Module 4, Topic 4
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Theme 13: Physical environment

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What does it cover?

  • Design and maintenance of work, learning and living spaces within the university
  • Provision and use of green spaces and nature
  • Movement between buildings and wayfinding
  • Reducing risk through the physical environment

Principles of good practice

13.1 Universities engage with evidence and their communities to embed wellbeing and accessibility within the design of new buildings and developments.

13.2 Universities engage with evidence and their communities to embed wellbeing and accessibility into the redevelopment and maintenance of current estate.

13.3 Universities ensure that the design and allocation of working and learning spaces effectively supports the learning/work undertaken within that space.

13.4 Universities facilitate and actively encourage staff and students to engage with nature.

13.5 Universities ensure staff and students have access to appropriate social space.

13.6 Universities ensure that wayfinding is clear and makes navigating campus easy for all.

Why is this theme important and what matters?

There is a growing body of evidence that our physical environment and how we interact with it, has a significant impact on our mental health and wellbeing[12]. Given the amount of time that many staff and students spend on university grounds, there is a clear need to consider how the physical environment can be used to improve the wellbeing of the university community.

This begins with ensuring that the environment in which people spend most of their time meets their basic needs. For example, reduced access to natural light in the workspace has been shown to lead to physiological and depressive symptoms and disrupted sleep [3]. Work, learning and university living spaces need to be designed with access to daylight, good ventilation, appropriate, regulated temperature and physically comfortable furniture, which meets the needs of the individual and the tasks they are required to undertake [4]. This requires all university spaces to be designed and maintained with the wellbeing of staff and students in mind – from bedrooms in halls, to classrooms, workspaces and public spaces.

Within the work environment, concern has been raised about some recent trends in office space, with some research showing that open offices can lead to a lack of motivation [5], health problems, loss of privacy and low job satisfaction[6]. Hot–desking has been highlighted by staff as having a negative impact on their wellbeing [7]. How workspace is allocated can also have psychological effects. Staff allocated to a workspace that is not suited to their role can result in them feeling that they and their work is undervalued and not understood.

External space and engagement with nature has been repeatedly shown to have positive impacts on mental health and wellbeing, helping to reduce anxiety, raise mood, improve cognition and have recuperative effects [28].

Recent research suggests that there are two levels to this. First, simple exposure to nature has a positive effect. For universities without green space, bringing nature inside can still provide wellbeing benefits[9]. On top of this, regularly and consciously engaging with the natural world has additional benefits, with studies suggesting that this boost to wellbeing has long lasting effects [2].

Significant mental health benefits can be gained from encouraging staff and students to engage with the natural world on campus in simple ways, such as noticing the good things in nature, through education and behavioural interventions[10]. Staff in Charter focus groups and expert panels suggested that the creation of meeting and learning spaces outdoors would be helpful.

The provision of social space can have positive consequences for wellbeing. However, simply designating an area as social space may not be sufficient. For it to have a positive impact, the space must be appealing, comfortable, meet basic needs and to have a point of attraction that draws people towards it (e.g. nature, art or a practical object, such as a kettle). There is also a need to provide quiet spaces within the university environment that are easy to find and access [11].

Wayfinding is also a factor which can impact on wellbeing. Problems navigating campus can increase anxiety and reduce sense of belonging[1213]. This has added implications for disabled staff and students if buildings are inaccessible.

Finally, research has shown that building design can reduce risk from suicide by, for instance, reducing access to high places [14].

Considering wellbeing within the design, redevelopment and maintenance of campuses, has the potential for a range of benefits. Classroom design has been shown to have a significant impact on student learning and academic performance [15]. Importantly, this does not mean universities need to spend significant amounts of extra money or undertake substantial redesign projects.

Improvement to physical environment can be gained by incorporating wellbeing at the design stage of new development or by making small changes, such as planting on visible roofs or encouraging community engagement with nature.


1. Evans, G.W. (2003). The Built Environment and Mental Health. . Journal of Urban Health. 80(4) pp536–555
2. Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D. & McEwan, K. (2019). The Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Eudaimonic Well–Being: A Meta–analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies . DOI:–019–00118–6
3. Harb, F., Hidalgo, M.P. & Martau, B. (2015). Lack of exposure to natural light in the workspace is associated with physiological, sleep and depressive symptoms. Chronobiology International: . The Journal of Biological & Medical Rhythm Research, 32, (3): pp. 368–375.
4. Veitch, J.A. (2011). Workplace Design Contributions to Mental Health and Well–being. Healthcare Papers Vol 11 Special Issue.
5. Evans, G.W. and Johnson, D. (2000). Stress and open–office noise. . Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(5), pp.779–783.
6. Oommen, V.G., M. Knowles, M. & Zhao, I. (2008).Should health service managers embrace open plan work environments? A review. Pacific . Journal of Health Management, 3 (2), pp 37–43.
7. Webber, A. (2019). Hot desking affects wellbeing for eight in ten office workers. Occupational Health & Wellbeing.[Online]. .–desking–affects–wellbeing–for–eight–in–10–office–workers/. [Accessed: 13/9/19]
8. Van den Berg, M., Wendel–Vos, W., Van Poppel, M., Kemper, H., Van Mechelen, W. & Maas, J. (2015). Health Benefits of Green Spaces in the Living Environment: A Systematic Review of Epidemiological Studies. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 14(4), pp. 806–16.
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10. McEwan, K., Richardson, M. Sheffield, D., Ferguson, F.J. & Brindley, P. (2019). A Smartphone App for Improving Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16(3373) . DOI: 10.3390/ijerph16183373
11. Nicholson, C. (2014). App helps students find empty study space. University Business, 17(6), 16.
12. Lawton, C.A. & Kallai, J. (2002). Gender Differences in Wayfinding Strategies and Anxiety About Wayfinding: A Cross–Cultural Comparison. Sex Roles, 47(9/10), pp.389–401.
13. Schmitz, S. (1997). Gender–related strategies in environmental development: effects of anxiety on wayfinding in and representation of a three–dimensional maze. . Journal of Environmental Psychology. 17, pp. 215–228.
14. Public Health England (2015). Reducing Suicide in Public Places. London: PHE .
15. Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y. & Barrett, L. (2015). The impact of classroom design on pupils & learning: Final results of a holistic, multi–level analysis. Building and Environment. 89 pp. 118–133