A bit of green makes a world of difference on campus

Grim campuses can deter applicants - which is why planners are waking up to the need to invest in grass and trees.

Two-and-a-half years ago parts of Liverpool University's campus were unappealing bits of urban cityscape down which students would plod to and from lectures or the library, dodging litter, bollards and illegally parked cars. They were without litterbins, trees, grass or benches. In fact, if you weren't a student, you probably wouldn't have known you were in the middle of a university campus so devoid were the streets of any distinguishing characteristics.

Today, those streets have been made more attractive; the parked cars and bollards have disappeared completely (see before and after pictures, right); the street has been pedestrianised; trees have been planted; benches and litter bins have materialised; and the whole effect is of a well-tended, green precinct that is easy on the eye and invites you to linger.

The hope is that it will make Liverpool more appealing to students and thus help to propel it up the rankings. In The Independent's Complete University Guide league table, Liverpool did better than last year but still came second from bottom of the Russell Group.

"Over the years, this university, like many other universities, did not invest in its public realm because of limited capital and because of academic priorities which were seen to have an obvious return," says Patrick Hackett, Liverpool University's chief operating officer. "But three years ago, under Drummond Bone (the former vice-chancellor), we reviewed our capital programme and we talked about the student experience.

"I said 'Look, there are some things we can do that would have a direct impact not just on the student experience but on the staff, too, and on the visitors, as well as the city and the local community.' Everybody said, 'Yes, this is a great idea. We will allocate some of our capital to invest in the public realm'."

The result was that Liverpool brought in Whitelaw Turkington, a firm of landscape architects, who have turned the higgledy piggledy campus environment, which had grown up haphazardly over decades and looked neglected, into something that is planned and appears cared for. The company has plenty of experience of transforming forlorn urban landscapes. One of the best known is its conversion of the space outside the O2 Dome in London which now sports water features complete with fog and mist, a video wall and public art.

"We wanted to make a safe and comfortable environment to link the two university libraries, the Harold Cohen and the Sydney Jones libraries in Liverpool," says Guy Denton, a director of Whitelaw Turkington. "These are both open on a 24-hour basis and it's important that they have an active, vibrant and clear route between them.

"We have cleared away the clutter and have created a strong boulevard. This has been done by treating it as a sequence of spaces each of which relates to the building it is close to."

Often, visitors to a university don't know where the centre is, or even that they are in a university at all. The landscape architects are tackling that by fashioning a new square at the heart of the campus. "It is very important for the university to have a sense of arrival – a point at which you feel you have arrived at the heart of the university," says Denton. "This is a busy vehicular T-junction where we worked long and hard with the local authority to create a wider and more generous pedestrian crossing with Tokyo-style lights, which go red at the same time."

The beauty of the campus makeover is that it has only cost £1.6m, so Liverpool is getting a noticeable change for relatively little money. But the change was not without its problems. Academics, used to being able to drive their cars on to campus, have had to accept that they now have to pay 18p an hour for the privilege, in keeping with the university's new effort to make the campus greener. There was opposition at first but that has turned into support, says Hackett. "The students love it and feel safer in an environment that is pleasant and well lit."

Leeds, another inner-city campus, is adopting similar tactics as part of its strategy to put Leeds into the top 50 universities in the world by 2015. Swathes of the university's grounds are being remodelled, new buildings are going up and pedestrian areas are being linked to create a series of routes from north to south, and east to west. "A lot of people who didn't know the campus, found it hard to work out where they were," said Robert Sladdin, the director of estates. "There were no clearly defined routes. If you approached from the city, you were generally walking through car parks and across roadways."

All that will change. A number of squares will be created linking pedestrianised routes, dying cherry trees will be replaced and a new hall of residence is going up to persuade students to stay on campus.