The Study of Cities and Their People
Written by Amy Grace Watkins
I’ve experienced a lot of new things over this past year. I joined Waypoint in the winter, graduated in the spring, and got married in the summer. And most recently, I started my first fall semester as a graduate student in the field of City and Regional Planning at UNC Chapel Hill. As I am beginning to slow down at the end of this whirlwind of transitions, I’ve felt God calling me to reflect on why He led me to this graduate program and to serve people through planning and caring for their communities.
While many find the discipline of planning later in their academic career, I believe God called me to this path upon some of my first interactions with the world. As a child, I turned our family’s bonus room into a city with a combination of Legos, Playmobil, and an assortment of hand-me-down toys from my older siblings. However, I eventually “outgrew” the imaginary world of my childhood. I began to buy in to the common belief that creativity is best left to children and to the true artists of the world. And in letting go of this world of imagination, a void was left behind.
In the years of the void (that awkward time between childhood and adulthood), I became focused on one desire -- to see the world. The world that could shift my imagination to my reality; my Pinterest feed to my fingertips. So, in the wisdom of my backpack-across-Europe generation, I turned to travel. I deferred my enrollment at Carolina to take a gap year to see the Lord’s creativity beyond my North Carolina borders and to explore how other societies functioned and flourished. I thought that even if I wasn’t creative or equipped enough to influence the real world, I could experience the creativity of others. So, I made a plan. In the fall of my gap year, I would volunteer just down the road from my home in Raleigh, NC, and in the spring, I would finally get to travel and see the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic. (Where if I was lucky, I might find myself, or in Christian terms, become the woman God wants me to be.)
While I was most excited about spending the spring in Prague, I was surprised that it wasn’t the cobblestone streets, the beautiful architecture, or fascinating world abroad that left the most significant impact on me. Instead, it was my time in the fall of that year interning at a place that is very near and dear to my heart, Refugee Hope Partners.
My time at Refugee Hope was an eye-opening experience, and a time where the Lord revealed more of himself, and his heart to me. It exposed the barriers that made it difficult for these families, sons and daughters of the King, to flourish. The families I encountered needed better access to jobs and essential services and more support for the difficult transition into and out of the refugee community. Refugee Hope taught me to see structures that limit opportunity and quality of life for refugee families and those on the margins, the very people Jesus pursued and sought out in his ministry. I also became aware of my privilege in a new way and learned to be more grateful for the things I had been given and the blessings and opportunities that had been set before me. I was deeply challenged and moved by my experience at Refuge Hope to seek to create systems and societies that encouraged, rather than inhibited, the flourishing of refugee and minority communities in the Triangle. Instead of finding myself in Europe, I found the Lord in others; in their love, their laughter, and their perseverance.
This gap-year experience launched my journey into Planning, reaffirming the Lord's call on my life to think deeply and creatively about how cities can be built and fashioned for all people to flourish. The grim truth about planning as a profession is that it has often been used to promote brokenness and division, behind the facade of creating an idyllic society of progress. As an undergrad at Carolina, I learned about the role of planners in racism, classism, and a clear disregard for people’s individual lives in the spirit of the “greater good.” Planners participated in the destruction and displacement of communities of color throughout America, especially in the years of highway building and suburbanization in the 1960s.
While our nation’s history is painful, the need for good, restorative planning is more evident than ever. I hope that with our history in mind, I can enter into the field of city planning to be a part of restoring and repairing these wrongs, making this earth a slightly greater preview of the Kingdom. In Jeremiah 29:7, God says to His exiled people in Babylon, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Just as Babylon was not the Israelites home, we are called to seek the prosperity of the nation while knowing that we are citizens of Heaven.
I feel that God called me to this field of study to be able to exercise the gifts of creativity, empathy, and story-telling in order to participate in bringing more justice and love to our communities. And since there is no one-size-fits-all planning solution, that calling will have me studying at UNC for the next two years, and my prayer is that as I learn, I will be edified and empowered to love the Triangle and love the nations through planning. Will you join me in this prayer?