How to Become an Urban Planner

Urban and regional planners are responsible for designing programs and plans for land use within jurisdictions. They help to keep communities safe and healthy through planning for the future. Urban and regional planners work closely with government officials, land developers and the general public. They determine the needs of a certain area and gather and analyze data to create and design plans for that area. Catchwords used by urban planners include zoning, transportation, sustainability, economic development, environmental issues, and public spaces.

It is the job of urban planners to make the lives of citizens easier, safer and healthier. Creation of mixed-use communities and developments, for example, can allow higher densities of populations in an area and make sure that living spaces are near places of employment, retail, dining and recreational spaces. Revitalization of run-down areas of cities can create new living spaces to accommodate increases in population. Historic and cultural treasures, as well as our natural environment and resources, can also be preserved through the utilization of land use and development plans.

Salaries for Urban Planners in the United States

The average annual salary for U.S. urban and regional planners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $77,750 (May 2019 estimate). This translates to an hourly wage of $37.38.  Per the BLS, 38,560 people were employed as urban and regional planners nationwide in May 2019. Those in the 75thpercentile earned an annual median wage of $94,000; while those in the 90thpercentile earned $116,280 on average.

The highest paying industries nationwide in which planners worked in May 2019 were:

  • Social advocacy organizations, in which an annual mean wage of $119,360 was paid
  • Legal services, which paid an average of $104,130 annually
  • Federal executive branch, in which planners earned an average of $98,140
  • Land subdivision, which paid $93,690 on average
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools, in which planners averaged $90,250 annually

Planning Regulations and Laws in the United States

Every state has its own laws and regulations regarding urban planning and land use. According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the 50 states have 3031 intermediate level (usually county) governments and 35,879 local governments. Although states have the power to plan land usage, most decisions regarding land use are left to the county and local governments.

The federal government does own much land across the United States, however, over which it has direct land-use control. Five states have the largest percentage of federal land ownership: Nevada at 85 percent, Utah at 65 percent, Alaska at 61 percent, Idaho at 61 percent and Oregon at 53 percent. Many states also own a large percentage of their land: New York state owns 37 percent of its land, Alaska 29 percent, New Jersey 16 percent, Florida 14 percent and Pennsylvania 13 percent.

Although land use and planning is mainly done at the local level, federal laws do affect planning and land use nationwide. They include the Endangered Species Act, the Energy Policy Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Flood Insurance Program, the Federal Highway Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

Local jurisdictions mainly regulate land use through planning commissions and zoning ordinances. Planning commissions are responsible for subdivision regulations as well. Each jurisdiction has its own policies and procedures, but usually uses a Comprehensive or Master Plan as its foundation for planning. The public has much input into the planning process, as planning and zoning commission meetings are open to the public and citizens’ input is encouraged.

Education for Urban Planners in the United States

Education is the most crucial requirement that you must fulfill in order to become an urban planner in the United States. One accreditation organization, the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB), accredits some undergraduate and graduate planning programs nationwide. Sponsors of the PAB are the American Planning Association (APA), APA’s American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP). Holding accreditation through the PAB means that a program meets its standards and values, including stewardship, collaboration, communication, integrity and leadership. As of 2020, 76 master’s programs and 16 bachelor’s programs at 80 colleges and universities across North American hold PAB accreditation.

Undergraduate Education for Urban Planners

Undergraduate degrees that are recommended for urban planners include titles like:

  • Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning
  • Bachelor of Science in Urban & Regional Planning
  • Bachelor of Science in City & Regional Planning
  • Bachelor of Science in Community & Regional Planning
  • Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies & Planning
  • Bachelor of Urban Planning & Development

As the PAB only accredits a handful of undergraduate programs, attending an accredited undergraduate program is suggested but not mandatory. The following states have PAB-accredited undergraduate programs:

  • Alabama
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Virginia
  • Washington

Graduate Education for Urban Planners

A graduate degree in urban planning is necessary for most, if not all, urban planning positions in the United States. Holding a graduate degree from a PAB-accredited school gives you a highly desirable advantage over candidates for the same job that do not have an accredited degree. Master’s degrees can be in City & Regional Planning, Urban Planning, or a combination of those. Concentrations are also available in areas such as Environmental Policy, Environmental Planning, Economic Development, Built Environment, and Transportation Planning. Typical coursework that you can expect to take in the average master’s in Urban Planning degree program includes:

  • Planning Theory
  • Urban and International Development
  • Physical Planning in Urban and Community Design
  • Planning Law and Legal Framework of Planning
  • Internship

