About a Career in Planning
Frequently Asked Questions about Urban Planning

Download a brochure from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning,
"Choosing a Career In Urban Planning"

What is urban planning?
What do urban planners do?
How do urban planners spend their days?
In what sorts of settings do urban planners work?
What impacts do planners have on the communities in which they work?
What is the job outlook or placement rate for planners?
What career progression is possible in urban planning?
What do professionals say about the field of urban planning?
How much do planners earn?
Who are some famous planners?
Return to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is urban planning?

Urban planning or city planning (the terms are interchangeable) is hard to define because it can mean so many different things. Urban planning is the profession that concerns itself with the health and quality of life in urban places-cities and their suburbs, small towns and rural villages. Just as veterinarians care for animals as different as dogs are from iguanas, urban planners care for cities as different as New York City is from Boscobel, Wisconsin. And just as a veterinarian needs to be able to work with the circulation, digestion, respiration, the skeleton, and nervous system of an animal to diagnose and prescribe an appropriate treatment to maintain or restore health, urban planners need to work with the transportation system, the economy, the environment, urban design and physical facilities, and the culture and politics of a city to maintain (or restore) the quality of life in a city. Finally, to carry this analogy one step further, just as a veterinarian or physician monitors a patient's health and lifecycle changes on a regular basis, anticipating problems and prescribing diet, exercise or other changes to protect the patient's future health, urban planning is future-oriented. Planners look five, twenty, and even fifty years into the future to anticipate the future consequences of current trends and activities. Urban planning is about considering the consequences of present actions on the future quality of life in the city.

What do urban planners do?

Given the diversity of our profession, urban planners do a great variety of things. "The most important role for the planner is to work with the public to identify a community's goals, then help to marshal resources-community organizations, developers, and elected officials-to accomplish them" (Marjorie Macris, former director of planning for the City of Berkeley, quoted in Planners on Planning by Bruce McClendon and Anthony Catanese).

The planner's special niche, however, concerns problems with a spatial (or geographic) dimension. Almost all of the work planners do concerns the idea of "place." Planners shape the physical layout of cities by zoning specific areas for different types and intensity of development (residential, commercial, industrial; high-rise, low-rise) and working with engineers and architects to plan for the location of major public facilities, such as transportation corridors and utilities. Planners also work to preserve and improve the spatial and visual character of places.

Urban planners anticipate how a city will function and how it will look as it develops (or redevelops) in the future. Planners anticipate, for example, how a series of buildings will fit together aesthetically; how they will be linked to the infrastructure of streets, sewers, water lines and electricity; how will they fit into the local economy and what the demand will be for the types of services provided by the buildings that get built. Who are the potential users of the buildings and the spaces between the buildings? How will users get to and from the area? How will the presence of the buildings affect the natural environment of the area? How will the development as a whole affect the neighborhood residents in terms of job opportunities, shopping options, noise, community character, and cost of living?

The list can go on. Some urban planners specialize in just one or two of the areas just described. For example, some planners specialize in transportation planning, urban design, or economic development. Most planners, however, work as generalists, drawing on specialists as needed to solve specific problems, but always having as central to their work a holistic approach to analyzing problems and prescribing solutions. As generalists, planners "help to bring the talents of many specialists to bear on the problem at hand. . . . The planner may know barely enough to have a decent technical conversation with any of those specialists; however, as a generalist, the planner can bridge gaps between the different disciplines ensuring that the program benefits from everyone's input" (Planners' Casebook, Winter 2001, American Institute of Certified Planners).

This holistic approach means that planners examine the big picture, taking a step back from the immediate concerns to put each issue into a broader perspective. Planners attempt to make connections between individual elements and a bigger whole. Without planning, for example, economic development may harm the environment, roads may not lead to where housing and shopping are going to be located, and buildings for the rich may proceed without considering dislocations of the poor. Planners link knowledge to action. Planners apply what they know to specific issues and problems. They are problem solvers. Planners attempt to foresee the future, emphasizing to others how present actions can be used to build a better future.

Finally, planners communicate. Professional planners have no legal authority to put their plans into effect. Everything a planner proposes will get done only if the planner persuades others that it is the right thing to do. Planners need to communicate in language understandable to many different types of people with different values and experiences, and planners need to get all these different people communicating with one another.

How do urban planners spend their days?

