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A Day in the Life of a City Planner

City planners help design cities and make such determinations as the height of buildings, the width of streets, the number of street signs, and the design and location of street “furniture” (everything from bus stops and lampposts to newsstands and wastebaskets). Deciding how a city is set up involves creativity, and a career in city planning demands the knowledge of basic engineering principles, the ability to compromise, political diplomacy, and financial acumen. Strong analytic skills and sheer force of will are required to be a successful urban planner. Every building or structure must be designed with an understanding of its relationship to other elements of the city, such as coordinating the construction of water and power facilities, while still allowing people access to light, heat, and fresh water, or designing housing complexes that will be close to public transportation. Aesthetic design, another feature that the planner must consider, can be the subject of hot debate. The urban planner has to design with an understanding of the policies of the city and create economically viable plans. This last consideration factor can be difficult—urban-planning projects nearly always run over budget and past deadline, and even the most frugal design can be expected to run into opposition from some quarter. The planner begins by surveying sites and performing demographic, economic, and environmental studies to assess the needs of the community and encourage public participation in the process. If the planner is redeveloping an area (as opposed to groundbreaking or landfilling it), he or she must evaluate existing buildings and neighborhoods before determining what can be done to change the standing structures. During these phases, planners work closely with economic consultants to formulate a plan that makes sense for both the economy of the region and the residents. The next step is to create maps and designs. When the architects draft plans for the construction of bridges, radio and telephone towers, and other large pieces of infrastructure, the urban planner works closely with them. The planner does substantial research regarding zoning and landscaping laws. Occasionally, urban planners must also design or refurbish the town’s zoning regulations on building usage, in the manner that is best for the region. He meets with community groups to obtain information on transportation and land usage. Financing is a delicate aspect of the profession, which requires that the planner unite social, budgetary, and developmental concerns to respond to the community’s need for progress, while still presenting a fiscally sound proposal to governments and private investors.

Paying Your Dues

Urban developers are employed by many different agencies, and many travel throughout the country to find employment. Recent graduates should look to their state’s Department of Transportation or look into civil engineering courses sponsored by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Experienced engineers often work in private firms or with general contractors, where the planner enjoys far more independence. 398 | Guide to Your Career Urban planners should have an undergraduate degree in an area such as civil engineering, architecture, or public administration. Most schools do not offer undergraduate degrees in structural engineering, but many employers look favorably on candidates who have studied structural engineering at the master’s level. A master’s degree in city or regional planning or structural engineering is the highest laurel and respected by all employers. One 30-year structural engineer noticed that many recent graduates handle textbook problems wonderfully, but are less apt at identifying and coping with real-life problems. While studying for a master’s degree, students often do internships to acquire as much practical experience as possible to alleviate this problem. Internships can convert to paid positions following graduation. After four years of working full-time, urban planners are eligible to take a step-one licensing test. There are two of these tests (step one and step two); which one a planner takes depends on his or her interests and area of expertise. After getting this license and working for four additional years, serious candidates take another test to obtain the title of professional engineer. These certifications are not required, but they are respected within the profession. Generally, acquiring these licenses leads to a promotion and increases in salary.

Present and Future

Urban planning began in the United States in the early twentieth century as a response to the rapid development of suburban towns and the renovations of historical cities. Laws placing the control and regulation of building in the government’s hands were passed in New York in 1916. Now, every city and many towns have offices for urban planning and development.

Quality of Life


While at any given time two-thirds of urban planners work for the government, neophyte planners find themselves in their employment in even larger percentages. The novice planner is working under the supervision and guidance of other planners. Many planners work as interns for a portion of these initial years. The hours can be long.


The urban planner’s responsibilities increase, and he or she develops a specialty, such as housing, land use, or zoning. Many planners are becoming quite adept at pitching ideas, working within constrained budgets, and political maneuvering. The majority of planners who leave the profession migrate about this time, fed up by lack of professional progress or failure to pass licensing exams.


Urban planners now lead projects and create policy. Many planners have become directors or senior planners. A number of them have mentor roles where they train and educate newer members of the profession.