Our Campus Has Been Gentrified

University campuses are more than just bricks and mortar. Campus is often our first home away from home, where we are introduced to new ideas and new challenges. It’s important, then, that they’re spaces we can feel a part of: spaces we have full access to, that we can feel safe in, feel connection to and know we can participate in without financial limitation. This is especially true when thinking about the type of students we want on campus. Do we want to bring in those who have been pushed out of the academy – young Indigenous people, working class kids, people with disabilities, carers – and acknowledge that yes, this campus is a home for you too?

These are questions I’ve asked myself since the beginning of my degree in 2016. I’ve thought extensively about my place at ANU and my connection to this place, about what has made me feel at home and what hasn’t. Home here has been the smells and smiles of a cheap lunch from the Campus Bakery; it’s been scraping enough together for Thursday evening jugs at the old ANU Bar, late nights at Tjabal finishing that final essay or lazing in the sun on Chifley Meadows, Boost Juice in hand and friends by my side. These are all places and services that have made me feel connected to ANU campus because they’ve catered to my needs as a poor student. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel that same connection to places in Kambri, where I can’t afford to eat or drink.

Instead, I just feel closer to answering my initial question: no, this is not intended to be a home for us, this campus does not belong to us.

Ever since the Union Court revitalisation project began construction in 2017, our university campus has been shaped and moulded to fit the tastes and inclinations of a growing number of middle-class public servants descended on Canberra, looking for a new ‘hub’ both trendy and close to Civic. Our access as students to affordable food, facilities and services has taken a back-seat to ANU’s obsession with drawing in a new community with money – money that ANU so desperately wants.

In a sense, our campus has undergone a process of gentrification. In its simplest form, gentrification is the process of renovating or ‘improving’ a neighbourhood – or in this case, campus – so that it conforms to middle-class tastes. Gentrification pushes out poor working class people, people of colour and other oppressed groups out of their neighbourhoods and fragments communities. As developers start investing in and redeveloping neighbourhoods, the rent and property value of homes begin to increase. This new market starts to draw in wealthier, often white middle-class individuals, able to afford a rising cost of living that poor communities can’t. Slowly, as the demographic of the neighbourhood changes, so does its character. It’s a process in which local culture is destroyed and replaced with a new, more affluent, social character. Of course the redevelopment of ANU campus is not comparable to the gentrification I see here in Austin, where I’m on
exchange, or in historically Aboriginal suburbs like Redfern back home. But nonetheless, the redevelopment we’ve watched unfold has been a process of gentrification, and students have been the losers.

The marketing of Kambri, bombarding us for months with aerial hype videos, has relied on the idea that our campus will become a ‘new cultural centre’ not just for ANU, but the city. Bird’s eyes shots and virtual reality simulations show a thriving space, filled with people enjoying live music and the arts. Our campus has been home to a lot of great Canberra culture before, with the old ANU Bar hosting bands from Nirvana, to Lou Reed, to the Cure – it would be exciting to see that type of culture fostered here again!

But this, evidently, is not the type of culture our administration has envisioned for Kambri. If we look closer at the way Kambri was marketed towards us, we can see the people in suits dotted between students. We see the take-over of restaurants too expensive for your average student, organic cafes that promote “a health conscious coffee culture” and a bar that, like Molo in the pop-up village, is no longer owned by us. As the pop-up village foreshadowed, the culture being ‘created’ for our campus is one that ‘forgets’ cheap places to eat, drink and build a community around, and is instead a culture that’s been designed to attract the tastes and money of the professional class.

Even aesthetically, Kambri’s intended audience is clear. Offering spaces with “Scandi-inspired wood columns,” a feature that gives “a warm, welcoming and non-intimidating atmosphere”, our new classrooms have been built around a very particular social character. I am not arguing that there is anything inherently wrong or dangerous about Scandi-inspired architecture: rather, that it signals the arrival of gentrification on campus, mimicking the aesthetic reconstructions of apartment developments in Baltimore to working class neighbourhoods in London. As Kate Wagner has argued, “[t]he architectural profiles of these new buildings may not cause gentrification, in and of themselves, but in many ways they become aesthetic symbols of … the waves of gentrification”.

Of course, many of us expected this from Kambri, and its Scandi-inspired wood columns are the least of our worries. We held out, manoeuvring through construction maze after construction maze, thinking that at least if this reconstruction was not for us, we would benefit from some of the more basic services and facilities promised – facilities like the pool. ANU’s promise of a pool was one that captured our imaginations. A pool is something we could all use!

The pool represented some of the few positives of the redevelopment until we discovered that the pool did not belong to us. Instead it belonged to Club Lime, who had been given a private lease and would run one of only two of its ‘Platinum gyms’ on our campus. This facility had been misrepresented and marketed to us as something we could all share in: ANU had dangled a carrot in front of our noses, promising us a treat for putting up with change we had little to gain from.

We were made to believe that some of students’ most basic needs like on-campus parking –needs that had been drastically disrupted during the construction – would be addressed if we just
endured through it. The hours spent driving up and down Baldessin, cursing the closure of level 5 for swathes of tradies who hardly used the car parks, were abated only by the idea that the construction would be over soon and the redevelopment would offer us something better. Instead, the opening of Kambri’s carpark boasted costs so exorbitant, they made parking at the Canberra Centre look cheap.

The pricing of the pool and parking at Kambri have hit particular sore spots in the student psyche because they’ve exposed the reality of this reconstruction. It has not been for us, and every facility, every service and every change we thought was for us has been misrepresented. There has been a fundamental breaching of students’ trust. Would we have been as silent as we were if ANU had been honest about what we were to expect?

Even congruent changes like the reopening of Fenner Hall as postgraduate accommodation – dependent on the relocation and fragmentation of one of the only affordable housing options for undergraduate students – was sprung on us with next to no warning or explanation. We were told Fenner was old and needed to be knocked down. But somewhere along the way, after we’d accepted this fate, ANU discovered the hall needed only minor renovations and could instead be used to house a whole new population.

So many of us are outraged and left feeling betrayed by our university because the good faith and transparency we expected in the redevelopment of our campus and homes were never truly there. Many of us agreed our campus needed upgrading. We needed better services, our homes needed maintenance and we were excited by the prospect of a chance to rebuild ANU student culture and community.

We wanted the promise that this development, which had been paid for by selling off our rents as part of a 30-year concession agreement with investment management firm H.R.L Morrison and Co, was for us; that the redevelopment was not an expression of the wider logic of corporatised universities, intent on chasing profits. We wanted the chance to define the social character of ANU, to have a stake in the shops, in the services and the prices we’d be living with. We wanted assurance that we got to shape ANU for us, not public servants looking for the next Kingston or Manuka.

I worry a lot about what ANU will become in the years ahead. I worry who’s going to get to come here and who isn’t. ‘Kambri’ means meeting place, and was gifted to our university by Ngunnawal and Ngambri elders like Aunty Matilda House and Uncle Wally Bell. I worry about who will get to meet here: after all, meeting is a two-way exchange. Names are important, and Kambri is a name that belongs to this place. It pays respect to the ancestors and holds a vision of what the future of this university could be. Our university could belong to us. It could be a place some of the most marginalised communities in our country meet, gather and develop ideas and actions possible of transforming some of the most grievous injustices in our society. As it stands, Kambri represents only the gentrified shell of this possibility, pricing too many of us out. How do we take it back?