Preparing to Become a Planner
Frequently Asked Questions about Urban Planning

What knowledge and skills do urban planners need?
If I'm good at SimCity, will I make a good urban planner?
Do I need a masters degree in urban planning to be an urban planner?
What sorts of courses should I take as an undergraduate that would be good preparation for studying urban planning as a graduate student?
Where can I go to get more information about urban planning as a career?
Return to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What knowledge and skills do urban planners need?

Urban planners are trained as problem solvers. In order to find a solution to a specific problem, a planner may draw upon tools derived from economics, statistics, engineering, and architecture-among other fields.

Perhaps the key skill that planners bring to their work is the ability to see the inter-connections between different facets of urban living. For example, if a suburban community restricts development of low-cost housing, allowing on only expensive housing to be built, how will the community provide enough workers to fill a range of jobs that will be needed by employers in the future? What will be the cost to attract employees' affordable housing, public transportation, private buses for employers? Or will a community fail to take action and pay the price by losing employers? What may initially appear to be separate problems 'housing, land use, and economic development' planners see as closely linked.

Planners learn to take a step back, to take a broader view of any subject. Planners are trained to deal with complexity and uncertainty as well as interpersonal and group dynamics needed to resolve disagreements.

A related skill is a planners' ability to persuade others through strong communication skills, both oral and written. Planners need to be effective in communicating with many different kinds of people in a range of contexts.

A recent analysis by C.A. Keithley, reported in Florida Planning (March 2001), of planning jobs advertised in the American Planning Association's Job Mart suggests the skills areas that employers look for when hiring planners at the entry level and at more advanced levels. At the entry level, four sets of skills were most highly sought: (1) administration and enforcement of codes, (2) verbal and written communication skills, (3) computer applications, public presentation skills, and GIS applications, and (4) plan preparation, data collections, and land use knowledge.

If I'm good at SimCity, will I make a good urban planner?

SimCity deserves a lot of credit for increasing non-planners' awareness of how cities grow and change over time. Anyone who plays SimCity becomes aware of the many interconnections that planners need to understand to be effective. A poor transportation system will mean that parts of the city decline. Excessive taxation will make some residents move away. Too little land available for industrial development, and the city will not be able to provide jobs for all its residents. Too little investment in maintaining and upgrading infrastructure, like the electricity supply, will result in a decline in the city's health. SimCity teaches players to understand some of the trade-offs between future investment and present-day consumption.

One limitation of SimCity is that it does not allow solutions to problems that go beyond what the designers of the game included as options. In addition, a SimCity champion may have mastered the technical details of managing a city within the constraints of SimCity, but still lack the crucial interpersonal communication skills that make real planning successful.

Do I need a masters degree in urban planning to be an urban planner?

A masters degree is required for about half the entry-level jobs in planning and more than half of the more advanced positions. Even when the degree is not required, job candidates holding a masters degree profit from a number of competitive advantages.

In C.A. Keithley's review of jobs published in the American Planning Association's Job Mart (reported in Florida Planning, March 2001), 46 percent of the entry-level positions required a masters degree, 60 percent of the Planner 2 positions required a masters degree, and 65 percent of the senior planning positions required masters degree.

In addition, employers often allow job candidates who hold the masters degree to substitute the degree for required work experience. For example, while entry-level positions required an average of 2- 2.5 years of experience, for those jobs for which the masters degree was not required, the degree probably could be substituted for some or all of the required experience.

Another advantage of the masters degree is that job candidates who hold the degree may have a competitive advantage in securing the better jobs in planning. Salary data from the American Planning Association shows that planners who hold the masters degree generally earn higher salaries than planners without the degree. Entry-level planners who possess a masters degree typically earn between $2000-4000 more than planners who lack the masters degree. This salary premium for the masters degree continues even among planners with more experience.
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What sorts of courses should I take as an undergraduate that would be good preparation for studying urban planning as a graduate student?

Take courses that will give you a broad education rather than focusing too narrowly on a single specialization as an undergraduate. Because planning is about seeing interconnections and taking a broad view, the more exposure a planner has had to different fields of study, the better prepared the planner is.

Most students will find a few courses particularly useful, however, as students move through a planning curriculum. An undergraduate course in economics' especially one designed for non-economics majors�is likely to be useful. A course in statistics in any of the social sciences and a course that covers how local government works can be very useful. A course in public speaking and courses that require students to polish their writing skills are also recommended.

Where can I go to get more information about urban planning as a career?

The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) provides information about urban planning as a career and about specific academic programs designed to prepare individuals for a career in planning. Information on careers in planning are published on the ACSP website at www.acsponline.org.

The American Planning Association, an organization of practicing planners, also provides a wealth of information to individuals interested in a career in planning. The APA webpage is at www.planning.org, and information specifically related to career planning can be found at http://www.planning.org/jobscareers.