. To ensure they had a place to connect with others and nature, large bin shelters were reclaimed, sanitised and transformed into outdoor pods complete with fairy lights, bunting and planting – providing a social haven in a hard urban setting, where residents could mix, remaining dry and safe.

The solutions adopted by UWS, reflect an increasing ingenuity in facilities managers when it comes to exterior landscape design, creating spaces which are functional as well as visually appealing.

According to the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM), companies are increasingly looking at wellbeing as a means of improving their performance and Donna explained how she perceives the attitude of facilities managers has changed over the years when it comes to exterior landscaping. “We used to be obsessed with building metrics and now we are equally concerned with human metrics and the rise in mental health and wellbeing issues, and this has been exacerbated by lock down.

“You only have to look at the amount of people out walking at night or cycling or running, getting outside and connecting with nature and there has been some excellent research on biophilic design.

“In the 1990’s there was heavy investment in internal planting schemes in buildings which was later stripped out to drive efficiencies, but that doesn’t work, and you’ll see there are lots of retro fits going on, with really nice holistic spaces going into buildings.”

While lockdown may have been a catalyst for some of these initiatives, the leadership team at UWS recognise the ongoing significant benefits to be gained from investing in the external landscaping and are committed to an ambitious plan to develop the external areas of its campuses: including sports facilities at Paisley, tree planting to tie in with the Queen’s Green Canopy initiative. Open air graduation celebratory events are also being planned for 2022 to take advantage of the rejuvenated external spaces.

The director of estates and campus services explained part of the rationale for the strategy has been driven by findings from learning and teaching studies which have shown student attainment to increase as dwell time on campus increases.

She said: “If our grounds are just an access corridor then we miss a trick. What we are trying to do is provide nice social learning spaces inside and out to support the holistic wellbeing of students and staff. If students increase their dwell time, we know it contributes towards increasing their attainment – and then the world really is their oyster.”

As the university with the highest proportion of care experienced students in Scotland, many living in residences, the team are focused on nurturing young people studying at UWS and providing a cultivating environment enabling them to thrive.  Furthermore, with a strong policy on widening access and inclusion, the university attracts a diverse body of learners, including those from areas of multiple deprivation and mature students – all of whom will benefit from the opportunity to relax, destress and become reenergised and refocused in the campus grounds.

Currently a hybrid model of learning continues at universities throughout Scotland, with students and staff gradually returning to campuses. At Paisley the response to the revamped exterior spaces has been tremendous, with students gathering, excited to engage in some social interaction and staff taking to twitter to ‘show off’ the new coffee break spots and utilizing the outdoor areas for tutorials.

Donna said: “We see the campus as an extension of our students learning spaces.

“We had some lecturers come back and actually take classes outside because the weather was lovely and although totally safe inside, students were initially less anxious about being outside.

“It was nice for the lecturers to have an option that they didn’t have before.”

With sustainability and wellbeing now at the forefront of the facilities agenda, continued development and investment in external grounds on projects akin to those at UWS looks set to be an integral part of building design and not just a passing fad as was perhaps once the case.

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