How to become an urban planner

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Buiness Woman In The CityHave you ever visited a new city and easily found your destination or noticed how well-organized a town’s directions and layout were? There’s probably a talented urban planner to thank for that. These professionals develop plans and programs for the use of land, and create communities, accommodate growth and revitalize physical facilities in towns, cities, counties and metropolitan areas.*

Behind every neighborhood, downtown area, expanding business and open lot, there’s likely an urban planner weighing in on how best to engage the community and work with the surroundings. If you’ve ever looked around your neighborhood and uttered the words, “You know what they should do?”, consider if becoming an urban planner is the right career for you.

The demand for urban planners
As the economy continues to recover and cities and neighborhoods redevelop, urban planners will be needed to accommodate growing populations and revitalize local communities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the employment of urban and regional planners to grow 16 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as average for all occupations. Population growth and environmental concerns will drive employment growth for planners in cities, suburbs and other areas. Urban planners are also commonly employed by engineering and architecture firms for consultation services about land use, development and building.

According to the BLS, “Urban and regional planners identify community needs and develop short- and long-term plans to create, grow or revitalize a community or area. For example, planners may examine plans for proposed facilities, such as schools, to ensure that these facilities will meet the needs of a changing population. As an area grows or changes, planners help communities manage the related economic, social and environmental issues, such as planning a new park, sheltering the homeless or making the region more attractive to businesses.”

Urban planners may specialize in certain areas of development or planning. Suburbs are the fastest-growing communities in most metropolitan areas. As suburban areas become more heavily populated, municipalities will need planners to address changing housing needs and to improve transportation systems.

An increased focus on sustainable and environmentally-conscious development also will increase demand for planners. Issues such as storm water management, permits, environmental regulation, and historic preservation should drive employment growth.

Employment growth should be fastest in private engineering, architectural and consulting services. Engineering and architecture firms are increasingly using planners for land use, development and building. In addition, many real estate developers and governments will continue to contract out various planning services to these consulting firms, further driving employment growth.

Education and work experience
An advanced degree is required for most urban planning positions; usually a master’s degree from an accredited planning program is needed to qualify for professional positions. Many people who enter master’s degree programs have a bachelor’s degree in economics, geography, political science, or environmental design.

Depending on the school’s location and economic surroundings, course offerings and focuses may differ. For example, programs located in agricultural states may focus on rural planning and programs located in an area with high population density may focus on urban revitalization.

These jobs also often require several years of related work experience. Entry-level planners typically need one to two years of work experience in a related field, such as architecture, public policy or economic development. Many students get experience through real-world planning projects or part-time internships while enrolled in a planning program. They often complete summer internships during their master’s program. Mid- and senior-level planner positions usually require several years of work experience in planning or in a specific planning specialty.

Important qualities
While education and on-the-job experience are major factors in determining how qualified a candidate is to be hired as an urban planner, there are other important qualities that employers look for. Some of those qualities are:

  • Analytical skills. Planners analyze information and data from a variety of sources, such as market research studies, censuses, and environmental impact studies.
  • Collaboration skills. In making planning decisions, urban and regional planners must collaborate with a wide range of people. They often work with or receive input from public officials, engineers, architects, and interest groups.
  • Decision-making skills. Planners must weigh all possible planning options and combine analysis, creativity and realism to choose the appropriate action or plan.
  • Management skills. Planners must be able to manage projects, which may include overseeing tasks, planning assignments and making decisions.
  • Speaking skills. Urban and regional planners must be able to communicate clearly and effectively because they often give presentations and meet with a wide variety of audiences, including public officials, interest groups and community members.
  • Writing skills. Urban and regional planners need strong writing skills because they often prepare research reports, write grant proposals and correspond with colleagues and stakeholders.

*Job descriptions, projected growth, median annual pay and education and experience requirements from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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