We owe it to the kids.

Using impactful placemaking to create sustainable campuses for Generation Z.

“If you choose to fail us, we will never forgive you,” were eleven words expertly aimed at the neck of the world by a 16-year-old Greta Thunberg in 2019. Galvanised and tenacious, a swarm of estimated 4 million people worldwide hit the pavement on what would become the largest climate strike in history – 1.4 million were school-aged children.

As members of a generation that’s on track to be the most educated yet,1According to UNESCO, over 235 million already enrolled in universities worldwide. “What You Need to Know about Higher Education.” UNSECO. UNSECO, April 1, 2023. https://www.unesco.org/en/higher-education/need-know.
many of these young protesters have since left high school to join the rising tide of students enrolled in higher education worldwide. From primary to post-graduate, the continuing influx of powerful, political, and progressive students demands sustainable campuses that incubate potential – we owe that to the kids.

The eyes upon us.

The eyes upon us are Generation Z. Digital natives who are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, Gen Z is progressive and politically minded. Seven in 10 want an activist government, over half believe climate change is due to human activity,2Parker, Kim, and Ruth Igielnik. “On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know About Gen Z So Far.” Pewresearch.Org. Pew Research Centre, April 1, 2023. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/05/14/on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-and-facing-an-uncertain-future-what-we-know-about-gen-z-so-far-2/. and an increasing amount are pursuing environmental-related degrees and careers – because “there’s no point in anything else.”3Young, Evan. “More and More Uni Students in Australia Are Choosing to Study the Environment.” Pewresearch.Org. SBS News, February 22, 2022. https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/more-and-more-uni-students-in-australia-are-choosing-to-study-the-environment/f3ajo2d22.

Like anyone with great potential, Gen Z needs support. Aged between eight and 23 years old, their anxiety around climate change and government inaction is described as a ‘global phenomenon’.4Marks, Elizabeth and Hickman, Caroline and Pihkala, Panu and Clayton, Susan and Lewandowski, Eric R. and Mayall, Elouise E. and Wray, Britt and Mellor, Catriona and van Susteren, Lise, “Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon.” The Lancet, (2021). Accessed May 25, 2023. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3918955 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3918955, 10. 59 percent of this generation is extremely worried about climate change (84 percent are moderately worried) and over 45 percent are saying their feelings negatively affect their daily lives.5Marks, “Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon.” 10 Peering into an uncertain future, over half the generation is feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.6Marks, 11.

To that end, acting on environmental sustainability matters more than just caring for our environment – it’s crucial to protect the wellbeing of our climate-change-anxious kids. Sustainability commitments are an increasingly important factor for students deciding where to attend university, meaning that higher education is “no longer about being the best in the world but being the best for the world.”7Quote from the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland. “The Green New Standard for Student Decision-making Criteria.” Unibuddy. March 2, 2022. https://unibuddy.com/blog/the-green-new-sustainability-standard-for-student-decision-making/. If we continually fail to support Gen Z by neglecting to reflect their values on campus, then they will vote with their feet and go.

To support Gen Z is to empower them. By finding ways to instill hope for the longevity of our environment, campuses must evolve to become places that meaningfully improve the behavioral health of Gen Z and help them achieve their full potential. This task requires a tailored, generational approach that demonstrates a dual understanding: activism is education and placemaking is key.

Becoming a living laboratory.

Activism has taught young people a suite of skills – leadership, communication, team building, and organisational, democratic, and critical analysis – that they are gladly teaching others.8Verlie, Blanche Dr. “School Strike for Climate: Why Are Students Still Striking?” The University of Sydney, March 25, 2022. https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2022/03/25/school-strike-for-climate-why-are-students-still-striking-expert.html. As a result, it’s important that campuses evolve beyond the binary ‘teacher-student’ dynamic to become living laboratories – places with tools to discover, explore, test, create, and evaluate new sustainability practices. Here, the campus acts as teacher in its own right – housing the joy of discovery and interests shared. 

There are many ways that a campus might become a living laboratory. More than just a collection of buildings, it’s a place Gen Z can leave their mark and carve out their own narrative. Some might include hands-on learning environments like bio gardens and closed-loop systems, while others may use novel sustainable building materials or promote sustainability research outcomes. One example is the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) ‘Green Genie,’ a pop-up container developed by UTS researchers displayed at the heart of the campus that is 40 times more efficient than trees at removing carbon from the atmosphere.9“Green Genie: Carbon Capture with the Magic of Algae.” The University of Technology Sydney. University of Technology Sydney, March 25, 2022. https://www.uts.edu.au/research-and-teaching/partner-us/green-genie-carbon-capture-magic-algae.

In any form, living laboratories create hope. By taking every opportunity to showcase advancements in environmental science and sustainable futures, this evolution of the campus puts progress on display in a manner that invites engagement, discovery, and delight, making climate activism the everyday occurrence it should be.