The day to day activities of a planner take them from their offices to the "field" and to meetings of many types. At the office, the planner reviews maps and drawings, makes calculations using tools like spreadsheets, writes memoranda and reports, and responds to inquiries from citizens, developers, and public officials. Planners also spend time in the field, taking surveys, talking with citizens, and observing physical situations. Planners also spend their time preparing for meetings and presentations. Planners meet with planning commissioners (citizens who are appointed to the planning board in the community). Planners also meet with neighborhood groups. During major planning projects, such as revising a comprehensive plan, the planner will coordinate public meetings.

In what sorts of settings do urban planners work?

As one might expect from the terms "urban planner" and "city planner," that the majority of planners work for municipalities, and that alone covers a lot of ground. Planners work in the central cities of metropolitan area cities such as New York, Boston, Sacramento, New Orleans, and Indianapolis; they work in suburbs large and small within metropolitan areas. They also work in medium-sized and smaller cities that serve as the hub of activity for a larger rural area. And planners also work in county government, for regional planning agencies, and in state government.

A significant number of planners work in the private sector as well. Some work for planning consulting firms whose clients are primarily cities and counties that need additional professional assistance with special planning projects or problems. Here are some additional examples of the settings where one may find planners working:

Architecture firms hire planners to help them design more functional neighborhoods.

Banks hire planners to assist them in making community investment decisions.

Economic development agencies hire planners to help them better understand the linkages between public policies and employment and to better communicate with employers about the competitive advantages of specific locations.

Non-profit community organizations hire planners to operate housing, mortgage assistance, or economic development programs.

Real estate developers hire planers to help them negotiate development terms that meet the developers’ needs while addressing the concerns of neighborhoods and city councils.

School districts hire planners to help with resource allocation decisions or initiatives dealing with new approaches to service delivery.

Transportation agencies (such as state highway departments and local transit agencies) need urban planners to help them better integrate proposed transportation improvements with new residential and commercial development.

A planners' skills, gained through a professional planning degree and work experience, create many professional opportunities. Their approach and preparation give them skills that are sought by many types of employers.

What impacts do planners have on the communities in which they work?

Because of the work planners do, a city functions more smoothly. Housing is more affordable and of higher quality. Commercial areas have more vitality. Jobs are more plentiful and pay better. People waste less time in traffic congestion. Taxes are lower. Parks are greener and more spacious. Residents and visitors enjoy better lives. Life is beautiful!

OK, maybe this is an exaggeration, but it serves to suggest the kinds of impacts that planners have. Of course, planners can accomplish none of these positive impacts on their own. Planners almost always work in coordination with other professionals and with residents and local businesses to plan and implement policies and programs that are expected to lead to the kinds of positive impacts described above.

Sometimes the impact of a planner's work is immediate and obvious. For example, planners in the city of Milwaukee worked with planners and engineers in the state department of transportation to propose the demolition of an underused section of freeway that cut through the north side of Milwaukee's downtown. After the legislature and the governor agreed to tear down the freeway, property values in the adjacent areas rose immediately in anticipation of new development opportunities. When the new development is complete property values will increase, the city's tax base will increase, and more people will have reasons to go downtown to work, to shop, to play, or to live.

Planners across southeastern Wisconsin have been working with developers and businesses to clean up and redevelop former industrial sites that had been abandoned by companies that either went bankrupt or left the area during the "deindustrialization" period intensifying in the 1980s. Every time a new business opens its doors and hires new employees on a site that just a few years earlier stood as an eyesores in the community, the impact is immediately apparent.

Planners need to be patient. Often, planners need to wait for decades to see the impacts of their work. Because planners are often working behind the scenes as part of a team, and because they are working to prevent bad things from happening, the impact of the planner is often unknown when things go well for a city.

Marjorie Macris, former planning director for the City of Berkeley, notes that planners often work "quietly and inconspicuously" and often planners never know whether their recommendation was the "right" one.

What is the job outlook or placement rate for planners?

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts jobs in planning will grow 10-20 percent between 1998 and 2008. The number of positions in private consulting firms will probably grow more quickly than public sector jobs in planning.

Several factors are leading to a strong market for planners in the future. Growing concern, even discontent, with the quality of life in rapidly growing suburban areas has resulted in a renewed interest in city planning. Policy makers and the public are taking planning more seriously. A large number of states have created new mandates for local planning and are providing funding for local planning activity. While the booming development cycle of the 1990s has abated during the first decade of the 21st century, the recognition of planning as critical to the long-term health of urban areas is unlikely to be forgotten soon. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that most new jobs will be located in affluent, rapidly growing urban and suburban communities.

U.S. News Cites Urban Planning as Top Career

Urban planning as one of the top careers

What career progression is possible in urban planning?

