By Lotty Mansfield
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the biodiversity we have on Earth is rapidly dwindling, and the effects this is having on ecological systems is detrimental. However, using a case study based at The University of Sussex, it has been acknowledged that the effects of such declines also influence students and staff on a local scale. As such, it is important to consider these personal effects when managing biodiverse areas in educational settings.
In bringing together three key ideas – education, wellbeing improvement, and greenspace – a project was launched to gather Sussex student and staff perspectives into our campus greenspace. Sussex have already experimented with reduced mowing on campus, through strategies like ‘No Mow May’, where areas are left to bloom, and flora such as cranesbill, selfheal & mouse-eared hawkweed are given a chance to shine! The potential for this strategy to be extended to other parts of the campus, or for longer durations, is quite possible, considering the effects biodiverse greenspace on campus has for its community. An online questionnaire helped in capturing the responses to many unanswered, and sometimes unthought of questions at the university, such as preferences towards vegetation length, the impact campus greenspace has on students and staff, and what individuals want to use our green areas for.
Over 100 participants contributed to the survey. When given a matrix of positive and negative statements about the potential effects of greenspace, and the opportunity to select up to five, over 90% of participants claimed that campus greenspace helps in strengthening their nature connection, and over 80% believed it relieves stress and improves general wellbeing and mental health.
This positive tone continued throughout the survey. After being presented with 3 sets of two images capturing green areas around campus, one displaying uncut vegetation, and one displaying short vegetation after ‘No Mow May’ in the same spot, participants could select and expand on their preferences. All image set selections were consistently and significantly in favour of longer vegetation, with a few differences. Comments were grouped into themes, such as ‘aesthetics’, with participants explaining longer vegetation was more pleasant to look at. Other themes covered the benefits for biodiversity and human-nature connection. At the same time, people noted the neatness of mowed lawns, as well as the practical benefits that come with shorter vegetation, which fell into another category of ‘access’. An overwhelming amount of people added some strong statements when explaining why they chose the images with longer vegetation, such as ‘students want to be around nature and wildlife, especially now since we’re learning the fragility of it, we’re at the same time learning to appreciate it more’. Interestingly, people also noted that green areas on slopes are more suitable for rewildling as opposed to flat ground, and that mown-in paths are more suitable in places where there is an alternate human-made, more accessible path to additionally use.
Another result which brought with it hope, and the potential ability to challenge current campus management strategies, was that of the importance of mown lawns or biodiversity on campus. In relation to one another, biodiversity was significantly scored, and was therefore valued, much higher than mown lawns as a result of the survey. This awareness of biodiversity value also came across through over half of participants wishing for some influence over campus mowing regimes. Further to this, a significant number of participants wished for biodiversity related updates on campus. Taking student opinion into account when making internal decisions in educational establishments is a very important way to engage with the student body1. Therefore, giving students a say in these regimes presents an exciting opportunity. Student-staff collaboration, which is key in defining student experience at university2, could additionally be utilised through a published biodiversity updates page.
Those at Sussex also want to help out in their own way, like keeping greenspaces tidy and sticking to paths and sitting on benches, as opposed to disturbing natural areas, which over 70% of participants chose in another matrix question. Almost 50 people suggested several ways in which we can further boost greenspace use on campus. Ideas ranged from rewilding and wild games, introducing new food and vegetation plots, and implementing more water features, bug hotels and beehives. Others highlighted the opportunity to use our spaces for education, and bringing together our community. Overall, the questionnaire highlighted the sheer amount of value that people on campus hold for our greenspace, and gave them a voice to get this across.
It goes without saying that there would be challenges with increasing the amount of campus set aside for nature. These include access issues, particularly for those with disabilities and impairments, pest issues, as increased vegetation brings with it more organisms utilising it, and allergies and phobias, which could bring distress and difficulty to members of the university. Limitations are also in place for certain areas of campus, so any planning would need to be thought out very carefully, so as not to impose on particular spaces, like The Meeting House. It is also paramount to be completely explicit in the reasoning behind any management changes. Participant responses noted the outward view of the campus to those external to the university, and the possibility of this becoming negative due to aesthetic conflicts. Nevertheless, as long as the message is clear, circulated, and strong, exceptions are considered, and mitigation strategies are set for any potential issues, further rewilding The University of Sussex campus could be incredibly well-received by both students and staff.
- Luescher-Mamashela, T.M., 2013, ‘Student representation in university decision making: good reasons, a new lens?’, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 38, no. 10, pp. 1442-1456.
- Brown, N., 2019, ‘Partnership in learning: How staff-student collaboration can innovate teaching’, European Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 42, no. 5, pp. 608–620.