Why Cities (and Colleges) Matter

College Campuses are microcosms of the city. Let me explain….

A few weeks ago I read through Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard’s Why Cities Matter, since then I have read it one more time. I can’t recommend it highly enough. As I was reading it, similarities between a city and a college campus kept popping up. So as somebody who does college ministry I knew I had to pay attention to what Um and Buzzard were saying.

UCLA Aerial View - It even looks like a city!
UCLA Aerial View – It even looks like a city!

Sidenote: If you are doing urban ministry or college ministry I highly recommend this book. The chapters on contextualization, urban narratives, and ministry vision are brilliant. Plus it includes some great questions at the end of each chapter that will help you process through the things you are learning.

Anyway, I want to point out three thing about cities that Um and Buzzard talk about that are very similar to college campuses.

  1. Cities are magnets – they have an ability to attract
  2. Cities are amplifiers – they have the ability to “turn up the volume”
  3. Cities are engines – they have the ability to drive our world

Magnets – Um and Buzzard talk about how cities attract all sorts of people. They attract aspirational people, they attract, marginalized/unconventional people, they attract people who are looking for a fresh start.

College campuses are magnets too. Last semester I enrolled in a community college world religions class, I wanted to do some outreach and learn how a typical college student things. In this class I met all sorts of people. I met people with lofty goals, they wanted to make a difference through their education or they wanted to make a ton of money. These are the aspirational people. I met some marginalized/unconventional people – students who were the first in their family to go to college, students whose parents worked the fields as migrant workers in Moorpark and Fillmore. I met students with learning disabilities, artsy students, stoner students, and even retirees. I also met the third category of people – people looking for a fresh start. There were veterans, young ones and old ones. There were people who lost their job in the economy and were looking for a new career.

College Campuses are Magnets

Amplifiers – Um and Buzzard say that “world class cities function as amplifiers for the skills, talents, and ideas of their citizens.” They do through their clustered density and their connective diversity.

Are college campuses Amplifiers? Not all of them are. Moorpark College certainly isn’t, and CSUN has some potential for it, but UCLA certainly is. The truth is, research universities do act as amplifiers, even though not all colleges do. When ideas bump up against eachother innovations spring up and improvements are made. The result is that flourishing and sharpening occurs. Think about a medical research lab, competing scientists work with/against each other to improve medical technology. At an even more basic level think about a philosophy class you have taken, discussion generates new ideas, bad ideas are weeded out and the cream of the crop emerges.

College Campuses are Amplfiers

Engines – Um and Buzzard ask, “what happens when people cluster into densely packed, diverse cities? When the volume gets turned up on human ingenuity and invention?” They suggest the answer is that “cities, when thriving, act as engines that capitalize on amplified human resources in order to drive our world” (48). They tell us that cities take the “collective talents, skills, and creativity of their citizens and translate them into world-driving technology, industry, and cultural development.” (48)

Oviatt Library - CSUN
Oviatt Library – CSUN

If you went to a research university you know that the same is true of a university. UCLA for instance is a driving force in creating technology that drives forward Los Angeles’ economy, its also a hub for cultural development. We could say the same thing about CSUN and the San Fernando Valley. Consider for instance the new performing arts center that was recently built at CSUN. The valley has now become a cultural hub (or at least the area around CSUN has the potential to become one). Walk down Reseda blvd, you will find tons of diverse restaurants and shops. The area near CSUN is now the place to be. Culture is flourishing in the valley around CSUN. Business flourishes and culture thrives around these universities.

College Campuses are Engines

Given the fact that universities and colleges are so similar to cities (I could definitely say more, and I probably will in the future), college ministries and parachurch ministries should start paying attention to what urban experts are saying about doing ministry in the city. Of course they aren’t exactly parallel, but there is certainly much to learn from our brothers working the front lines in that context.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

2 thoughts on “Why Cities (and Colleges) Matter

  1. “The valley has not become a cultural hub,” did you mean “now”?

    But I like this concept, and that kind of mentality could definitely shape how ministries operate.

    1. I definetly meant “now” but even now that feels like a really strong statement. The valley has the potential to become a cultural hub, especially around CSUN.

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