Thoughts on City Planning as a Career
This article is for anyone who is contemplating City Planning as a future career field. I have a Master’s Degree in City and Regional Planning and 15 years of work experience at the municipal and regional government levels.
Planning work is incredibly varied and will allow you to work in any number of different concentrations depending on where your interests lie. Planning professionals work in many of the following areas:
· Community development
· Community revitalization
· Downtown redevelopment
· Economic development
· Environmental planning
· Geographic information systems (GIS)
· Historic preservation
· Land use and physical planning
· Transportation planning
· Urban design
· Zoning administration
Working in a small city planning department allows me to work in a number of these areas, as we do not have individuals assigned to specific areas like a larger department would. You could also choose to work for a larger planning organization and focus on just one specific area, such as transportation planning or historic preservation.
1) What are the daily responsibilities of a city planner?
As a City Planner I serve as the staff support for the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) and Planning Commission (PC). The Boards meet once a month in the evening but the work to prepare goes on throughout the month.
The BAR oversees development in the City’s five historic districts. I have daily contact with property owners regarding the rights and responsibilities of living in the historic districts. I help applicants work through the design review process to help them improve their properties.
The BZA hears requests for variances from city codes. I work a great deal with property owners and developers on how to interpret the zoning code and how to make their projects work under the code. If necessary I assist applicants with the variance application process to help them get their projects built.
The PC deals with a number of items but most frequently they hear applications for annexations, rezonings and subdivision approvals.
Part of my work is reviewing and approving residential subdivisions and commercial site plans. This involves working with developers and engineers to ensure that the proposed plans meet all of the relevant City codes such as zoning, parking, landscaping, subdivision, etc.
A great deal of my time is spent working with the public. I spend a lot of my time talking to property owners and developers about what can be done with property, growth trends, demographic information etc. This type of technical assistance is important in helping projects get started in the right direction.
There are always other projects that come up that are not part of your regular routine. Grant writing, newsletters, different types of data gathering and analysis, and other special projects. Flexibility and good time management skills are key attributes for a planner.
2) How important is oral communication in this position? Written communication?
Excellent communication skills are vital for a planner. A great deal of your time will be spent in oral communication. Much of this will be on the phone as you talk with the public, appraisers, realtors, engineers, etc. The knowledge base of the people you will be assisting will vary from expert to novice so it is very important that you can explain your information in the proper way to each individual. As a planner you will also make a large number of public presentations. These could be staff reports to the City Boards and City Council, presentations at public information sessions or programs to outside groups. The ability to communicate well is vital.
Written communication is equally important. As part of my job I write a wide variety of letters, reports and long range studies. They range from single paragraph zoning letters to monthly staff reports, annual grants and longer range planning reports. It is very important that you write well. Most of what you write is public record and available for anyone to read. Your writing should be clear and well researched as you are representing your employer.
3) What would you suggest to students who wish to work in the field?
Attend meetings. The information you learn in the classroom is excellent but not enough. Planning is a very political field so it is important to see this in action. Attending meetings of your local boards and councils will help you see the planning process at work and the environment in which it works.
Take a public speaking class. As I stated above, you will spend a lot of time speaking in front of a variety of groups. The more comfortable you are with this the better.
Choose your school carefully. Different planning schools emphasize different areas of planning. If you have a particular area of interest in the field you can probably find a school that specializes in this. Some schools are more generalist in nature where you will have an opportunity to learn about many different planning areas in that program. Others are more focused in specific areas such as urban design or research and statistics.
Complete an internship. Many schools require you to work an internship as part of the program. This is good for several reasons. You get to see how a planning office works. You can make good contacts among the planning community, which will hopefully help you find a job when you graduate. The intern experience also looks good on your resume.
Become active in the student and state planning organizations. Again, this helps you see how others work and helps you make contacts in the profession.
4) What do employers look for most in a resume?
I think the key for an entry level planner would be some kind of work experience. This is why I think the internship is so important. The more experience you can show the better equipped you should be to come into an agency and hit the ground running. There is always an adjustment period as you start a new job and learn about the organizational culture. The more work related experience you have the easier it should be.
At the beginning the prospective employer will also look at your educational background. Planners can come from other related fields such as public administration or engineering. They all have their own perceived strengths and weaknesses.
5) What are the pros and cons of being a city planner?
The city planning profession is a varied and interesting field. Like all jobs there are some good things and bad things about it.
· Ability to help influence the development process
· Ability to tailor your career to a particular interest (transportation, environmental, land use planning etc.)
· Variety of work keeps it interesting
· Ability to work towards public improvements
· Politics of development can be frustrating
· Working with the public can be frustrating
· Many night meetings
· Overly idealistic individuals can be put off by the realities of property development
· Government work can be overly bureaucratic
· Depending on where you want to work the number of jobs can be limited
- American Planning Association
The American Planning Association (APA) is the professional membership organization for planners.
The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) is the organization for planners to achieve professional certification. It is a part of the APA.
- ACSP: Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning | Credentials in urban and regional planning
This website will help you locate information regarding college city planning degree programs.
- Planetizen | Urban Planning, Design and Development Network
The urban planning news website, featuring articles, op-eds, jobs, courses and information for the urban planning, design and development community.
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