Urban and regional planners develop long- and short-term plans for the use of land and the growth and revitalization of urban, suburban, and rural communities and the region in which they are located. They help local officials alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems by recommending locations for roads, schools, and other infrastructure and suggesting zoning regulations for private property—work that requires forecasting the future needs of the population. Because local governments employ the majority of urban and regional planners, they often are referred to as community or city planners.
Planners promote the best use of a community's land and resources for residential, commercial, institutional, and recreational purposes. They address environmental, economic, and social health issues of a community as it grows and changes. They may formulate plans relating to the construction of new school buildings, public housing, or other kinds of infrastructure. Planners also may help to make decisions about developing resources and protecting ecologically sensitive regions. Some planners are involved in environmental issues including pollution control, wetland preservation, forest conservation, and the location of new landfills. Planners also may help to draft legislation on environmental, social, and economic issues, such as planning a new park, sheltering the homeless, or making the region more attractive to businesses.
Before preparing plans for community development, planners study and report on the current use of land for residential, business, and community purposes. Their reports include information on the location and capacity of streets, highways, airports, water and sewer lines, schools, libraries, and cultural and recreational sites. They also provide data on the types of industries in the community, the characteristics of the population, and employment and economic trends. Using this information, along with input from citizens, planners try to optimize land use for buildings and other public facilities. Planners prepare reports showing how their programs can be carried out and what they will cost.
Planners examine proposed community facilities, such as schools, to ensure that these facilities will meet the needs of a growing or changing population. They keep abreast of economic and legal issues related to zoning codes, building codes, and environmental regulations. Planners also deal with land-use issues created by population movements. For example, as suburban growth and economic development create more jobs outside cities, the need for public transportation that gets workers to those jobs increases. In response, planners develop and model possible transportation systems and explain them to planning boards and the general public.
Planners use computers to record and analyze information and to prepare reports and recommendations for government executives, developers and builders. Computer databases, spreadsheets, and analytical techniques are used to project program costs and forecast future trends in employment, housing, transportation, or population. Widespread use of computerized geographic information systems (GIS) enable planners to map land areas, to overlay maps with geographic variables such as population density, and to combine or manipulate geographic information to produce alternative plans for land use or development.
Urban and regional planners often work with land developers, civic leaders, and public officials and may function as mediators in community disputes, presenting alternatives that are acceptable to opposing parties. Planners may prepare material for community relations programs, speak at civic meetings, and appear before legislative committees to explain and defend their proposals.
Most urban and regional planners focus on one or more areas of specialization, such as transportation planning, urban design, community development and redevelopment, and land-use or code enforcement. While planners may specialize in these, and other, areas, they are also required to keep the bigger picture in mind and do what's best for the community as a whole.
Urban and regional planners often travel to sites intended for development or regulation to inspect the features of the land. Those involved in site development inspections may spend most of their time in the field. Although most planners have a scheduled 40-hour workweek, they frequently attend evening or weekend meetings or public hearings with citizens' groups. Planners may experience the pressure of deadlines and tight work schedules, as well as political pressure generated by interest groups affected by proposals related to urban development and land use.
Education & Training Required
Most entry-level jobs in Federal, State, and local governments require a master's degree from an accredited program in urban or regional planning or a related field, such as urban design, environmental planning, or geography. Students are admitted to master's degree programs in planning with a wide range of undergraduate backgrounds, such as a bachelor's degree in economics, geography, political science, or environmental design. Several schools offer a bachelor's degree in urban planning, and graduates from these programs qualify for some entry-level positions, but their advancement opportunities are often limited unless they acquire an advanced degree.
In 2009, 67 colleges and universities offered an accredited master's degree program, and 15 offered an accredited bachelor's degree program, in planning. Accreditation for these programs is from the Planning Accreditation Board, which consists of three sponsoring organizations: the American Institute of Certified Planners, the American Planning Association, and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.
Most college and university planning departments offer specialization in areas such as community development and redevelopment, land-use or code enforcement, transportation planning, environmental and natural resources planning, urban design, and economic planning and development.
Highly recommended also are courses in related disciplines, such as architecture, law, earth sciences, demography, geography, economics, finance, health administration, and management. Because familiarity with computer models and statistical techniques is important, courses in statistics, computer science, and GIS also are recommended or required.
Graduate students spend considerable time in seminars, workshops, and laboratory courses, learning to analyze and solve planning problems. They are often required to work in a planning office part time or during the summer. Local government planning offices frequently offer students internships, providing experience that proves invaluable in obtaining a full-time planning position after graduation.
Certifications Needed (Licensure)
As of 2009, New Jersey was the only State that required planners to be licensed, although Michigan required registration to use the title "community planner." Licensure in New Jersey is based on two examinations—one testing general knowledge of planning and another testing specific New Jersey planning laws. Registration as a community planner in Michigan is based on professional experience and national and State examinations.
Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Planners must be able to think in terms of spatial relationships and visualize the effects of their plans and designs. They should be flexible and be able to reconcile different viewpoints and make constructive policy recommendations. The ability to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, is necessary for anyone interested in this field.
Urban and Regional Planners - What They Do - Page 2