Our latest blog post by Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic).

A girl ties her shoelace. Men play golf. Children nap on stretcher beds. Girls learn woodwork. And space. Space everywhere. Buildings with bold classical lines sit in seemingly endless sepia-toned space. Welcome to the Canberra projected to potential staff by the London Office of the Australian National University between 1949–52.

Canberra Album includes photos of the National Library and the Institute for Anatomy. But this time capsule from the beginning of ANU is overwhelmingly about everything other than the workplace. To our eyes, it is easy to post rationalise this as an album needed to convince the wives of academics that the move to Canberra was a good thing to do. That’s probably partly right. But it also pays for us to remember what a relief, and a dynamic proposition these images must have been to war worn eyes.

Spaces are not places, and places have to be made and remade. What appealed about a place in 1952 doesn’t necessarily work in 2017, particularly if your town isn’t a constellation of tiny dots in acres of space anymore, and you are needing to convince the husbands of academics that moving to Canberra is a good thing to do.

‘Placemaking’ is the term used to describe this process of capturing community aspirations into the built environment and into the activities that populate that environment. Space is ‘cultivated’, ‘activated’, ‘programmed’. It has to be nurtured very deliberately if it is to support the beliefs that people have about the potential of new spaces to deliver transformational outcomes for their communities.

If this all sounds like an episode of the television program Utopia, you would be right. We might not be building inflatable bike paths that circle the city, or indulging in ‘utopian agonism’ or ‘High line vibe’, but we do have to contend prosaically with the belief—as some wit put it early on in our project consultations—that the best thing about campus and Canberra is leaving it on a Friday night.

Over four years, we have built five new Canberra albums that encapsulate the views of over 5000 students, staff and community participants on what makes a good university environment. Much of the feedback reinforces values that are expressed in other sentiment surveys, as with the importance our community attaches to green space, trees and the culturally-significant creek that bisects the campus. So too, much of it expresses the belief that we can do better than an assortment of ‘decrepit’ buildings constructed between 1960–1985.

But some of it is also poignant, and painful. Asking the advice of our community brought into focus the unrelenting pressure and loneliness that some early career academics and PhD students feel. What little research there is on academic performance often reinforces stereotypes—‘herding cats’ or ‘low change agility’ being common phrases—or provides qualitative observations about small university communities that might not be replicable. Academics, you get the sense from these contributions, are misanthropes who are motivated best by external performance measures. If you switch tack and look to research on PhD students, though, the value of an inclusive, active community comes clearly in to focus through much larger data sets.

It was serendipity that I took the MOOC How to Survive your PhD at the same time that our placemaking work ramped up. It left the lasting impression that places are not just about hanging out, they are a support for success. They help us to feel part of something, even when we do not know the people around us. We sense this strongly about the value of informal learning spaces for student motivation. But staff happiness and motivation matters too. While we might measure the impact of large-scale building projects in terms of improvements in key performance indicators in research and education, our PhD students and early career academics might be telling us something important: that success might be predicated on what some people call ‘key intangible performance indicators’, like belonging, and a sense of place.

It’s all a bit of a no brainer, really, but higher education globally doesn’t seem to be big on happiness. If we believe that intrinsics are important for student learning, then we might want to apply that belief to ourselves, too. Bring on the Utopia-themed Universities Australia conference.

This month’s shout out is for Roxanne Missingham and the Archives Program at ANU—whom I kindly acknowledge for permission to reproduce the images from Canberra Album—and for Inger Mewburn, aka the ‘Thesis Whisperer’ and blog goddess.