Grounding to place.

Gen Z are digital natives and environmental activists in the same breadth. 72 percent use cloud-based education tools to augment their education experience,10Rungta, Krishna. “State of Global Online Learning: Facts and Statistics.” June 3, 2023. https://www.guru99.com/online-learning-statistics.html. and some may step inside a physical lecture theatre. Whether organising a march or navigating a group assignment, Gen Z will naturally make the most of the flexibility and autonomy provided in the online realm. The downside is that this level of flexibility can feel rootless and disorienting, leaving them without a sense of belonging.

As Gen Z continues to learn across digital, virtual, and artificial worlds, the natural world will become increasingly important in terms of grounding them in place. While they’re on campus, students need to feel an authentic connection to place. Site agnostic or ‘international’ style architecture that ignores the local micro-climates, culture and landscape can’t provide the connection to nature that these students are fighting for. Instead, we must commit to designs that respond to what makes a site unique.

Within an existing network of trees, the Meadowbank Schools have been organised into twinned, two-storey buildings framing a central hill of libraries covered by cascading gardens. Each teaching level opens directly to nature and a series of connected open-ended courtyards creates protected areas for collaboration, performance, and outdoor learning.

Murals by community-endorsed multi-disciplinary artist and Dharug woman Jasmine Seymour also connect the Meadowbank Schools to Place and the ancient narratives of the local Dharug Country on which they stand – depicting local eels, fish, rivers, and birdlife.

Responsible adaptation.

Because responsible campus planning provides the opportunity to speak to the environmentally conscience values of the next generation, every opportunity should be taken to retain, re-use and revitalise existing assets.

Tomorrow’s campuses must be vehicles for their own brand of activism. We can minimise our carbon footprint by products and manufactures that offer take-back schemes and recycling or recovery programs, or by reducing adhesives and applied finishes. We can also consider how elements of the design might eventually be re-assembled in alternative locations or recycled in their specific material stream from a projects’ beginning.

Projects like the adaptive reuse of the Forestry Building for the University of Tasmania – which incorporates a lifecycle assessment to measure its carbon impact – have been holistically designed for disassembly, embedding the methods of adaptability into the documentation package. This approach investigates how the buildings can be deconstructed after a certain lifespan, working to soften the projects’ environmental footprint. Action of this kind can work to alleviate Gen Z’s deeply felt anxiety around their own environmental footprint – becoming beacons of action that align with the values of their users.

Comprising two original 1930’s warehouses with a 22-metre-diameter glass dome, the University of Tasmania’s Forestry Building tells a richly layered sustainability story.

University of Tasmania’s Forestry Building reminds students of our fragile, mutual reliance on nature through the materiality of the building itself. Image courtesy of ARUP, drawn by Sustainable Buildings Engineer Prue Edmunds.

Once complete, the campus will surpass a simply ambitious architectural expression to express an attitude towards consumption that is ahead of its time.

Upping the voltage.

Teenage climate activist and co-organiser of Sydney’s School Strike 4 Climate march Jean Hinchliffe describes her experience of the day like this: “The whole event carried an electricity that is difficult to describe: it’s as if we had bottled up all the anger and frustration from years of never being listened to and released it into the square, transforming it into a place of undeniable power.”1Hinchliffe, Jean. 2021. Lead the Way: How to Change the World from a Teen Activist and School Striker. 1st ed. AU: Bloomsbury.

As designers, we need to create education spaces that spark and conduct this same ‘electricity’. The next iteration of the campus is a holistic, sustainable, action-oriented place that empowers Gen Z by providing opportunities to create change together.

Caitlin Murray, Senior User Strategist, Education Strategist and Architect – ERA-co

Caitlin is an accomplished Senior User Strategist, Education Strategist and Architect, with a visionary approach to creating transformative experiences. Her extensive experience in the education sector and innovation precincts, both locally and globally, showcases her ability to lead stakeholder engagement to inform user-centric design and place-making frameworks. Caitlin’s expertise lies in developing functional briefs, strategic asset plans, and strategies for innovative spatial outcomes that seamlessly incorporate emerging trends in learning. She is dedicated to pushing boundaries, fostering collaboration, and providing inclusive spaces for social impact. With a profound commitment to shaping the future of education environments, Caitlin strives to empower learners and communities to thrive in an ever-evolving world.

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Tess Dolan

Insights Leader – Global

Tess is Woods Bagot’s Global Insights Leader. Passionate about clarity, relevance and the creation of genuinely interesting content, Tess works with our innovators to create insights on the future of design, as applied to its impact on how we live, work, travel, play, learn, stay healthy and anything in-between. See Woods Bagot’s Journal for more.

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