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When change comes slowly, it can be easy to miss that it has come at all. But with another university year over, it is worth acknowledging how North Dunedin has changed for the better.
A decade ago, North Dunedin was a constant presence on national news bulletins for its riots, drunkenness and vandalism. The infamous Undie 500 car rally from Christchurch to Dunedin was a factor but there was more to it than that.
Dunedin had long ago earned a reputation as a student city. Fair enough, as nearly a fifth of the city’s population were students and the tertiary precinct was central, urban, compact and virtually all gown, no town.
The problem wasn’t the students but the expectations some of those students had for what Dunedin life was. Ex-students championed their exploits of drunkenness and law-breaking, and around the country Scarfie culture became something of a school-leaver’s rite of passage. As well as populating Carisbrook’s terrace, donning a hodgepodge of charity-shop winter-wear and existing on a diet over-represented by noodles and baked beans, Scarfies also became famous for burning couches, damaging property and forcing the city’s fire crews to constantly divert their limited resources to ‘‘Studentville’’.
Of course, students also studied, loved, lost, made mistakes, found solutions and, at the end of it all, emerged as well-educated adults. Those students from a decade ago are now dentists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses and more.
Dunedin accepted its students were young people released from the shackles of the family home; experimenting with freedom, consequences, socialising and responsibilities. The problem, as far as Dunedin was concerned, was the cost. The cost to the fire crews, the cost to property owners, the cost to ratepayers, the cost to the city’s reputation and, of course, the cost to those students who pushed too far and ended up with convictions, injuries and damaged futures.
The university and city council promised they would tackle the issue. Emergency services vowed to work with students to change the culture. Student leaders agreed things needed to change and slowly, over the last decade, the culture has changed and the city, by and large, is no longer talking about couch-burning, vandalism and hooliganism in the student precinct.
It came slowly, but it seems Dunedin student culture has matured. Expectations have changed. The national narrative of Dunedin’s student life has improved. And now, at the end of another student year, North Dunedin has emptied while the cruise ships are arriving. The famous Dunedin summer lull — long treasured by locals — has been replaced by summer tourism crowds. Dunedin’s population has grown, meaning the student percentage of the city is now smaller than it was.
It all combines to make the city feel more settled. North Dunedin, with its constant regeneration and the significant residential property purchases and renovations undertaken by the University of Otago, as well as impressive investments by Otago Polytechnic, is looking smarter, cleaner, more attractive, more respected.
Through a methodical and at times difficult decade of clamping down on what was sometimes seen as an unsolvable problem, Dunedin has managed to maintain its reputation as the country’s premier university city while largely removing the unwanted baggage that reputation used to bring.
All those involved in this transformation should feel proud of what they have achieved. University management showed vision, then had the conviction to act on and stick to that vision. Emergency services showed patience and character while demanding students lift their behaviour. Campus Watch staff played, and continue to play, a valuable role.
Most significantly, the students themselves deserve praise for their maturity and the respect they have shown the city this year. The Scarfies of 2018 have, by and large, been a credit to Dunedin and a credit to themselves. Long may that continue.