City planners help design cities and make such determinations as the height of buildings,
the width of streets, the number of street signs, and the design and location of street
“furniture” (everything from bus stops and lampposts to newsstands and wastebaskets).
Deciding how a city is set up involves creativity, and a career in city planning demands the
knowledge of basic engineering principles, the ability to compromise, political diplomacy,
and financial acumen. Strong analytic skills and sheer force of will are required to be a successful
Every building or structure must be designed with an
understanding of its relationship to other elements of the
city, such as coordinating the construction of water and
power facilities, while still allowing people access to light, heat, and fresh water, or designing
housing complexes that will be close to public transportation. Aesthetic design, another feature
that the planner must consider, can be the subject of hot debate. The urban planner has
to design with an understanding of the policies of the city and create economically viable
plans. This last consideration factor can be difficult—urban-planning projects nearly always
run over budget and past deadline, and even the most frugal design can be expected to run
into opposition from some quarter.
The planner begins by surveying sites and performing demographic, economic, and
environmental studies to assess the needs of the community and encourage public participation
in the process. If the planner is redeveloping an area (as opposed to groundbreaking or
landfilling it), he or she must evaluate existing buildings and neighborhoods before determining
what can be done to change the standing structures. During these phases, planners
work closely with economic consultants to formulate a plan that makes sense for both the
economy of the region and the residents. The next step is to create maps and designs. When
the architects draft plans for the construction of bridges, radio and telephone towers, and
other large pieces of infrastructure, the urban planner works closely with them. The planner
does substantial research regarding zoning and landscaping laws. Occasionally, urban planners
must also design or refurbish the town’s zoning regulations on building usage, in the
manner that is best for the region. He meets with community groups to obtain information
on transportation and land usage. Financing is a delicate aspect of the profession, which
requires that the planner unite social, budgetary, and developmental concerns to respond to
the community’s need for progress, while still presenting a fiscally sound proposal to governments
and private investors.
Urban developers are employed by many different agencies, and many travel throughout
the country to find employment. Recent graduates should look to their state’s Department of
Transportation or look into civil engineering courses sponsored by the United States Army
Corps of Engineers. Experienced engineers often work in private firms or with general contractors,
where the planner enjoys far more independence.
398 | Guide to Your Career
Urban planners should have an undergraduate degree in an area such as civil engineering,
architecture, or public administration. Most schools do not offer undergraduate degrees in
structural engineering, but many employers look favorably on candidates who have
studied structural engineering at the master’s level. A master’s degree in city or regional planning
or structural engineering is the highest laurel and respected by all employers. One
30-year structural engineer noticed that many recent graduates handle textbook problems wonderfully,
but are less apt at identifying and coping with real-life problems. While studying for a
master’s degree, students often do internships to acquire as much practical experience as possible
to alleviate this problem. Internships can convert to paid positions following graduation.
After four years of working full-time, urban planners are eligible to take a step-one
licensing test. There are two of these tests (step one and step two); which one a planner takes
depends on his or her interests and area of expertise. After getting this license and working
for four additional years, serious candidates take another test to obtain the title of professional
engineer. These certifications are not required, but they are respected within the profession.
Generally, acquiring these licenses leads to a promotion and increases in salary.
Geotechnical engineers explore subsurface areas to determine if the soil and rock will
hold up the structure. Architects and draftsmen design the structures. Housing specialists
relay the community’s needs to the planner. Transport planners design plans for public
transportation systems and roads. Any of these professions provides a solid home to the former