Typically, a planner begins in a position such as assistant planner or associate planner. Initially, the beginning planner will spend time evaluating building permit applications, locating maps and ordinances for citizens and developers, and responding to questions. The beginning planner who possesses a masters degree is also likely to be given specific tasks to complete, such as conducting a survey of vacant properties, designing a questionnaire for a community survey, analyzing retail market demand, preparing a presentation for a community meeting, or other tasks that require specialized training to complete.

As the planner progresses to greater levels of autonomy and responsibility, the planner will eventually become the director of planning or director of community development. The director makes decisions about what tasks subordinates need to do and how the other planners in the office will go about their work to achieve the goals of the planning agency.

What do professionals say about the field of urban planning?

An excellent resource for learning about planners from planners is the book by McClendon and Catanese entitled, Planners on Planning. Here are a few excerpts.

Norman Whitaker: "Successful planners are pragmatic but visionary, assertive but sensitive, focused on the big picture but also the fine details, self-confident but humble, action-oriented but reflective."

Sergio Rodriguez: "I believe no other group of professionals in government today is as well trained as planners to think comprehensively, to synthesize complex problems, and to arrive at clear solutions while taking into account their short-and long-range effects. Planners can consider the needs of many individuals and groups, translating them so they are understood by both policy makers and the people that will be affected by planning decisions. And planners have access to high-level decision makers, enabling them to do good things for the community."

Richard C. Bernhardt: "One of the most common complaints I hear from other professionals is that they do not have the time to do thorough research. There is never enough time to do all the research that we think is appropriate. Planners must balance the information available to do the job at hand. If we listen, and I mean truly listen, we can effectively blend research, community input, and our training and experience for an effective response. A wealth of information and research skill is usually available if you have designed your project in a way that truly encourages participation by the people affected. . . . Planners do not have all the answers. Citizen assistance in research is one of the best ways to get real community involvement in planning."

Jim Reid: "Planners, especially in the public sector, have a tendency to disparage the political part of the decision-making process that inevitably surrounds such matters as land use, capital programming and budgeting, and development policy. They may adopt a "don't rock the boat" philosophy, or may propose policy choices that in reality appeal only to the lowest common denominators in a politically charged situation. These are mistakes. Planners who work with public officials must provide them with bold alternative courses of action and a clear statement of the consequences and benefits each alternative might bring. Only this enables officials to do what they were elected to do: set public policy based on analysis and impact."

Keith L. Cubic: "If you lead a planning program, or aspire to do so, you must deal with policy, be visionary and see the big picture, set goals, do the right thing, have high standards, demonstrate respect, master a package of behaviors that you can adapt to particular situations, and list and speak well. It's a long list. Fundamentally, planners must use their expertise, their knowledge, and the excitement they feel for the profession to demonstrate their leadership."

How much do planners earn?

The median entry-level salary for planners in Wisconsin (those with less than 5 years experience) was $33,400 in 1998. In interpreting these figures, keep in mind that 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.

Who are some famous urban planners?

(Sources: Except as noted otherwise, excerpts about famous urban planners are quoted from the American Planning Association.)

Daniel Burnham: Director of Works for the Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1893); chairman of the McMillan Commission Plan for Washington (1902); chairman of the committee that produced the Cleveland Group Plan, the first "civic center" plan in the United States (1903); producer, with Edward H. Bennett, of the Plan of San Francisco (1906) and the Plan of Chicago (1909), America's first metropolitan regional plan; commonly referred to as "The Father of American City Planning."
John Nolen: Many Wisconsin residents recall hearing the name "John Nolen" because a graceful parkway in Madison, Wisconsin, bears his name. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, John Nolen came to planning late. Like Frederick Law Olmstead, Nolen came to the planning field through his work as a landscape architect. He was 34 when he entered Harvard to study landscape architecture in 1903. In 1904, a year before he graduated, he opened an office on the Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rapidly expanding his scope beyond the landscaping of individual properties, Nolen promoted city-wide plans emphasizing the physical environment. Between 1906 and 1926, he produced 35 city plans, more than any other American planner, including plans for San Diego, La Crosse, Montclair, Madison, Roanoke, and Reading. Nolen may well be best known for his new towns: Kingsport, Tennessee (1915), Venice, Florida (1926), and Mariemont, Ohio (1926). He was undoubtedly the most productive city planner of his time.

