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How we’re working to improve our local communities

21 January 2022

As part of our wider sustainability work, Unite Students has relaunched its Positive Impact programme. Designed to support sustainability within our buildings, business and the wider communities in which we operate, it provides an opportunity to work closely with our university partners on community initiatives.

In the past year, we launched our new sustainability commitments and net-zero carbon pathway, outlining our plans to become a net-zero carbon business. But our interest in sustainability as an organisation goes back to a time before COP26, Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion were making headlines.

Our Positive Impact programme was launched all the way back in 2014 as a bespoke version of the National Union of Students (NUS)’s Green Impact scheme. A major pillar of our sustainability focus for the coming years is promoting and supporting sustainable behaviour change for students and employees alike – and that’s what Positive Impact is designed to do.


How does Positive Impact work?

The original Green Impact NUS initiative was launched in 2006 as a green awards and accreditation scheme for student unions, created by student Anna D’Arcy following her campaign at Northumbria University to limit pizza box waste on campus.

It’s since grown in scope, boasting more than 500 participating organisations – of which Unite Students remains the only purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) provider – and winning a United Nations award for sustainability education. Participating organisations undertake prescribed sustainable activities and, when audited, are awarded either a bronze, silver or gold award for their efforts.

When it comes to our Positive Impact programme, the bronze award remains similar in scope to its Green Impact counterpart. 14 stated actions must be undertaken by our building teams to receive a bronze award: including the provision of recycling facilities across the building; awareness of our charity match and volunteering schemes, and how to participate in these; and a communal food bank within each property to be promoted to students. From this year, all of our buildings are expected to achieve a bronze award, and each city has a recognised Positive Impact lead to oversee the required activities.

However, the silver and gold awards have taken on a very different look. To obtain these, the teams working in our properties must undertake a community project to benefit their local area over the course of 2-3 years, achieving stated objectives such as developing relationships with local stakeholders, supporting our teams’ development, and/or improving our reputation within the local community. Either a silver or gold award will be awarded depending on the amount of impact the project has had in the community.

While our own programme has developed beyond the initial scheme, the NUS continues to accredit and endorse what we do.

But what sort of community project might you expect to see in your city? Here are just a few examples of how we’re working to improve the cities we’re based in.


Case study: Birmingham canal clean project

Opened in September 2019, Battery Park was our first property in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham – an area dominated by HMO (House of Multiple Occupancy) student housing, and located near a canal which directly leads to the University of Birmingham, one of our university partners in the city. However, the canal path had been neglected and the area had seen a spate of anti-social behaviour.

In order to build relationships with the local community and university, as well as promote the canal path as a safe travel option for students, we developed an ongoing community project of canal cleaning was developed with the university, as well as the Canal and Riverside Trust.

Both employees and students have volunteered to help clean up the canal and surrounding area since then, extracting items as large as shopping trolleys, bicycles and golf trolleys from the canal. This has contributed to making the area safer and cleaner, and provided students with a new, sustainable walk/cycle route to campus.

In the two years since Battery Park opened, Unite Students has invested more than £21,000 into the local area and community, by offering financial support to the Lapal Canal Trust in order to help make the route safer and more accessible for pedestrians.

Watch the video now:


Forthcoming projects in our communities

For 2022, we’ve approved 16 new community projects across 15 towns and cities, with a range of exciting initiatives in the mix.  Our teams in Bristol and Loughborough will be partnering with local homelessness charities, while the team in Portsmouth will be launching a campaign to encourage students to support local independent businesses. In north London, we’ll be working with charity theatre group YATI (Youth Actors Theatre Islington) to help refurbish their space and create student volunteering opportunities.

Our university partners are also being brought into the mix on some projects: in Manchester and Sheffield, we’ll be working together with partners on local clean-up projects, while in Leeds we’re looking to create a communal green space for students, residents, employees and local schools.

One environmental project that has already begun is a rewilding effort at our sites in Loughborough. It’s a simple plan: wildflower seeds will be sown in the grass, and some areas will no longer be mown in order to let the wildflowers grow. This will not only benefit local wildlife, but it will also create a safe place for students to study and relax in nature, something that has been shown to benefit mental health and has been popular with students in a trial run at William Morris Hall.

Once the wild gardens have been established, the plan is to bring students together through gardening societies in their buildings. Brett Cambridge, Estates Supervisor, shares more about his vision for where this might go: “I plan to create a community garden, planting several fruit trees to establish a mini orchard as well as building raised beds, allowing us to plant a wide selection of fruit and veg. This is something we really want the students to get involved with, from building the planters to sowing the first seeds.”

With the scheme encouraging such vibrant ideas within our teams, we’re excited to play our part in enhancing local communities across the 25 towns and cities in which we operate – and we can’t wait to share more about these projects as they develop over the coming months.

Interested in working with us on a community project? Get in touch with your local Unite Students contact now. You can also download our one-pager on the Positive Impact scheme.

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