What Is the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Urban Planner?

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As a naturally creative person, you know that you want to put your resourcefulness and your unique way of seeing the world to work in whatever occupation you choose. However, you might be faced with the problem that careers in the arts aren’t as plentiful or particularly lucrative as STEM jobs. What if you could combine your creative passions with your drive for innovation and embark on an exciting career that pays well and offers a favorable job outlook? Urban planning is among the top 10 degrees for creative people. You can put your creative talents and resourcefulness to work imagining and creating models of physical spaces and structures that are well designed for all members of a community. By combining your creative and innovative skills, you can have the best of both worlds in a career that is both stable and exciting.

The Role of an Urban Planner

Urban planners determine how to use land to establish new communities, alter existing communities to handle population increases, and revive the buildings and structures that make up cities. Urban planners analyze data and environmental factors to understand the options for using a particular patch of land. The creative aspect comes in when urban planners create new plans and programs for how to use that land.

Through the use of technology, urban planners predict the future of a community, project outcomes for populations, and identify issues and goals. Planners help carry out community plans set forth by public officials, oversee projects, and enforce zoning regulations. They often work with teams of people to carry out a common goal in the planning of a community.

Urban planners are problem-solvers by nature. They identify a community’s needs and develop both short- and long-term solutions to improve and revitalize an area or region. As a region grows and populations burst, urban planners must manage issues and challenges faced in the area. For example, urban planners address economic, environmental, and social issues, such as attracting businesses to a particular community, planning new parks, and sheltering the homeless population. Urban planners may also specialize in certain areas of planning, such as community development, historic preservation, transportation, or urban design.

An Advanced Degree in Urban Planning

Aspiring urban planners typically need a graduate degree, even for some entry-level positions. Of course, like students in other fields, they must first begin their educational trajectory by earning an undergraduate degree. About 15 colleges now offer accredited urban or regional planning degrees at the bachelor’s degree level, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Other popular choices of undergraduate majors among aspiring urban planners include economics, architecture, landscape architecture, environmental design, geography, political science, and public administration.

An undergraduate degree may be sufficient for students to attain entry-level positions, like junior or assistant planner, but it will often not be enough to qualify candidates for more established roles. And, if you’re seeking advancement, you won’t get far with only a bachelor’s degree. Advanced roles in urban planning require that candidates earn a master’s degree from one of the more than 70 accredited graduate degree programs in urban and regional planning.

An image of an urban planner for our FAQ on the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Urban Planner

During a master’s-level program, students should expect to develop analytical and problem-solving skills through classroom seminars, laboratory classes, workshops, and real-world internship experiences. Subjects may vary from one location to the next, so students should choose their graduate schools carefully to make sure they are learning the material that is most relevant to their intended career and goals.

In a master’s degree program, a collection of subjects and requirements are taken. Most urban planning master’s degrees take two years to complete and cover a range of topics. Core subjects might cover topics like introduction to spatial analysis, planning action and communication, and quantitative reasoning. Introductory courses may also be offered in specialized areas like city design and development, environmental policy and planning, housing and community development, and international development planning. All courses prepare students for a career in urban and city planning. Additional components of a master’s in urban planning degree may include a thesis preparation and practicum course. Thesis preparation usually takes place during the second or third term of study, and the fourth semester is devoted to completing the written thesis. In some programs, field work and internships may also be required, or completed in lieu of a written thesis.

In certain states, candidates must also earn a license or registration to work as an urban or community planner, though this is not the norm. As of 2016, New Jersey started to require all urban and regional planners working in the state to be licensed. To become certified, candidates must meet certain educational and experiential requirements before they are eligible for the licensing examination. Certification for planners is offered through the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).

Important Qualities and Characteristics of Urban Planners

In addition to education and training, certain qualities and characteristics make an urban planner successful. Some of these skills cannot be taught in the classroom, but are an innate part of who the person is. However, some characteristics may be honed and sharpened by education and training. Below are four important qualities every urban planner should have.

Analytical skills: Urban planners spend the day analyzing data from various sources. They gather information and synthesize studies. They evaluate censuses, environmental impact studies, and market research. To understand challenges and address problems, urban planners must have strong analytical abilities. They must also be able to utilize statistical techniques and technologies such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems). GIS helps with analyses and the determination of data significance.

Decision-making skills: In order to determine the appropriate action or plan, urban planners must be able to make decisions. The job calls for strong decision-making abilities. Urban planners must weigh all possible planning options, outcomes, and challenges. They must rely on data to address these challenges, while being creative in choosing the appropriate plan of action. Strong, and quick, decision-making skills will definitely help.

