How to Become an Urban Planner in the District of Columbia

DC MapThe District of Columbia is a unique jurisdiction in which urban planners work, as it is not a state but a city, and the capital of the United States. Urban planning in the District of Columbia traces its roots all the way back to 1791, when Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant developed the L’Enfant Plan, the urban plan developed for President George Washington. This plan helped map out the nation’s new federal capital, known as the “Federal City.”

Today, one of the unique aspects to planning in the District of Columbia is its height restrictions on buildings. This restricts vertical growth in this compact city. The metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., as the city is commonly called, is 4000 square miles, including five Maryland counties (Montgomery, Prince George’s, Frederick, Charles and Calvert) and five Virginia counties (Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon. Stafford and Prince William). The district itself is 68 square miles in area, with a population of just over 633,000 (U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2012).

The District of Columbia presents challenges that the urban planner will likely not find within other jurisdictions in the United States. According to career website, D.C. is the third best state in which urban planners can work, based upon salary, job availability, and location quotient for jobs. If you would like to become an Urban Planner in the District of Columbia, read on.

Salary for Urban Planners in the District of Columbia

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that, as of May 2019, the District of Columbia is the highest-paying state (territory) in which Urban Planners in the United States work. With an average annual salary of $109,100, Urban Planners working in D.C. earned salaries that were almost $20,000 higher than those of Urban Planners employed in the next highest state (California).

District of Columbia Laws and Regulations for Urban Planning

The District of Columbia functions under a 20-year Comprehensive Plan, a foundation for the city’s future growth and development. Topics that are addressed within this plan include land use, housing, economic development, environmental protection, transportation, and historic preservation. The goal of the Comprehensive Plan of D.C. is to plan an inclusive city, one in which every member of the community feels welcome at any place within the city.


D.C.’s Comprehensive Plan includes area elements, each of which addresses a specific area of the city. They are:

  • Capitol Hill area element – 3.1 square miles east of the U.S. Capitol, north of I-695, south of Florida Ave and Benning Rd.
  • Central Washington area element- the “heart” of the District of Columbia
  • Far Northeast and Southeast area element – 8.3 square miles east of I-295 and north of Naylor Rd, SE
  • Far Southeast Southwest area element- 10.1 square miles east of the Anacostia Freeway and south of Good Hope Rd./Naylor Rd.
  • Lower Anacostia Waterfront Near Southwest area element- 3.0 square miles along both sides of the Anacostia River in the southwest and southeast quadrants
  • Mid-city area element- 3.1 square miles in the geographic center of the District of Columbia
  • Near Northwest area element – 3.9 square miles directly north and west of Central Washington
  • Rock Creek East area element- 7.4 square miles east of Rock Creek Park, north of Spring Rd, NW and west of North Capitol St. and Riggs Rd.
  • Rock Creek West area element- 13 square miles in the northwest quadrant of D.C.
  • Upper Northeast area element- 8.7 square miles, including two-thirds of the northeastern quadrant of D.C.

Comprehensive Plan Amendment

The District of Columbia government is currently working on amending  the Comprehensive Plan, which was adopted in 2006 and last amended in 2011. This is to make sure that the city continues to evolve in line with the planners’ collective vision, and will set priorities for capital investments, infrastructure and public services of the District. It is hoped that the new Comprehensive Plan amendments will replect the changing conditions and community priorities of the city, and account for the city’s population growth that has been faster than originally expected. The city welcomes input from the public on amending the Comprehensive Plan. You may email or call Josh Ghaffari, Comprehensive Plan Program Manager at (202) 443-7705 for more information or to have your input included in the amendments to the Comprehensive Plan.

Height of Buildings Act

As mentioned earlier, the District of Columbia is unique in planning regulations as it places a restriction on the height of buildings in the city. The original act, passed in 1899, stated that no building could be taller than the Capitol building (289 feet). In 1910, the act was amended and restricted building height to 130 feet for mixed use/commercial areas, 90 feet for residential areas, and 160 feet on Pennsylvania Ave. This act is still in effect in D.C. today, but some people have proposed amending it further. Many who live in the District like the fact that their view is not blocked by too-tall buildings. The debate on building height in the District will likely continue.

Commemorative Works Act

The District of Columbia is also singular among cities as it contains a variety of statues and memorials. Passed in 1986, the Commemorative Works Act specifies that new memorials and monuments must be approved before they are developed and placed within the city. The National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts must review and approve the site and design for all commemorative works.  The National Capital Memorial Advisory Committee has first review duties for all planned commemorative works.

District of Columbia Undergraduate Urban Planning Degree Programs

If you wish to become an Urban Planner in the District of Columbia, you must first obtain an undergraduate degree. It is recommended that your degree be accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board of the American Planning Association . However, no undergraduate programs in the D.C. area hold such accreditation. The closest PAB-accredited undergraduate program to the District of Columbia area is:

  • University of Virginia, Charlottesville – Bachelor of Urban and Environmental Planning

District of Columbia Graduate Urban Planning Degree Programs

Once again, experts suggest that you choose a graduate urban planning degree program that is accredited by the  Planning Accreditation Board (PAB) of the American Planning Association. Choices in the District of Columbia and surrounding areas include:

  • George Washington University – Master of Professional Studies in Sustainable Urban Planning

College of Professional Studies, Sustainable Urban Planning Program

950 Glebe Road, North, 6thFloor

Arlington, VA 22203

Accreditation through December 31, 2023

Sandra Whitehead, Interim Program Director



  • Morgan State University, Baltimore – Master of City & Regional Planning

Department of Graduate Built Environment Studies, School of Architecture & Planning

