Campus as a Living Lab

Universities are unique hubs of learning both in the classroom and in the community. We have a wealth of academic expertise, access to innovative interdisciplinary collaborations, and a broad range of campus operations and landscapes. This special set of characteristics provides exceptional opportunities to research, test and implement innovations and initiatives that provide learning opportunities for students and contribute to sustainability goals. Living Lab projects create cohesion between academic and operational aspects of a university, leading to a more integrated campus environment.

Western's Campus as a Living Lab (CLL) program brings together collaborations of faculty, staff, students and community partners across a range of scales. CLL supports biodiversity conservation, visual arts, land restoration and improved energy systems, among other research and project areas.

Our campus is situated within the Carolinian Life Zone, and ecological region extending from Windsor to Toronto which has the greatest biodiversity in all of Canada. The Deshkan Ziibi (Thames River) flows through our grounds and is home to numerous species, including species at risk like the spiny softshell turtle. In addition, Western borders the Medway Valley Heritage Forest environmentally significant area (ESA). We have many environmentally significant features at Western to learn from in conjunction with classroom learning.

CLL supports our community in learning from the land that we are situated upon and the diverse perspectives that make up our community.

Current Living Lab Projects

Barn Swallow Breeding and Nesting Structure

Barn swallow structure constructed in natural area of campus. Made mostly of wood, on stilts. It looks like a small barn.The Barn Swallow Structure was constructed Fall 2022 with the leadership of a Biology PhD student, academic advisor Dr. Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, and support from WWF-Canada, University Students' Council, the Society of Graduate Students, the Advanced Facility for Avian Research, and Bird Friendly London/Nature London. 

Barn Swallows are a bird Species at Risk in Ontario whose numbers have declined in recent years, partly due to habitat loss. These birds rely on specific types of structures (like barns) to host their nests. Barn Swallows occur in high abundance at Western because of the habitat available here including wetlands, grasslands, old growth forest and the Medway Valley Heritage Forest ESA. Each year many Barn Swallows return to campus and construct nests on buildings adjacent to these natural features; which can put the birds in conflict with high-pedestrian traffic and maintenance work, reducing their breeding success.

The Barn Swallow Structure provides an alternate location for Barn Swallows to breed on campus, in a low-traffic location with natural features they need to survive (e.g. insects, mud). The structure was built in a naturalized part of campus to increase breeding success for the birds; if you do come across the structure, please do not approach too closely to respect the birds' space. In future this project will monitor Barn Swallows' usage of the structure, breeding success, and effectiveness of the construction features of this structure to help inform best practices on effective design standards for Barn Swallow Breeding Structures.

Biodiversity Inventory at Western

Students in forest looking at a plant for Biodiversity InventoryThe Biodiversity Inventory at Western is led by an organizing committee of volunteers in the Faculty of Science with academic advisor Dr. Tim Hain. The project seeks to study the biodiversity that exists today on campus grounds at Western and its affiliate university colleges (Brescia, Huron, King's). In the first year of the inventory project there were over 1,100 unique species identified on campus!

The project is now heading into its second year and all members of the campus community are invited to participate by contributing photos and other observations to community science using iNaturalist. Learn more about the project and how you can get involved on the Biodiversity Inventory website.

Community Based Research in Indigenous Studies

This project is part of an Indigenous Studies/Geography course "IS4023/GEO3001F; Community-Based Research in Indigenous Studies" co-taught by Dr. Desmond Moser and Clint Jacobs and is supported by a 2021 Indigenous Learning Fund grant from Western's Office of Indigenous Initiatives.

The project will engage in passive (observational) and active (land modification) types of academic engagement. Observational work will focus on mapping and monitoring the state and seasonable variations of the site including vegetation, soil types, insect populations, animal, reptile, and bird identification, and acoustics (soundscapes). Active land modification will be small-scale and iterative, varying according to what is learned from mapping and monitoring. The overarching aim will be to re-establish native vegetation with an emphasis on pollinator-friendly species, improve habitat for species at risk, and communicate the nature and purpose of these activities, and their value, to the community. Through such learning and land-healing activities it is hoped that students will develop connections and responsibility to land.

