Have you ever wondered why towns and cities look the way they do, who determines the direction and length of a street, or who decides which buildings can be constructed where? From the famous silhouette of the New York City skyline to the renowned grid layout of Washington, D.C., urban planners are the brains behind the designs of towns and cities.
What do urban planners do, and what is the process for becoming an urban planner? Explore the answers in this in-depth career guide, then decide for yourself whether becoming an urban planner could be right for you.
What Is an Urban Planner?
In practical terms, an urban planner is a professional who develops plans that determine how tracts of land will be used. However, urban planning has broad implications. The layout of a city, for example, can greatly influence the well-being and quality of life of its occupants. This means that urban planners have substantial responsibility.
Urban planners must determine how to optimize the resources at hand to create communities that facilitate sustainable population growth, the delivery of essential services and the protection of the environment. These professionals are charged with realizing a vision for the town or city, which may include revitalizing older portions of a community while planning the expansion of suburban areas.
The Role of an Urban Planner
Urban planners work toward their primary goals of enabling sustainable population growth, protecting the environment, improving inhabitants’ quality of life, facilitating access to resources and revitalizing economically depressed areas. In the course of working toward those goals, an urban planner might do any of the following:
- Consult with land developers, public officials and community members regarding proposed development and land use plans
- Compile and evaluate information from censuses, market research and environmental studies
- Visit sites around the community to study how various factors affect land use and the community’s development or decline
- Evaluate land development site plans, determine whether they are aligned with the community’s land use guidelines and approve or reject them
Urban planners may need to balance multiple projects at once. For instance, they might work on programs to address a homeless population’s housing needs, plan new parks for families, determine how best to revitalize a rundown area or create districts that are attractive to businesses.
Some urban planners choose to specialize in a particular area, such as historic preservation or urban transportation. There may be more opportunities to specialize within major metropolitan areas than in smaller municipalities.
Preparing for an Urban Planning Career
If you’re still in high school, you should have a discussion with your guidance counselor about your career goals. Ask whether you can take more courses in subjects such as math, physical and life sciences, social sciences, environmental studies, economics and environmental law.
Earn Your Undergraduate Degree
After high school, the process of becoming an urban planner starts with earning your bachelor’s degree. There is considerable flexibility regarding the type of bachelor’s degrees that future urban planners can earn. For instance, these professionals might have an academic background in political science, environmental science, finance and economics, public administration or civil engineering.
Since a major focus for urban planners is environmental protection, an environmental science degree is a particularly popular choice. Environmental studies is a multidisciplinary field that brings together physical and life sciences, data analytics, scientific investigations, mathematics and environmental law. Specific curricula vary from school to school, but in general, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- The fundamentals of environmental science, including how humans affect and are affected by the environment
- Best practices in environmental management and sustainability
- Methodologies in human health risk assessment, environmental hazard identification and exposure assessment
- Principles and applications of environmental laws and regulations, including those related to air and water quality, toxic and hazardous substances, endangered species and coastal management
- The ways in which people and the environment interact, with an examination of pollution, regional planning, earth resources and catastrophic geologic processes
In addition to being mindful of environmental protections, urban planners must also be savvy financial analysts able to make the most of limited resources. This is why earning a degree in finance and economics would be another beneficial choice. If you decide to major in finance and economics, you will likely study topics such as the following:
- The use of managerial accounting data in decision making, including cost–volume–profit (CVP) analysis
- Legal and ethical issues pertaining to business decision making
- The fundamentals of microeconomics, including the law of supply and demand within various market structures
- The principles of macroeconomics, including an examination of long-term economic productivity and growth as well as short-term fluctuations
- Organizational behavior and management, with an emphasis on effective leadership and management practices
After earning your bachelor’s degree, you might be qualified to pursue a job as a junior or assistant urban planner. However, in order to become a full-fledged urban planner, you’ll need to attend graduate school.
Earn Your Master’s Degree
It’s customary for urban planners to earn a master’s degree, and in fact, the majority of urban planning positions require this credential. Look for a master’s degree program that has been accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB).
