Interview with key project figure: Chris Churchman, Churchman Landscape Architects.


  1. Can you describe Churchman Landscape architects and your role in the Green Heart Project?

Churchman Landscape Architects are award-winning designers of landscapes and public realm projects within the academic environment.  We have previously worked at the University of Warwick, UEA, London City University, UCL, Queen Mary – University of London and Glasgow Caledonian University and we have a particular focus on all aspects of sustainability and biodiversity.  We were appointed by the University of Birmingham to design the Green Heart project following a competition between many of the UK’s leading landscape practices in the spring of 2015.

2. Can you confirm what stage the project is currently at?

Following 18 months of design development, the project is now at an exciting stage. It has been submitted for planning consent and is due to go to tender early in 2017.  It is intended that construction will commence in the summer of 2017, with the completion of the main central space due late in 2018.

3. What will The Green Heart project bring to the University of Birmingham?

The Green Heart will be the largest single piece of public realm at the heart of any UK campus.  It will provide a memorable space at the centre of the University with the historic clock tower at one end and the North Gates at the other. It has been designed to provide many opportunities for events, study and relaxation.  It will remove the less memorable spaces, including the north car park, and overcome many of the accessibility issues that currently exist due to the changes of level.

4. How valuable has the information gathered from Green Heart consultations been in helping you develop the design, and can you highlight any aspects of the design that it has impacted?

It has been an invaluable process and has verified that the academic community shared our initial thoughts.  The feedback tended to strengthen a conservative agenda, focusing on the historic aspects of the campus environment with a general desire for a green and pleasant space.

5. What are you most looking forward to seeing on campus when the project is finished?

A space that is well used and full of life.  From the outset, it has been our desire to create a space that the students can adopt, that they will enrich, and within which they are encouraged to dwell.  If the Green Heart is simply a large green space then it will be something of a hollow gesture; it needs to be animated and activated by campus life – our hope is that it will become the ‘talking point’ of campus.

6. What design elements will create the wow factor?

Achieving a ‘wow’ factor will not be difficult, the sheer scale of the 5.5-hectare space will impress, as will the views of the clock tower and the buildings of Chancellor’s Court.  We took a conscious decision to use the level changes to our advantage – we have created a series of large grass embankments that will extend out from the North Gate and run along the front of Muirhead.  A new bridge will span from this embankment to the existing raised terrace in front of the library.  Together these features will create an impressive landscape.  We have also selected planting that will maximise seasonal colour, particularly during the course of the autumn and spring terms.  There are other aspects of the design, that although visually less impressive, will strengthen the quality of the space, these include: Swift hotels and bat boxes, the use of paving that generates power when walked upon, and rain gardens that allow rainwater to naturally infiltrate the ground rather than overloading local rivers.

7. Describe the design process – what inspires you?

A successful design for us means creating environments that are uplifting and work on many levels, environments that enrich and that people adopt and enjoy.  We like a challenge and are always seeking to develop new ideas and concepts. We always set the bar high during the early stages of the design process, expecting that some ideas will be diluted or will disappear during the delivery process.  The design is something of an iterative process, where ideas are constantly refined and fine-tuned.  For us, universities provide fertile ground for developing new ideas; they are focused at a young audience and can provide a test bed for new concepts.

8. Best part of the job?

Seeing our vision realised and fulfilling its intended use, receiving recognition for our work from clients and peers.

Identity & Sense of place

Identity and sense of place are important elements of any University Campus. Identity differentiates one institution from another, making it stand out and be memorable while an associated sense of place helps to foster feelings of community and belonging. When we asked people, we discovered that the University of Birmingham is viewed foremost as a prestigious and scholarly institution, which is classic, historic and iconic. Important aspects of this include the sweeping arc of the Aston Webb/Bramall Buildings, old Joe and the red brick aesthetic.

Students, staff and members of the public are proud of the University, and many are keen to retain the traditional aesthetic and showcase its achievements via statues, plaques, information points and exhibits. However the notion of the campus identity as leafy, green and scenic featured in equal measure. The most desired features on campus were all natural, such as mature trees and hedges, flowers and shrubs, and water features, fountains or ponds.

Overall, the Green Heart should have a calm and peaceful atmosphere with wooded, natural elements and it is important that the campus portrays a welcoming/ friendly atmosphere. Currently, the campus is a vital social role for all its users and is even a popular location for tourists. However, the desire for communal eating and study areas, as well as events such as film screenings and music concerts highlights the opportunity for the Green Heart to become a prominent social hub for students, staff and the people of Birmingham. We think that the Green Heart represents the ideal opportunity to nd a complimentary balance between these identities, enhancing people’s connection with the University, while also designing something that feels contemporary and ts the University’s future aspirations.


Information & Technology

Overall people told us that they would like the Green Heart space to be largely free from technology and remain a natural green space. However, some considered wifi and charging facilities to be an essential addition and many of these participants suggested using solar energy to power charging points. Technology to support heating and improved lighting was also a popular choice to provide for outdoor work/study spaces, as was technology that would support outdoor events such as concerts and cinema events while scene-setting lighting was proposed by a number of people as a good way to highlight and enhance the architecture on campus. There was also an appetite for greater access to information from within the Green Heart.  Information about the Universities history, achievements, cultural and architectural history was popular, but most often people wanted information about campus news and upcoming event alongside improved wayfinding and navigation systems. The desire for information of all kinds, practical and cultural, suggests that there is opportunity for a new information system, and this could be a unique design project which would challenge the designers to creatively about how to combine innovative information technologies with more traditional communication and navigation designs to develop an exciting, unified and comprehensive system.





Events & Activities

In the first phase of our consultation with you, a vast array of events and activities were suggested for the Green Heart Project. In the Polls Social spaces, which allow people to meet and gather, were seen as they best way to foster a sense of community. While places to eat, have meetings and work individually or in groups were highlighted in interviews as ways of improving the student experience. The current market stalls are liked, but people want more diversity, including street food stalls, trucks and cafes, which could be run by local cafes and restaurants.

As well as eating and socialising, students and staff were keen for places which enable them to work and study outdoors. To support this many proposed ideas such as heated shelters and gazebos, or areas similar to beer gardens, with parasols and patio heaters.

Outdoor cinema, concerts and theatrical events were all very popular with inhabitants of the University and the local community alike who also suggested that exhibitions and walking tours would be an attractive addition. Spaces, which allow people to engage in a range of exercise and sporting activities, would be appreciated. Fun and informal team events, such as tug of war, volleyball or basketball were all recommended as were stress-relieving activities such as Yoga or Tai Chi.

Despite this, there is still a strong desire for the Green Heart to be a quiet, peaceful and contemplative space. The challenge is therefore for the design team and University to make sure that these activities and events do not infringe upon one another.