Community Garden Art Installation

Painted sign installed at community garden with flowering cactus, pink background, and text reading we are not alone.The Community Garden Art Installation project was completed as a class project in Dr. Amanda White's course Visualizing Foodways: Art+Food Relational Approaches. Students in the course were inspired by suggestions presented in their course reading, How to grow liveable worlds: Ten (not-so-easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene by anthropology scholar Natasha Myers. Signage around the Community Garden adds brightness during the grey winter days with the hope of prompting Western community members to consider their relationships with food and the land.

The class included a mix of undergraduate and graduate students who collaborated on the ideation and implementation of the art installation at the garden. In addition to the physical signage, the students also created a participatory webpage about the project. Along with their experience and intentions with the project, they also present featured food plant submissions from the campus community with stories about the significance of the food plants.

FOGs Pollinator Garden

Monarch Butterfly on native plant at the Pollinator Garden.The FOGs Pollinator Garden is led by Friends of the Gardens (FOGs) volunteers representing students, staff and faculty from a cross-section of campus departments along with academic advisors Dr. Greg Thorn and Dr. Nina Zitani. 

Since 1995, FOGs volunteers have been taking care of the St. Mary's Cement Rock Garden, located southeast of the Biology and Geological Sciences Building on campus. In 2022 FOGs implemented the first Pollinator Garden on campus with support from Facilities Management. In the first year the garden covered 800 square feet, and is expanding an additional 1,250 square feet in 2023 with the support of many volunteers.

The garden is located in Middlesex Parking Lot, behind Middlesex College. Be sure to take a visit and see many types of pollinators throughout the season!

Anyone interested in starting their own pollinator garden supportive of native biodiversity is encouraged to utilize this Pollinator Garden Plant List which provides important information such as the scientific names and native status of all the plants currently in the Pollinator Garden.

Investigation of migratory behaviour in North American hoverflies (Syrphidae)

This research project is led by a team in the Department of Biology with academic advisors Jackson Kusack and Dr. Keith Hobson. Hoverflies are important pollinators across all ecosystems in North America. They also provide pest control as the larval stage of some species predate aphids, thrips, and other pest insects. Despite their importance, very little is known about the movements of hoverflies in North America, outside of anecdotal information. This project is investigating migratory vs. locally emergent origin for five species of hoverflies that show evidence of seasonal range potentially indicative of migratory movements.

Live Stake Planting for Climate Resiliency

Volunteers along bank of Medway Creek hammering live stake trees into the water's edgeThis project is led by a team of students with interdisciplinary faculty support and academic advisors Dr. Tom Cull and Dr. Sandra Smeltzer alongside community partner, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA). It is also funded by a Thinking Globally Acting Locally grant.

Climate change continues to increase severe weather, including flooding. The Thames River (Deshkan Ziibi) connects the City of London and Western University with nearby First Nations: Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Munsee-Delaware Nation and Oneida Nation of the Thames. The resilience of this river and watershed affects all of us. This project aims to improve the ecological health of the river, mitigate increased flooding risk, and build relationships with communities within the river watershed. This will be done by planting native trees and shrubs to increase ecological health, help mitigate against future flooding, and educational initiatives both locally and globally on this type of river restoration.

A simple bioengineering technique that is often practiced for riparian restoration projects is called live stake planting, in which cuttings are taken from live trees, pruned of branches, sharpened at the base and inserted into the soil along waterways at sufficient depths for roots to reach groundwater. This project planted about 75 native tree live stakes along Medway Creek behind Westminster Hall in an area prone to flooding. Further from the water's edge around 200 native shrubs were planted, adding to the ecological health of the river environment and flood mitigation. 

How to Get Involved

Living Lab projects can take place anywhere within Western's main campus property boundary. Projects can be land-based or interacting with the built environment and operations of the university. The green areas in the map below represent Western's main campus property.

To get started, send us an email at with your CLL idea! (It's that simple). We will then work together to define the collaboration and the roles of individuals or groups involved. We look forward to hearing from you!

Western main campus boundary map