Urban planning degrees from non-PAB-accredited programs may not be considered acceptable to most employers. Throughout North America, there are more than 70 PAB-accredited master’s degree programs.1 These degree programs accept students with bachelor’s degrees in a variety of fields, such as environmental science and economics.
A master’s degree in urban or regional planning typically takes two years to complete. You’ll take a deep dive into topics such as the following:
- Urban spatial data analysis
- Principles of site planning and urban design
- Community development, including housing and transportation
- Information technologies for planning and urban design
- Advanced topics in geographic information systems (GIS)
- Historic preservation and related laws
- Resource management and environmental law
During the course of your studies, you can expect to spend plenty of time in labs, seminars and workshops. You’ll be presented with various case studies and real-world problems in order to develop your critical thinking, analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills.
It’s customary for a master’s degree program to require the completion of a major research and writing project. Some schools require students to complete a master’s thesis, which is a lengthy research paper. Unlike PhD candidates, however, master’s degree students are not generally required to conduct their own original research.
Gain Relevant Work Experience in Environmental Studies
After graduating with your master’s degree, it’s time to gain some work experience in urban planning or a related field. Some urban planning positions require applicants to demonstrate at least one to two years of full-time work experience in a field pertaining to public policy, economic development, architecture or regional/urban planning. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for individuals to gain work experience through an internship while earning their master’s degree.
Earn a License or Certification
Most states do not require urban planners to acquire licensure. However, you should check with your state board of licensure to determine whether you’ll need a license before you can work as an urban planner. New Jersey, for example, requires urban planners to obtain a state license.
Even if you aren’t required to obtain a license, you may want to obtain professional certification. Some employers may require or prefer that their urban planners be certified. Additionally, urban planners who are certified are stronger job candidates than those who are not, and they may qualify for higher salaries and promotions.
The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) is the professional organization that certifies urban planners nationwide. You can take a test through the AICP to obtain a certification. To qualify, you’ll need to demonstrate that you possess both relevant education from an accredited program and professional work experience.
To obtain your certification, you’ll also need to be an AICP member in good standing, which involves paying an annual fee. After obtaining your certification, you’ll need to work on the AICP Certification Maintenance (CM) program, which involves earning continuing education credits, known as CM credits, on a regular basis.
Is a Doctoral Degree Required for Urban Planners?
It isn’t necessary for an urban planner to earn a doctoral degree. A master’s degree is typically what you’ll need to land an urban planning job and begin to work your way up the ladder, with help from your AICP certification. However, some professionals may decide to return to school at some point to earn a doctorate.
Earning a PhD in urban planning is a good choice for urban planners who think they would like to transition from working as planning professionals to working as academics. In other words, you should earn a PhD if you’d like to teach at the university level.
The Doctorate of Policy, Planning and Development (DPPD) is a professional doctorate to consider if you'd like to continue practicing urban planning. This degree helps professionals deepen their knowledge and skills in order to better solve the problems cities and towns face in the modern world.
Essential Skills and Characteristics for Aspiring Urban Planners
There are a number of skills and characteristics that are important for future urban planners. As you work through your degree programs, you can actively strive to cultivate the following:
- Communication skills, including public speaking and presentation skills
- Computer literacy, including knowledge of technologies such as GIS
- Leadership skills
- Ethical decision-making abilities
- Analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills
Are Urban Planners in High Demand?
It’s expected that changing environmental and transportation needs will drive the demand for urban planners in years to come. Specifically, cities need urban planners to develop revitalization projects that restore economically depressed areas. Urban planners are also needed to address issues such as environmental protection, urban gridlock and housing shortages.
Suburban and rural areas are similarly expected to require more urban planners in the coming years. In these places, urban planners will be needed to develop solutions to issues such as housing and transportation requirements in large areas with low population density. Communities rely on urban planners to develop new infrastructure and to improve existing infrastructure, including schools, parks, roads and housing.
You can find purpose for your future at Grand Canyon University, a dynamic learning environment that strives to create future servant leaders and inspire them to build a better world. GCU offers multiple degree programs suitable for aspiring urban planners, including the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science degree and the Bachelor of Science in Finance and Economics program. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to envision your future at GCU.
1Retrieved from: Planning Accreditation Board, Accredited Programs, All Accredited Programs in March 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.