1700 E. Cold Spring Lane

Baltimore, MD 21251
Accreditation through December 31, 2022
Siddartha Sen, Acting Director


  • University of Maryland at College Park – Master of Community Planning

School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Urban Studies & Planning Program

3835 Campus Drive

College Park, MD 20742
Accreditation through December 31, 2020
Casey Dawkins, Director


  • University of Virginia, Charlottesville – Master of Urban & Environmental Planning

School of Architecture, Department of Urban & Environmental Planning

Campbell Hall, P.O. Box 400122

Charlottesville, VA 22904-4122
Accreditation through December 31, 2020
Ellen Bassett, Chair


  • Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond – Master of Urban & Regional Planning
  1. Douglas Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs, Urban & Regional Studies & Planning Program

1001 W. Franklin St., Raleigh Bldg., Office 3016b

Richmond, VA 23284
Accreditation through December 31, 2021
Damian Pitt, Chair


  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, Blacksburg – Master of Urban & Regional Planning

School of Public & International Affairs, Urban Affairs & Planning

140 Otey St NW

Blacksburg, VA 24061
Accreditation through December 31, 2024
Ralph Buehler, Chair

Professional Certification for Urban Planners in the District of Columbia

American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)

The National Capital Area Chapter of the American Planning Association advocates professional certification for Urban Planners working in the District of Columbia. To earn this certification, you must pass an examination offered by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).  You are eligible to sit for the examination once you have any of the following combinations of experience and education:

  • No college degree and eight years of professional planning experience
  • An undergraduate or graduate degree in a non-planning area and four years of professional planning experience
  • A graduate degree in planning from an un-accredited school and three years of professional planning experience
  • A bachelor’s degree in planning from a PAB- accredited school and three years of professional planning experience
  • A graduate degree in planning from a PAB- accredited program and two years of professional planning experience

Prometric testing centers closest to the District of Columbia area that offer the AICP certification exam include:

  • Washington, D.C. – 1629 K Street NW
  • Bethesda, MD – 8120 Woodmont Ave.
  • Hyattsville, MD – 4301 Garden City Drive
  • Columbia, MD – 6304 Woodside Court
  • Baltimore, MD – 1501 South Clinton St.
  • Falls Church, VA – 800 W. Broad St.

AICP Certification Maintenance in the District of Columbia

AICP’s Certification Maintenance (CM) program helps you to find relevant skills and knowledge to remain current in the Urban Planning profession. Every two years, you are expected to earn 32 CM credits, including 1.5 CMs in Planning Laws and Planning Ethics.  Many CM-eligible events are held annually in the D.C. area, such as:

  • APA Policy and Advocacy Conference
  • Design DC conference
  • Makeover Montgomery conference
  • Annual Chapter Conference

Other Professional Certifications

The AICP is not the only professional certification agency for urban planners. Others include:

Careers for Urban Planners in the District of Columbia

As you might expect, there are many career opportunities within the public sector for Urban Planners in the District of Columbia. There are also, of course, jobs within the private sector. The District of Columbia offers a unique and exciting backdrop in which newly graduated Urban Planners can find work in all sorts of milieu.

Some examples of recent urban planning projects in the District of Columbia are:

  • The Wharf – the southwest waterfront of the Potomac River has been redeveloped and, when finished, will include a mixed-use community of residential, commercial and recreational areas
  • Anacostia Waterfront – this area began its redevelopment with the creation of the Nationals Park baseball stadium in 2008 and continues its revitalization
  • 11thStreet Bridge Park – planned as the city’s first elevated park, this area will include recreation as well as environmental education and the arts
  • NoMA- North of Massachusetts Avenue – this area is north of the US Capitol and Union Station and will include residential, retail and hotel space once completed

Some college urban planning programs offer internships to students. Recently, the following internships were offered in the District of Columbia area:

  • Transportation Planning Intern – ARUP, Washington, D.C.
  • Intern, Inclusive Cities Program-World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.
  • Urban Design Summer Intern – SOM, Washington, D.C.

Urban Planning Jobs in the District of Columbia’s Public Sector

Public sector positions for Urban Planners in the D.C. area have included:

  • Facilities Planner- National Security Agency, Fort Meade, MD
  • Long Range Transportation Planner – City of Alexandria, VA
  • Transportation Planner (Environmental Branch) – Government of the District of Columbia
  • Planner II – Anne Arundel County, MD

Urban Planning Jobs in the District of Columbia’s Private Sector

Private sector jobs for Urban Planners in the D.C. area have included:

  • Sustainability Specialist – Steven Winter Associates, Washington, D.C.
  • Planning & Development Manager – EDENS, Washington, D.C.
  • Urban Designer – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, Washington, D.C.
  • Urban Mobility Associate – World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.

District of Columbia Urban Planning and Real Estate Forecast

A recent report by researchers at the Urban Institute warns that, with the booming housing market in the District of Columbia, many residents may be forced to relocate as they cannot afford the city’s ever-increasing housing prices. In order to match the city’s projected expected population growth, 374,000 new low-to middle-income priced homes must be built by 2030. Fairfax County and the Falls Church area of Virginia have the most vulnerable residents (over 43,000) in terms of housing prices. This points to a need for Urban Planners to plan, design and construct new, affordable housing for residents of the greater District of Columbia area.

Additional Urban Planning Resources in the District of Columbia