On 30 January, as Edinburgh councillors announced the rejection of a proposal to build student accommodation in Leith, applause erupted from the public benches.
The success of the grassroots campaign Save Leith Walk has since been widely celebrated as a victory in the fight against the gentrification of Edinburgh’s waterfront. Proposed by Drum Property Group, the controversial £50m plan would have involved demolishing 106 to 154 Leith Walk to make way for a 532-bed student accommodation complex and a 56-bedroom hotel. Only 53 flats in the complex would have been reserved for affordable housing.
For locals, Save Leith Walk was about far more than protecting the architectural heritage of Stead’s Place’s art-deco buildings. The campaign’s success was a loud, proud declaration that the residents of Leith would not take gentrification lying down. However, the controversy also highlighted how Edinburgh is being transformed by another, equally powerful force: studentification.
Coined by academic Darren Smith, the term studentification has been used to describe the social, environmental, and economic changes that an influx of university students brings to an area. With university enrollment on the rise, a number of United Kingdom cities have reportedly become unlivable for locals. Rents climb, parties disrupt the streets, and small businesses shut while others rebrand to cater towards the younger clientele. Smaller cities such as St. Andrews and Durham have particularly felt the adverse effects of studentification. For local residents of these historic cities, the growing presence of students has fragmented previously tight-knit neighbourhoods.
Granted, Edinburgh’s larger population of nearly 489,000 residents makes it better equipped to absorb the arrival of students. Still, the city’s six universities contribute a sizeable portion of the population. In recent years the University of Edinburgh, in particular, has focused upon expanding its student population. As more students come in, luxury accommodation projects crop up. A report published by the University of Edinburgh titled Quality Infrastructure: Estate Strategy 2010-2020 describes student accommodation as an “operational asset” which provides “significant capital.” Outlined in their 10-year plan, expansion and the creation of accommodation facilities are listed as a top priority: “To meet our objective of increasing postgraduate student numbers, and meet the demands of our Internationalisation Strategy, we must continue to expand student accommodation.” The massive yearly influx and exodus of students dilutes the identities of Edinburgh neighbourhoods. When a large section of a neighbourhood is allocated to student accommodation, it creates a transient community. Students siloed off into an accommodation complex rarely integrate into their neighbourhood and often leave to move into flats after a year.
Closer to the waterfront than to campuses, Leith has never been as student-filled as more central areas. Residents of the neighbourhood take pride in its unique character. “Leith has a different set of values than central Edinburgh,” asserts Rowan Crerar, third-year Edinburgh College of Art student and Edinburgh local who supported Save Leith Walk, “because of its size, it is more invested in its community.” Many residents have expressed aversion to student accommodation in the area, seeing it as furthering gentrification. The Drum Property Group proposal sparked outrage in part because student accommodation was prioritized over the creation of affordable housing. Efforts to introduce pricey student flats into Leith are by no means limited to Drum Property Group’s plan. Less than a week after the rejection of the Drum Property proposal, Save Leith Walk campaigners were fighting against yet another plan to create student accommodation across the street from Stead’s Place. Campaigners currently oppose CW Properties proposal to develop 139 Leith Walk into student accommodation flats, a hotel, and commercial spaces. Notably, such accommodation projects also alienate lower-income students who can not afford the high price tag of the flats.
Tensions between Edinburgh locals and students have not yet reached boiling point as they have in other UK cities. Significantly, when Save Leith Walk held a workshop to plan alternative possibilities for the development of Stead’s Place, ‘Mixed-age housing’ and ‘inter-generational housing’ were among the ideas proposed. It is student accommodation, not individual students, that residents oppose.
For Rowan Crerar, the Save Leith Walk campaign provides a glimpse at what student integration in Edinburgh could look like. “I think one of the really good things that the campaign did was involve students in it,” she stated. Pointing to the students who attended marches, signed petitions, and wrote articles, Rowan Crerar argued that it could mark “the start of a process where students give more to the city while they are here.”
Image: Richard Webb via geograph