Learning through the landscape

By Dr John Parry (Senior Lecturer: Education) and Dr Sarah Watson (Academic Developer)

Images of trees at the edge of campus, heading towards Stanmer Park
Walking away from campus towards Stanmer Park

The University of Sussex was founded, both literally and intellectually, on its downland surroundings. Basil Spence, the University architect, wanted the campus to ‘grow out of the soil of Sussex’ (Spence, 1964, 203). He situated the University in the fold of a valley, lined by woodland on both sides, to west at Richmond Hill and the east on Tenant Laine. By enclosing the campus within the landscape, Spence established a university that appeared to exist (in accordance with its own etymology) as a universe; a place where everything held together. To emphasise harmony between the built and natural landscape, Spence used local building materials of red brick and knapped flint. The pre-established trees, once part of an earlier farmland estate, were immovable and therefore dictated a more organic layout than that afforded by Spence’s angular, modernist design. Adding to the synthesis of natural and built forms, arched windows and vaulted arcades reflect the rounded hills and trees. Spence built the University by learning from the landscape, creating a balanced ecosystem where intellectual growth was just one aspect of the fauna. Sussex was founded upon reciprocal interchange between nature and intellect, with both making demands upon the other as mutual beneficiaries. This post argues that, in light of the University’s current sustainability strategy, and with it its drive to develop our students’ civic responsibility, such reciprocity needs to be revisited.  

Arial image of University of Sussex campus. 1962.
Aerial image of the University of Sussex campus taken from the University prospectus (1961-2)

Dr John Parry, who has passion and expertise in environmental education, integrates landscape and learning in his current teaching at Sussex. However, he recognises that to develop this pedagogic approach, the University needs more resources to support learning outdoors. In the second part of this blog, John introduces himself and proposes that the University requires a purpose-built teaching and learning space that is dynamic and flexible. John writes: 

22 years ago, I was working with school groups on a regular basis in a local nature reserve in Lewes when a local benefactor said, ‘I see what you do with children without a building, John, but think what you could do with a building.  Here is £100,000 – get building’ – or words to that effect!  And that led to the Linklater Pavilion in Lewes and ‘the rest is history’ as they say. I only recount this because behind it is a serious point regarding learning and teaching outside, which is something the University is taking seriously, perhaps partly as a result of Covid with its consequence of distance and circulating air. The truth is that, however committed to the idea we may be, our great and changing British weather is capable of rendering such outdoor learning into miserably sodden students in winter or dehydrated ones in summer.  And on a large campus with high demands to be in a lecture theatre on time, there is precious little scope for students to recover from deluge or extreme heat. Furthermore, the traffic noise of the A27 is difficult to ignore unless you are at the furthest northerly point on Campus at Northfields. And that is why I and colleagues have set up a forest food garden there and based much of our teaching and learning around it. However, to be a truly effective learning experience we need a modest structure to serve not only the forest food garden but Roots and Alan Stewart’s chalk grassland research project. Such a building designed and constructed by students using hempcrete with the help of professionals, with whom we are in touch, would not only teach useful skills to our students but would be a beacon of relatively cheap building techniques and sustainable materials. My vision is an interactive space with a modest kitchen that would allow informal exchanges between the generations with bifold doors opening out to open air teaching and learning spaces with direct access to Roots, the forest food garden and the chalk grassland research.  It would not only provide badly needed storage space but would also serve as a base for outdoor drama, philosophy, music and life sciences to name but a few by supportive colleagues. The ability to dive into a well-designed and purpose-built shelter if the weather turns foul, as well as preparing properly before undertaking projects outside, will lead to richer outdoor learning experiences.  These somewhat modest but regular interactions with the living world, often in time-limited slots framed by a degree of uncertainty, are so much better supported by the certain availability of reasonable shelter and flexible space. Such a facility will be in high demand and could serve summer courses, but more significantly will act as a secure catalyst for other outdoor interventions that will stand the test of time. Talking of which, this approach was being advocated and realised by John Dewey in his Chicago Laboratory school over a hundred years ago. 

John has spoken to colleagues across the institution about their interest and support for such a purpose-built learning space. Here are a couple of their responses: 

As the impact of the climate and environmental emergencies becomes daily more evident, more than anything we need to explore practical and imaginative responses that draw on our creative resources from all disciplines. The proposed building will provide a unique campus focus and hub for such activities and exchanges. 

Professor of Opera & Music Theatre 

This sounds like a fantastic project. I can definitely envision using the space for teaching and project work on Games: Critical and Creative Writing … I have been thinking about how to expand the thinking on that course beyond screen-based play into locative media, site-specific artwork and interventions, ambient storytelling, placemaking, etc

Research Fellow in Arts, Climate & Tech

This purpose-built learning space will extend the scope of innovative teaching across a range of subjects at Sussex. If we want our lecturers to be sustainable educators, we must provide them with the appropriate sustainable environments in which to thrive.  


Quay, J and Seaman, J (2013) John Dewey and Education Outdoors: Making Sense of the ‘Educational Situation’ through more than a Century of Progressive Reforms. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. 

Spence, B (1964) ‘Building a New University’ in David Daiches (ed) The Idea of a New University. London: Andre Deutsch.  

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