Catherine Bauer: After receiving a degree from Vassar (1926) and European travel, Catherine Bauer took a job with a publisher where association with Lewis Mumford led her to study housing and to free-lance writing on housing and architecture. Additional research in Europe resulted in publication of Modern Housing (1934) in which she suggested a national housing policy. In the mid-30s she worked as a researcher for Clarence Stein, assisted in founding the National Association of Housing Officials, and promoted support for a federal housing program. Modern Housing became a foundation for the Wagner-Steagall Act (1937), the first federal legislative commitment to a housing program for America. Bauer served the USHA as director of research and information (1938-40), and then lectured at the University of California-Berkeley and at Harvard. She rejoined the University of California faculty in 1950. Catherine Bauer advised three American presidents on housing policy. Her promotion of city planning inspired the creation of many public planning authorities, particularly on the West Coast.

Rexford Guy Tugwell: Rexford Guy Tugwell was president Franklin Delano Roosevelt's chief advisor on public works. His views on national economic planning, focused on raising workers' wages, reducing hours, and increasing recreational opportunities, became the directional undercurrent for progressive government in mid-twentieth century America. His farsighted plan to resettle the poor in the suburbs in homes of quality with proximity to new jobs and superior educational opportunities was embodied in the work of the Resettlement Administration of the Department of Agriculture, which he directed, resulting in construction of Greenbelt (Maryland), Greenhills (Ohio), and Greendale (Wisconsin). Following a brief period as chairman and head of the New York City Planning Department, Tugwell became governor of Puerto Rico, where he drafted innovative planning laws that guided the island's postwar development. In 1946 he founded the Institute of Planning at the University of Chicago that became an incubator for a generation of influential planning educators and other leaders of the profession. Frustrated by the politics of democracy, which built 3 Greenbelt Towns when he believed 3,000 were needed, and by the perversion of democratic control in the assumption of regulatory authority by those intended to be regulated, Tugwell devoted his final years to reconsideration of the U.S. Constitution which he believed was about to be fatally abused in the interests of private wealth and power.

Jane Jacobs: Jane Jacobs has no professional training in the field of city planning, nor does she hold the title of urban planner anywhere. However, she has used her own observations about cities to formulate her philosophy about them. Though some of her views go against the traditional views on planning, her work is well respected by practicing planners and planning students alike. Born in 1916 in the coal mining town of Scranton, PA, Jacobs has never been afraid to stand on her own. After graduating high school, where she claims she "didn't listen much in class. I would try to, but I would just get bored with it. . . . I just did enough to get by, really" (Feeney, 10), she took an unpaid position as the assistant to the women's page editor at the local newspaper. Shortly after that, and in the middle of the Depression, she left Scranton for New York City. After residing in New York City for thirty years, Jacobs moved with her family to Toronto in 1968, where she still lives and writes. She has written a variety of books over the years, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her first published work, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and Systems of Survival, her most recent effort. It is through these writings that she expresses her ideas about cities. She advocates "mixed-use" in the urban fabric, meaning no separation of the different types of buildings, whether residence or business oriented, old or new. She also sees cities as being "organic, spontaneous, and untidy," (Trueheart, C2), and that diversity and activity are crucial to their survival over the centuries. (Source: Lauren Rawlins, “Biography of Jane Jacobs,†produced in conjunction with a course about Jane Jacobs work at the University of Virginia.)

Ian McHarg: Ian McHarg, received Bachelor's and Master's degrees in landscape architecture, and the Master of City Planning degree, from Harvard. In 1954, he initiated a long-term association with Philadelphia, rising to the chairmanship of the department of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and establishing a professional practice in landscape architecture, architecture, and planning (1962). McHarg became the primary successor to Rachel Carson as leader of the American ecology movement and as a nationally recognized proponent of the primacy of natural systems over the man-made. His book, Design with Nature (1969), became both a call to action and a seminal text on environmentally conscious design. The inventor of ecological planning approaches and environmental impact analyses, McHarg's graphic analysis techniques created the foundations for the geographic information systems (GIS) concept that became an integral part of professional planning practice.

Norman Krumholz: Norman Krumholz earned his Master of Urban Planning degree at Cornell University and has served as a planner in Ithaca, New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Cleveland, Ohio, where he was planning director from 1969 to 1979. Krumholz is the "father of equity planning," a movement during the 1960s that greatly influenced the way planners approached their work in the late 20th century and to the present day. Krumholz argues that planners, in pursuing the "public interest," have a special responsibility to promote policies that will address the needs of the poor and working-class city residents. His book, Making Equity Planning Work, written with John Forester, won the Paul Davidoff Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. Since 1985, he has been professor of urban planning at Cleveland State University. (Source: Planners on Planning, McClendon and Catanese)

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 collection, 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.
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/aboutplanning/.