Leadership skills: An urban planner must be able to manage projects and people. They oversee tasks and plan assignments. They delegate work and follow up on deadlines to make sure the assignment is completed on time. To be able to manage tasks, urban planners must have solid leadership skills. A good urban planner works cohesively with a team and inspires, motivates, and challenges team members to deliver a successful project.

Strong communication skills: As with all careers, strong communication skills are important. Urban planners must effectively communicate with a variety of people. While working on a project, urban planners communicate with colleagues and stakeholders. They deliver information through reports and presentations, meet with wide audiences, and address community members. They also work with public officials and interest groups. In order to provide updates and address challenges faced while working on a project, urban planners must be able to effectively communicate.

An image of an urban planner for our FAQ on the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Urban Planner

Earnings for Urban Planners

The benefits of pursuing a career in urban planning are numerous. The pay for urban planning is substantially above the median salary for all occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), urban planners earn a median annual wage of $75,950 per year (compared to the median of just $41,950 for all careers). Even the lowest 10 percent of earners in this occupation made more than the median for all occupations. BLS reports that the lowest 10% earned less than $46,830, while the highest 10% earned over $118,280.

In certain industries, such as federal government, architecture, engineering, and management, the median wage is even higher than the average. Of course, the opportunity to use your creativity and resourcefulness to make a real, concrete difference in communities is fulfilling work. However, if you are pay-conscious and driven toward a favorable earnings potential, there are certain industries that are more lucrative than others. BLS reports the four top-paying industries for urban planners as follows:

Federal government: $102,390
Architectural, engineering, and related services: $81,110
Local government, excluding hospitals and education: $74,530
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: $69,100

The above earnings are based on the median annual wages of urban and regional planners working in each industry.

While pay varies by industry, it also varies by geographic location. BLS reports five top-paying areas for urban and regional planners. Here, planners earn well above the average annual wage. According to BLS, the District of Columbia offers an annual mean wage of $113,680 for urban and regional planners. In California, this occupation reports an annual mean wage of $95,840. New York pays an annual mean wage of $93,330 for urban planners. Washington is the fourth-highest-paying state for urban and regional planners. In Washington, this occupation sees an annual mean wage of $86,460. Oregon also offers a favorable earnings potential for urban and regional planners, with an annual mean wage of $86,380.

Metropolitan areas, such as San Jose and Santa Barbara, California are among the highest-paying regions for urban planners. According to the Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics reported by BLS, San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, California pays an annual mean wage for urban and regional planners of $109,910. In Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, California, urban planners earn an annual mean wage of $108,860.

Certain non-metro areas, surprisingly enough, also offer urban and regional planners favorable earnings that are well above the average for all other occupations. In Coastal Oregon, planners should expect an annual mean wage of $91,450. Alaska non-metro areas offer an annual mean wage of $83,410, and Nevada non-metro areas offer a mean wage of $81,140 to urban and regional planners. Other top-paying nonmetropolitan areas for this occupation include South Central Wisconsin and Eastern Sierra-Mother Lode region of California.

An image of an urban planner for our FAQ on the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Urban Planner

Job Outlook for Urban Planners

Urban planners should expect a highly favorable job outlook over the next decade, with an anticipated employment growth of 11 percent. Growth will be driven for urban and regional planners as demographics, environment, and transportation changes over time. Within cities, urban planners will be needed to address issues surrounding population growth. They will propose and develop revitalization projects and improve resources that might become scarce due to anticipated growth. They will also be needed to help with environmental degradation and the transportation of people and goods. Housing and transportation changes in larger areas propose challenges, and urban planners will be needed to address these changes.

Likewise, in suburban areas, planners will be needed to address challenges associated with population growth. Housing and transportation needs are among the most pressing challenges faced in suburban areas.

In both urban and suburban locations, planners are helpful in the development of improved infrastructure. This is true in both new and existing communities. Planners help address issues faced in housing, parks, roads, schools, and sewer systems. However, as much as the occupation expects growth over the next several years, there will be budget impacts that could slow growth.

As indicated above, employment growth of 11% is anticipated for urban and regional planners. This number is nearly three times more than the average growth for all other occupations. It is also seven percent more than the projected employment change for social scientists and related workers, according to BLS. However, government budgets (federal, local, and state) may impact employment of planners, especially those working in government. Government projects operate on available funds. If the funds aren’t available, the projects may be postponed or canceled.

Individuals seeking jobs as urban planners could face competition for available positions. As job opportunities for this occupation are impacted by budget constraints, fewer openings may be available. In government agencies, urban planners may face the most competition due to budget impacts, but municipalities and developers often have more funds readily available. However, planners will be in some demand over the next several years, and qualified applicants with education and experience will be needed.

BDP Staff
July 2021

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