An internship in urban planning is an important part of your graduate coursework. You will get the opportunity to work in a real-world setting, applying what you have learned in the classroom to practical use. Examples of employers nationwide that have hosted college interns are many and include:

  • City of Los Angeles Planning Department
  • Wallace, Roberts & Todd, LLC – Philadelphia
  • Maryland National Capitol Park & Planning Commission
  • World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.
  • NoHo Business Improvement District, New York City
  • AECOM, Dallas
  • Chicago Metropolis 2020

Certification for Urban Planners

American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)

The most popular professional certification for urban planners is through the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). In order to take the certification examination, you must:

  • Be a member of the American Planning Association (APA) (the organization that sponsors this certification)
  • Hold an accredited graduate degree in planning and two years’ professional experience, OR
  • Hold an accredited bachelor’s degree in planning and three years’ professional experience, OR
  • Hold an unaccredited graduate degree in planning and three years’ professional experience, OR
  • Hold any college degree and four years’ professional experience, OR
  • Hold no college degree and eight years’ professional experience

In order to prepare for the examination, the AICP suggests that you consult these materials:

The examination is given at Prometric test centers nationwide. Schedule your testing date and location online at their website. The application fee is $100, and certification fee ranges from $90 to $175 per year. Every two years, you must complete 32 AICP Certification Maintenance credits in order to maintain your credentials. These CM credits must include 1.5 CM on ethics and 1.5 CM on current planning law.

Other Certifications for Urban Planners

There are a variety of other professional certifications available for interested and qualified urban planners. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Certified Floodplain Manager (CFM) – Sponsored by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), this certification is open to members of the ASFPM or of another state floodplain association. You must have experience in hydrology or floodplain management in order to sit for this exam. The application fee is $100, and you must pay $45 each year to maintain your certification, as well as complete 12 continuing education hours annually.
  • Professional Transportation Planner (PTP) – Offered by the Transportation Professional Certification Board, Inc. (TPCB), this certification requires that you meet the following prerequisites:
    • Have an accredited graduate degree and three years of professional work experience in transportation planning; OR
    • Have an accredited bachelor’s degree in planning or transportation and four years of professional work experience; OR
    • Have any college degree and five years’ professional work experience

You must pay a $150 application fee in order to take the exam. Every three years, you must pay a $275 renewal fee and complete 45 professional development hours in order to keep your credentials active.

  • GIS Professional (GISP)- Sponsored by the GIS Certification Institute, this certification is available for applicants with four years of full-time geospatial experience. An examination must be passed, and a portfolio must also be presented. Fees include a $100 application fee, $250 testing fee, $100 portfolio review fee, and $95 annual maintenance fee. Certification must be renewed every three years through a portfolio update.
  • Congress for New Urbanism-Accredited (CNU-A)- Offered through the Congress for the New Urbanism, this certification is open to members of the CNU and is achievable through passing an examination. The application fee is $225. Each year, you must complete eight hours of CNU-approved education events in order to maintain credentials.

Careers and Job Opportunities for Urban Planners

Urban and regional planners in the United States can work in a variety of public and private sector positions. Public sector jobs include jobs at the federal, state, and local/regional levels. Private sector positions for planners could be in privately-owned companies or non-profit corporations.

Where Do Urban Planners Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top industries in which U.S. urban planners work include:

  • Local government, which employed 27,790 urban planners in May 2019
  • Architectural, engineering and related services, employing 4140 nationwide
  • Management, scientific and technical consulting services, employing 1230
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools, where 270 worked
  • Social advocacy organizations, employing 150 nationwide

What Job Titles Fit an Urban Planning Degree?

A wide variety of job titles are attainable with your graduate urban planning degree. Just a few are:

  • Planner
  • Urban Planner
  • Utility Forest Work Planner
  • Project Coordinator/Planner
  • Community Planner
  • City Planner
  • Transportation Planner
  • GIS Planner
  • Land Use Planner
  • Traffic Safety Planner
  • Advance Planner
  • Senior Planner

Forecast for Urban Planning Jobs in the United States

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor notes that, from 2018 to 2028, employment levels of urban and regional planers nationwide are projected to grow 11 percent. This is much faster than the average projected growth for all occupations. In cities, urban planners will be necessary in developing revitalization projects and address population growth, transportation of goods and people, the environment, and resources. Suburbs and municipalities will need urban planners to deal with issues with housing and transportation that are associated with less population density. Competition for urban planning positions is expected to be challenging. This is one reason why attaining an accredited graduate education and professional certifications is so important. Having advanced education and credentials will make you stand apart as being much more qualified than other applicants for urban planning jobs.

More Resources for Urban Planners