Urban and regional planners are responsible for long- and short-term land planning as it specifically relates to the growth and revitalization of urban, suburban and rural communities and the regions in which they are located. They are relied heavily upon, particularly by local governments, as they weigh in on plans for developing new roads and where to locate schools and new residential and business developments. As communities grow and expand, these professionals – also known as community or city planners – advocate for the best use of their community’s land.
Not only do they look at the best ways to develop land, they also take care of environmental, economic and social health issues; they need to ensure that there is adequate housing, schools and other types of infrastructure such as community service buildings. If a new business would like to expand or move into town, the urban and regional planners need to make sure that they don’t build on an ecologically sensitive region; many of these planners are also involved in pollution control, wetland preservation, forest conservation and plans for new landfills.
Urban and regional planners do a significant amount of research and writing because it is their responsibility, in preparation for developing land, to report on the current location of street intersections; highways; transportation hubs such as train stations, airports and bus stations; schools; libraries and other vital community landmarks. If they would like to see additional community centers or public-use buildings developed, they must seek input from local citizens and provide a cost-benefit analysis.
City planners stay on top of changes to zoning laws and weigh in on how these changes will affect current and prospective businesses; when building codes change, they notify businesses and private residents who are or could be affected and ensure that these people comply with any necessary changes.
If seeking a position in urban or regional planning, expect to rely heavily on well-developed computer skills. Spreadsheets, databases and data-heavy information are constantly analyzed to predict future trends in everything from housing needs to employment changes; additionally, the ability to decipher maps and information output by geographic information systems is crucial. Polished people skills are also helpful in this career because planners often find themselves at the heart of heated debates that involve many parties in both the private and business community.
Urban planners split their time between the office and the field doing site assessments and inspections. Weekend and evening work can be expected, as this is often when meetings are held with the community to discuss city development plans.
To qualify for an entry-level position, a master’s degree in urban or regional planning or a related field, such as urban design, environmental planning or geography is a must; many students entering a master’s program specific to this field have undergraduate degrees in a variety of backgrounds including economics, political science and environmental design.
Nationally, there are a handful of colleges and universities that offer accredited master’s degree programs, and most of these college and university planning departments offer specialized coursework in community development and redevelopment, land-use or code enforcement, transportation planning, environmental and natural resources planning, urban design and economic planning. When working on a graduate degree, students can expect to spend a significant amount of time in seminars, workshops and lab courses; it is also advisable to participate in related courses such as architecture, law, earth sciences, economics and others.
As the population and communities continue to expand, so will the employment opportunities for urban and regional planners. This field is expected to grow faster than average, driven primarily by state and local governments’ increased planning needs as they relate to transportation services, housing and the development of other community services. Earnings in this area vary considerably, with the lowest 10 percent of wage earners making approximately $38,000 per year. Top earners in the field of urban and regional planning make approximately $90,000 and the middle 50 percent earn between $47,000 and $76,000 per year.