What degree do I need to become an Urban Planner?

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What is Urban Planning?

Before delving into the degree choices in this discipline, we need to establish what it is and what an urban planner does. By understanding these, you will better grasp the various curricula at the college level.

Urban planning has several names: town planning, city planning, rural planning, and regional planning, depending on whether it is a small town or major metropolis, like Chicago or Atlanta. In this endeavor, planning considers many factors, such as public transportation, aesthetics, parkland, sanitation, traffic, the environment, and the infrastructure. The latter includes electricity, water, bridges, roads, and sewer systems. All these aspects must create efficiency and attractiveness for the residents and tourists.

Historically, urban planning is not an 18th or 19th-century venture, but the first recorded reference is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem from about 2100 BCE. It refers to the city of Uruk, founded around 4500 BCE in what is now modern Iraq. Lines in the epic poem are:

One square mile is city, one square mile is orchards, one square mile is claypits, as well as the open ground of Ishtar’s temple. Three square miles and the open ground comprise Uruk.

More recently in history, the Greek philosopher Hippodamus of Miletus from the 5th-century could be one of the first labeled planners, and Aristotle called him “the father of city planning.” As a student of urban planning, you come across the Hippodamian Plan named after him for the orthogonal layout of a city. This method uses a grid of right angles to map roads. However, Aristotle mislabeled Hippodamus as archaeological investigations revealed that the Egyptians preceded the philosopher in right angle urban design.

For example, the city of Al Lahoun in ancient Egypt had streets designed in an organized fashion, including a sewage system to transport waste from residences. This example of planning was from the Twelfth Dynasty of 1991 to 1802 BCE.

To address all of the above considerations, the urban planner must be versed in many disciplines. Examples are civil engineering, politics, architecture, geography, landscape design, public administration, and social sciences.


Associate Degree

What’s the minimum education available in urban planning? You could start with an associate’s degree at a local community college or online for convenience and cost savings. As offered at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, a two-year degree in urban studies covers sociology, cultural anthropology, urban sociology, human rights, human geography, and criminology.

Unfortunately, an internet search for associate degrees in this discipline is rare. Moreover, employment opportunities will not be plentiful with this degree. Students should aim for the next level, which will open up the choices immeasurably and provide a better salary in most instances.

Bachelor Degrees

As explained later in this article, a bachelor’s degree is beneficial in the job market, and you’ll find numerous online and resident programs from which to choose. The following are randomly selected programs that illustrate what kinds of courses you can expect.

The Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, has a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Regional Planning. The curriculum prepares graduates to meet the challenges associated with the growth and culture of regions, cities, and neighborhoods. Students receive theoretical teaching in the natural, physical, and social sciences and the practical evaluation of housing, environmental concerns, employment, and more.

The A&M diverse coursework includes composition, rhetoric, mathematics, economics, calculus, state government, social problems, ecology, and conservation.

Individuals who prefer distance learning might look into Arizona State’s 120-credit Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning. Students learn critical thinking, ethics, economic development, government planning, Geographic Information Science (GIS), and transportation. Some of the courses mirror those at A&M, for example, math, composition, social science, natural science, Geographic Information Science (GIS), and urban planning. Both programs have an internship.

Different schools use different names for their undergraduate degree; for example, South Dakota State University in Brooking has a B.S. in Community and Regional Planning. The career objectives for students taking this degree are city managers, community planners at the local, city, state, or regional level. The courses do not differ significantly from urban planning programs.

At South Dakota, you’ll study oral and written communication, algebra, natural science, GIS, site planning, urban geography, environmental issues, criminology, and state, regional, and community planning techniques. With this knowledge, graduates have landed jobs at South Dakota Mines and Technology, Oregon State Forestry Department, Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (GSA), Garmin International, SD District Planning, and many others.

The state university of New York (SUNY) in Oneonta has a four-year Bachelor of Science in Geography with the option of three tracks:

  • Geography
  • Geography – Geographic Information Systems
  • Geography – Urban and Regional Planning: Takes an examination of geography’s relationship to the global environment, population, economics, sustainability, water resources, and transportation.

Some areas of study:

  • The water resources class does a case study of the Colorado River and New York City’s water supply.
  • Economics focuses on energy consumption, regionalization, land resources, and planning strategies.
  • Population class covers human settlement, a planet with 7 billion humans, food scarcity, nuclear weapons, natural disasters, sanitation, and endangered species.

Master’s Degree

Generally, a graduate degree generates more job possibilities and a higher salary. However, the job listings do not support this premise in urban planning. If you peruse employment sites online, most educational qualifications specify a bachelor’s degree in urban and regional planning, environmental studies, geography, public administration, or related fields. Some stipulate that a master’s degree is acceptable in the absence of experience. A City Planner opening in Hastings, Nebraska (2021) with an hourly pay range of $29.83 to $41.80 per hour makes this statement.

Here is a cross-section of posted positions on Indeed as of October 2021 for urban planners, city planners, and associated functions, along with the stated salary and degree.

  • Assistant Planner in Fairfield, California ($80,642 – $108-202): Bachelor’s, master’s preferred plus three years of experience.
  • City Planner in Tomball, Texas ($70,756 – $95,729: Bachelor’s degree plus experience.
  • Associate City Planner in Denver ($62,000 – $74,000): Bachelor’s degree in urban or regional planning, architecture, engineering, or landscape architecture.
  • Associate Planner in Mount Vernon, Washington ($5,376 – $6591 per month): Bachelor’s degree in planning, business administration, or related field.

