So What Exactly IS an Urban Planner?

My dad got a good chuckle out of this hoodie the other day on his Facebook feed: I am an Urban Planner: I solve problems you don’t know you have in ways you can’t understand. This slogan couldn’t be more suitable for an urban planner, yet in many ways, this description of my chosen profession struck a note of discord in my heart.

Most people are either unaware that urban planners even exist or have misconceptions about what is in our power to do. This is not surprising; urban planning is a profession that can be extremely hard to define. Our role is ever evolving and involves a wide spectrum of job duties. However, it is not our job to be mysterious; rather, we should be a person you know quite well. Our main job is to work with the public (YOU) to lay out a common vision for the future of a community and then try our hardest to see that vision implemented. We are not decision-makers (a common misconception), rather we influence decision-makers to implement policies that are publicly supported (relatively) and backed by sound data-driven analysis.

So what is it exactly that we do? Well, again, that is hard to say because we all do so many different things. However, a traditional town planner works in local government to help communities determine how to best maximize the effectiveness and usefulness of land use and infrastructure. That means we are involved in the big picture decisions concerning the physical layout of cities, decisions which are ideally made after a sometimes lengthy and comprehensive community visioning and planning process that includes key community stakeholders and a wealth of public input. Most communities will have some type of master or comprehensive plan, the end product of this process. Once a plan is in place, we are also then involved in implementation of the plan, which can include strategies such as zoning regulation or local ordinances. We are then often involved in sub-planning efforts, developing area plans that focus on key neighborhoods, commercial corridors, and other such significant areas in the community that are highlighted in the master plan.

Aside from our main job description, we do a number of other tasks as well. For example, there are certainly technical aspects to planning, with many of us educated and experienced in spatial and statistical analysis. Basically, we study maps to identify key demographic, environmental, economic, etc., trends that might affect or perhaps even drive future planning projects. We are also tuned into planning law, as much of our job is getting creative with local regulations to achieve community goals. Because most projects require funding or financial support of some kind, we do a great deal of grant-writing and other types of creative financing such as tax credits. Planners also create, develop, and manage community programs, create social change (e.g. encouraging more people to bike to work), and educate the public and city officials about planning issues that affect public health, environmental sustainability, the local economy, etc.

Okay so that is the traditional planner – what about the rest? Well planners can work in every sector (non-profit, government, private) as permanent planners, temporary consultants, and non-profit advocates (to name a few). Many planners also specialize in certain kinds of planning. For example, transportation planners might be specifically concerned with issues concerning the city’s transportation infrastructure while a housing planner might be more concerned with issues impacting the provision of affordable housing. Other types of planners include community planners, environmental planners, historic preservation planners, urban designers (architects at a more macro-scale), local economic development planners, and many more.

So yes, we do solve problems that most wouldn’t people wouldn’t know about without the broad and systematic analysis planners do every day; however, we would very much like you to understand these problems and have a voice in the process. Know your community’s urban planner or planners and participate in important issues that affect your daily life. Finally, follow our blog’s planning stories to learn about the innovative projects transforming communities across the nation.


  1. robynck14 (Post author)

    Not yet, but the wedding is tomorrow. 40 miles left!

  2. Diane Keefe

    Great PR and educational piece on Urban Planners. Did you make it to Buffalo?

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