What is urban planning? It’s a question I get a lot. The funny thing is, it’s probably what you’re thinking. It’s a combination of the things you’ve seen on television (George on Seinfeld annoyed that someone wants to be a city planner instead of an architect; Mark Brendanawicz on Parks and Rec; Luke on Handmaid’s Tale), heard of, or have put together. Maybe it’s some architecture, some public interaction, some cars versus public transportation. Here’s some information about urban planning and how it really does affect your everyday life and surroundings.

what is urban planning

In General

Whenever I tell people I’m an urban planner (plus many other things nowadays) I get one of two responses: 1. Whoa! Urban planners have such cool jobs. OR 2. What the hell is that? Are you an architect?

urban planning architecture architect

Response one: I agree! It is a cool job. Response two: I get it. And no, I’m not an architect (thank goodness) (sorry, architects).

Another usual comment is: But… aren’t cities already planned?

Yes. They were a long time ago, some better than others, and that’s why cities continuously need to be planned. Think about how cars and public transportation have affected cities from the old days. Technology isn’t stopping and I’m sure you’ve seen cities try to figure out what to do about Uber and Lyft and Pokemon Go. Plus, PEOPLE. We keep growing as a population while some cities decline in population, leading to vacancy.

My usual explanation of planning involves a story of a dead mall near where I grew up in Missouri. As many malls have been dying away, their large, vacant properties sit untouched. In this case, the city finally demolished the mall, but besides changing plans and rumors, nobody knew what was going to come of it.

That’s where urban planners come in.

Initially, the city already has laws in place of what can be built on the vacant lot. It’s found in the city’s zoning plan. A zoning plan says what can go where, such as stores and restaurants on one street with homes on another, and how things look like amount of floors or parking behind the building. Since it was a mall, most likely any type of commercial development can be built there in addition to some residential, maybe green space, maybe public space like schools and such. Planners decided that and created the zoning code to enforce it. This is how a torn-down home in your neighborhood most likely does not become a recycling center, an auto shop, or a 100-story building. Planners.

site plan vacant lot

When a large vacant lot like the dead mall becomes available, it’s then up to the city and the city’s planners to decide what will be built there. This includes holding public meetings to know what the community wants, talking to engineers and public works (trash, sewer, water) to find out if the site is actually buildable, and then taking opportunities from developers to build on the site. The developers propose what they want to see on the site (aka what will make the city and public happy while still making the developers money). Planners go back to the codes, what the public said, and edit the site proposal as they see fit. If everything works out, the plan is built and becomes real. Sometimes it’s all a happy ending, sometimes it takes years.

Planning School

Urban planners hold bachelor’s degrees in any field, some in urban planning. Most go on to receive their master’s degree in urban planning. Schools offering these degrees are across the world. They are typically housed in either a design school or a policy school within the college/university. For example, I received my master’s at the University of Pennsylvania’s design school, PennDesign. The design school also offers degrees in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Fine Art, and Historic Preservation to name a few.

Policy schools tend to offer other degrees such as Public Administration, Public Affairs, Business, and Economics.

urban planning concentrations

Within all of these options, urban planners tend to focus on one of many areas. It’s not required, but because the field is very broad (broader than mentioned in the dead mall example) planners tend to have a certain passion. Some examples of these concentrations are community development, economic development, urban design, transportation, real estate, GIS (geographic information systems), environmental planning, land use planning, and housing. I went into urban design as I enjoyed the physical environment side of planning.

Planning Jobs

Many planners end up going into full urban planning jobs, as discussed below. Others will go into the nonprofit world, real estate/development world, or any civil service job just to name a few.

public private urban planning

The full-time urban planning jobs can be divided easily into public and private. 

Public jobs are often with governmental entities, such as the City of Chicago. Large cities have planning departments with multiple planners. This is where concentrations can be used as well. Other smaller governments may have a planning department with a smaller staff, or just one planner. It all depends.

Private jobs are with various groups and firms. This could be a design firm that offers only urban planning; a biking advocacy group; an architecture firm that offers urban planning; and so on.

Public urban planners often deal with the day-to-day planning issues. For example, if you wanted to build a new house or a shed in your backyard, you’d visit your planning office to see what’s allowed and to get the necessary permits. Public planners also participate in or with various commissions in their government. This could include planning commissions, urban design commissions, or historic preservation commissions.

When the public planning departments need extra help or someone with additional resources and expertise to help them out, they higher a private planning firm. The firm assists the city/neighborhood/group by being a consultant in creating any type of plan or project. Often times, these are for larger projects such as comprehensive plans. These plans aim to sum up a city’s current conditions and predict needs into the future. The plan becomes a solid set of rules for the city to follow when, for instance, a dead mall has left a huge vacant space in their community.

That’s the type of planning I love. I enjoy getting to know different communities, assisting with their public meetings, researching the cities’ histories, and developing plans with them. It’s the perfect combination of working with people, getting to know places, and creating strategies.

jane jacobs quote

So that’s urban planning, in a nutshell. Planning affects your everyday life. Your neighborhood is a certain way because that’s how it was planned. Sidewalks and parking and trees are planned for certain reasons. It is a planner’s hope, as well, that when a big change is happening or needs to happen in your area, you have a say, you can get involved, and you can continue loving where you live, work, and play.

The links below are great places to start if you want to learn more!


The American Planning Association

NextSTL – a St. Louis Planning Blog

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