Those who decide to pursue a master’s degree, either before securing a job or after, will have several choices at this level. The University of Central Florida (UCF) offers a two-year Master of Science in Urban and Regional Planning, accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board. Some of the 42 credit hours include Land Use and Planning Law, Transportation Policy, Managing Economic Development, Urban Design, and Environmental Planning. There are also a host of electives comprising nine hours.

Students can complete a graduate program in one year by enrolling in the University of Miami’s Master of Real Estate Development and Urbanism. The degree incorporates the strengths of the School of Architecture and School of Business faculty. Courses cover real estate law, finance in the real estate market, construction and project management, and urbanism. This curriculum might interest individuals with an undergraduate degree in urban planning who want to broaden their knowledge in another area.

Another degree title is Community Planning, as offered at the College of Liberal Arts Department of Political Science at Auburn University. Furthermore, no prerequisite majors are necessary to apply to this accredited program that boasts of a 95% placement rate for graduates. Some of the core courses examine land and urban economics, urban design, land use law, GIS of planning, and quantitative methods for urban planning.

Licensure and Certification

New Jersey is the only state requiring urban planners to be licensed and renewed every two years, as regulated by the State Board of Professional Planners (part of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs). However, The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) offers a professional AICP certification for planners meeting education, experience, and exam requirements. According to the AICP, certified planners receive more than $16,000 per year than non-certified professionals. Hence, certification is more than a status symbol to add to your credentials – there are definite perks to earning one.

Students can become American Planning Association (APA) members at no cost as a means to begin learning more about the job through trade publications and career guidance. You will join over 40,000 individuals from across America and 90 countries with access to one of the 47 chapters in the United States. The fee schedule structure for the APA and AICP increases based on the planners’ salaries. At the lowest end of less than $42,000, dues are $79 and $70 respectively or $149 for both. (Membership to both organizations is not mandatory).

Second from the top of the membership is the wage range of $120,000 and above with $431 (APA) and $185 (AICP) fees. The highest level is the Undisclosed Salary, about $5 higher than the previous dues.

Job Expectations

Urban Planners need to have exemplary oral and communication skills to discuss and present ideas to public officials, government agencies, private developers, architects, contractors, and the general public. Sometimes urban or regional planners have to work with controversial issues such as sheltering the homeless or planning a tax-funded city park. Situations will arise that demand diplomacy and apathy and the ability to see both sides of a difference in purpose.

There are several types of city or urban planners; each has a focus, although there is overlap in these job descriptions:

Transportation Planners organize mass transit, including pedestrian routes and bike paths. New light rail proposed in your city? You can guess that Transportation Planners are working on that project in conjunction with city officials and consultants.

Land and Code Enforcement Planners address land-use activities while considering historic preservation (if applicable), zoning, flood plain management, infrastructure needs, and energy usage. Code enforcement, restaurant inspections, trash disposal, abandoned vehicles, and unsafe structures are under the purview of this role.

Environmental Planners concentrate on sustainability. The term refers to preserving the natural habitat and avoiding pollution from manufactured sources. Their responsibilities typically bring them in conference with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and non-profit organizations representing the silent fish and wildlife. You may need a degree in environmental engineering for some jobs.

Economic Development Planners focus on bolstering small businesses, retail activity, tourism, and employment. The functions as an economic developer may overlap with code enforcement, building safety, housing assistance programs, and parking services.

Other Skills

Urban planners need to be comfortable with digital technology as they will be knee-deep in data, demanding critical and analytical thinking. These two traits are imperative to one’s success as an urban, city, local, or regional planner. A survey conducted by Hart Research Associates in 2013 of 318 employers confirmed this assertion. Published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the study revealed that 82% of respondents believed that institutions need to put a greater emphasis on critical thinking and analytical thinking! And 80% attested that college graduates lack written and oral communication skills.


Before embarking on pursuing a college degree, individuals should initially research the job prospects. Why go to all the effort to earn a degree, regardless of the level, and then discover the job market is deplorable? Choosing a discipline you have a passion for and can be relatively assured of finding a job at graduation – makes more sense.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment is projected to grow by 7 percent from 2020 to 2030 – only a change in 2,700 jobs over ten years. The median wage for Urban and Regional Planners was $75,950 in May of 2020 for those with a master’s degree. California (7930), Florida (2,950), Washington (2,270), and Texas (2,180) have the highest employment levels. The San Francisco-Oakland area has the best wage at an average of $107,810, likely influenced by the cost of living there.

Most Planners work standard business hours; however, there are the occasional nights and/or weekend meetings with officials, planning commissions, or neighborhood groups.

Population growth and environmental concerns will create a greater need for future planners in our cities, suburbs, and small towns. The increased emphasis on sustainability will find developers seeking out the expertise of Planners to collaborate on land use projects. Also, your degree in urban planning creates the prospect of working in related areas, such as environmental consulting, commercial real estate, historian, city councilor, parks planner, regional development, strategic planner, project manager, disaster management, facilities development, housing consultant, and others.

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