Masters of Divinity to… City Planning!??

I have had a recurring conversation lately with people from all walks of life. My former Divinity School classmates. Current colleagues at UNC. Family members. Strangers.

They all want to know how my life could take such a turn of events that I could graduate with a Masters of Divinity degree, and then one year later end up in the City and Regional Planning program at UNC. I think the look I get most often is one of confusion. So I’ve had to start defending myself, and defending to myself, that this really was the right course of action. To go back to school, spend two more years out of the job market. Are these two fields related? Or was this a complete 180?

The more I’ve thought about it, and the more I learn both at UNC and at our church, I’m beginning to realize just how closely tied planning is to theology, ecclesiology (the church), and missiology (it’s mission). Both are about being faithful to the places where we live. About listening to the stories of people and incorporating those into a vision of what our churches and cities can become. About gathering together to solve real problems. About trying create beautiful places for us to live, work and play. About fostering places where we can gather to learn from and about one another. Developing friendships across racial and socioeconomic boundaries. Providing adequate housing for all citizens, and ensuring the hungry are fed. Creating ways to love our neighbors. Ultimately, developing urban places that allow and encourage people to live well.

Much of city planning in history, especially in America, has not fostered the above description of a city. Often this was because of the fact that planning was done from the “master planner” level that relied on the visions of the few for what a city should look like. It was also due to a lack of planning, allowing for developers and businesses to dictate the spatial structure of cities.

But things are changing, at least on the level of planning. Charrettes are occurring more frequently, meetings where citizens gather together to express their thoughts and concerns and jointly develop plans for their neighborhoods and communities. Mixed-use, walkable communities are in high demand. Zoning laws are being challenged, with a push toward bringing farms into urban areas.

And there are murmurs in the church as well about how we interact with the places around us. There is more focus on cities, and the interactions that occur within them. There are new ideas developing regarding how we conceive of church, and how to deal with declining numbers. But we have a long ways to go. This is what I hope to explore over the next few years in school, and I hope to develop friendships with people of similar desires.

The rate of populations migrating to cities is continuing to rise, and I believe people will move to cities not just with a good infrastructure, and roads, and bike lanes, and well-planned streets and communities. They will not just go toward the cities that foster innovation, high-tech jobs, and diversity. They will go to places that have a soul.