Seoul, South Korea – What Should We Expect From a University Neighborhood?

October 2013 – A university neighborhood isn’t defined simply by the assortment of student housing and local businesses that spring up to satisfy student needs. A university neighborhood is a playground for the student experience, a sanctuary for an era of personal growth and a dynamic space for collaboration. Indeed, university campuses serve the same spatial function but campuses tend to be formalized places, dominated by the university as an institution. The surrounding neighborhood provides a physical landscape for the influence of the university to intertwine with the realities of the outside world – the classroom outside of the classroom.

Hongdae is a sprawling university neighborhood hidden within the orderly city streets of central Seoul. The official campus of Hongik University is perched upon the top of a small hill with the meandering streets of Hongdae rambling through the neighborhood like an untamed forest below a castle.

Social life flourishes in Hongdae. A plentiful endowment of restaurants, little shops, cute cafés, trendy bars and fancy nightclubs fill the small streets and twisting corridors of the neighborhood. Pop-up markets, street performances and unexpected social encounters give life to the neighborhood’s crowded pedestrian throughways that remain buzzing both day and night.

Aside from the grand social world and the handful of interesting attractions within the neighborhood, Hongdae leaves me asking – what else should we expect from our university neighborhoods?

We often dismiss the university experience as one reserved for the privileged and for the young. The current structure of universities reflects this disappointing reality. Adults and the poor tend to be excluded from the university world despite contributing towards them through taxes and living amongst them in their communities. The pay-to-play capitalist structure of the university has built a system that provides an incredible experience for the privileged but excludes and burdens the majority. This is an outdated model for universities.

Universities can have a more inclusive and vastly more influential role within our cities by re-evaluating their identity as centers of learning and by deepening their interaction within local communities.

The act of learning shouldn’t be reduced solely to the field of academics. Education not only refers to knowledge-based learning but also the teachings of well-being and the practices of awakening to the world around us. The idea of the classroom should expand to include kitchens, markets, dance studios, art studios, mediation spaces, streets, sidewalks, parks, junkyards, waterfronts, abandoned buildings, elements of infrastructure, factories, industrial sites, homeless shelters, community centers, elementary schools, private homes, commercial spaces, public spaces – our cities are our classrooms. We have the opportunity to expand our vision of what it means to be a center of learning and universities provide an existing format that we can enhance and improve.

The university isn’t a broken system – universities have existed around the world for hundreds of years. To remain relevant with the times, they need to be constantly reformed and reshaped to reflect the growth of our human civilization. The capitalist model for universities that currently exists in the U.S has created a demand for universities that provide a return on the investment by focusing heavily on career building and corporate assimilation. This system yields workers equipped to handle the tasks of today’s global economy yet something crucial is missing from this form of education – where is the learning?

Our curriculums should reflect the diversity and the depth of the world we live in. Apart from designing more profound and holistic academics, our curriculums should provide students with the opportunity to be involved in their surrounding community. The university is a powerful tool for nurturing healthy societies so it’s essential that universities aren’t exclusive institutions, but rather, institutions that open their doors to their surrounding communities.

U.S universities provide the most innovative and comprehensive student experience of any university system in the world, but they’re also by far the most expensive. In order to break down walls of elitism and expand as centers of learning, U.S universities need to restructure the way they are financed. A university managed as a capitalist institution treats students as consumers of the university product. To become more accessible to the majority and to be more active within their communities, U.S universities need to shift the burden of cost from the individual student to the public as a whole. In exchange for collective support, the university would be an institution available for all – not only to those able to pay the expensive tuitions or willing to accept massive amounts of student debt.

Most U.S universities are already highly active in local communities but the relationship is often top-down. To become more open to the public, the university needs to expand in ways that help people in their daily lives. For instance, universities could help support local book groups, poetry readings, cooking classes, hold meditation session or provide guidance for those who would like to improve their writing and update their resumes. Universities could help inform people how to utilize public programs or how to access a social infrastructure that is commonly unknown in impoverished communities. Universities could create local hubs for technology and include instruction on how to operate it. The question becomes, how can we harness the creative energy of the university in ways that benefit surrounding communities?

It begins by redefining the university as a center of learning and reforming our expectations of university neighborhoods.

Hongdae is incredibly exciting and endlessly fun but social life alone shouldn’t define our university neighborhoods. They should be welcoming places where university meets city, where innovation meets growth. Sanctuaries for collective sharing, collaborative workspaces, community workshops and dynamic public spaces.

We should expect, and even demand, more from our university neighborhoods. It’s time we look past the cafés, bars and book shops of our current archetypical university neighborhoods and contemplate the possibility of what could be. What universities and what cities are willing to experiment and take the concept to a place we haven’t seen before? It’s time for reform and we should be looking to our globe’s most influential cities and universities to lead the way.

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