Urban planners help design environments to fit the way people live. This is a broad career field with varied opportunities for specialization. Urban planning is just one of many public administration jobs that is open to graduates of a quality Master of Public Administration degree program. Jobs are often found in local government, but urban planners may also be employed by state or federal governments, nonprofit organizations, consulting firms and other for-profit companies such as real estate developers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of jobs for urban and regional planners will grow at the rate of 6% from 2014 to 2024. That is about as fast as the average for all occupations over the same time period. Demand for urban planners is typically spurred by population growth coupled with greater awareness of – and desire to curb – our environmental impact.
Suburban areas are the fastest growing and most in need of professional design and planning. Metropolitan areas will continue to require planners who specialize in revitalization. Private, for-profit employers’ demand is expected to increase more dramatically than government employers’ as municipalities are expected to continue to struggle with shrinking budgets.
All urban planners work to determine the best use of land and facilities, but within that broad job description, there are many specializations. Many people think of an urban planner as someone who blends planning with building and landscape architecture to create or improve city layout, street design and green spaces. Urban planners can also specialize in public transportation planning, environmental and natural resource planning (conservation, protection, pollution mitigation/clean-up), or even economic development planning, which seeks to attract job-creating businesses and diversify a community’s economic base. Some urban planners may be drawn to specialize in land use and code enforcement, ensuring that developers comply with building codes and zoning ordinances.
Regardless of specialty, urban planners have a few universal responsibilities. They gather and analyze data and meet with public officials, developers and community members to develop and present plans. They also need to be able to come up with answers for a community’s needs now that can accommodate growth trends 20 or more years into the future. Much time is spent on field investigations, feasibility studies and site plan reviews. Staying abreast of all pertinent zoning laws, building codes, land use and environmental regulations is a must. Not only do planners engage in hands-on design, they critique the work of others, often having a deciding factor in which projects are approved and which are denied.
Like most professionals today, urban planners must be comfortable with and proficient in the use of technology. Geographic information systems (GIS) can be a planner’s best friend, allowing a wealth of data (demographics, statistical analyses, topography) to be overlaid on detailed land maps. Planners can also expect to regularly use spreadsheets, databases, and software to help visualize and present design projects.
The BLS reports that, as of May 2015, urban and regional planners earned a median annual salary of $68,220. The lowest paid 10% brought in less than $42,940, while the highest 10% made over $102,200 a year. Architectural and engineering firms compensated planners the most and local government the least. Of course, level of education and experience figures heavily into a planner’s compensation level. Obtaining certification from the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) is rarely required for employment, but may be an excellent way to boost earnings while improving the planner’s knowledge base.
The vast majority of urban planners have both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. A wide range of undergraduate programs of study can lead to a master’s degree in planning. For example, planners may have undergraduate degrees in political science, environmental studies, geography, sociology or economics. At the graduate level, an MPA degree or master’s degree program in planning are advisable. Quality programs should offer a wealth of workshops, seminars and other opportunities for real-world analyses, problem solving and decision making.
Job candidates should emerge from their studies with analytical skills, the ability to collaborate and manage, and excellent written and verbal communication. To land that first job out of graduate school, it can be helpful to have one or two years of experience gained through internships or a job in a related field such as public policy, economic development, architecture or environmental conservation. An AICP certification may significantly bolster marketability but should be viewed as a longer-term goal, as it requires a specific level of education, on-the-job experience and passing the AICP exam.