Be a City Planner: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Research the requirements to become a city planner. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career in city planning.

Do I Want to Be a City Planner?

City planners, also known as urban planners, plan for the use of land in cities based on the various needs of a community. This could include planning that affects transportation, economic development, street design and zoning. These planners may work to increase the economic viability of an underused area, or they could plan to build facilities like schools or homeless shelters.

The majority of city planners work full-time jobs during regular business hours. The job can be stressful, especially as project deadlines approach. Those planners who travel to development sites must be comfortable working outside of an office to inspect land conditions. Job security may be found in working for local governments, as many urban and regional planners do.

Job Requirements

A city planner typically holds a master's degree. Licensure is only required in a few states. The following table contains the core requirements for city planners, as defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree
Degree Field Accredited program in urban and regional planning
Licensure or Certification As of 2011, only Michigan and New Jersey had state licensing or registration regulations for city and community planners; voluntary certification is available through the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)
Experience 1-2 years of relevant experience; this could mean economic development, public policy or architecture
Key Skills Data analysis, speaking and writing, management, teamwork, decision-making
Computer Skills Database programs, spreadsheet programs, presentation programs
Technical Skills Geographic information systems (GIS), which are used to analyze and organize data and statistical information

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

No specific bachelor's degree is required for aspiring city planners, but there are multiple areas of study relevant to the field that can help students get accepted to master's degree programs. Bachelor's degree programs in fields like environmental design, economics, political science, architecture or geography could be useful for individuals intending to apply to urban and regional planning master's degree programs. Students may be able to find urban and regional planning bachelor's degrees, but such programs could be rare.

Success Tip:

  • Demonstrate ability through actual work experience. At the bachelor's degree level, students may be able to engage in projects or internships that could demonstrate a proficiency in urban and regional planning skills. Such a project may be part of the requirements to get into a master's degree program.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

Master's degree programs in urban and regional planning can include coursework in metropolitan planning, GIS technology, laws in urban planning, spatial analysis and negotiation. Students may also partake in studio, workshop or internship experiences. Concentration options are commonly available at the master's degree level, and students could choose to specialize in an area of urban planning, including land use, community development and transportation.

Success Tips:

  • Take advantage of work experience opportunities. Because work experience is typically required by employers, engaging in internship experiences at the master's degree level can help students become qualified for positions more quickly. Not all master's degree programs require an internship, so students may need to put in some effort to get one.
  • Choose a concentration in a preferred area of specialization. Due to the broad nature and complexity of urban planning, concentration options in one of the various areas of the field are commonly offered at the master's level. Proficiency in a particular area of specialization, such as economic or environmental development, could help aspiring planners to develop a specific set of skills preferred by some employers.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

While some work experience can be gained while enrolled in a master's degree program, city planners typically need at least 1-2 full years of professional experience before they are eligible for most positions. Work experience in a wide variety of areas, including facets of architecture or public policy, could be useful to professionals who want to become familiar with the details of the profession. Senior-level positions often require more than a few years of experience specifically involved with city planning.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

Certification is voluntary for city planners, but earning AICP Certification can help these professionals demonstrate commitment to the field and showcase their professional abilities. This certification requires a combination of experience and education plus membership in the American Planning Association. Anyone who has earned the certification needs to take continuing education courses periodically to maintain their certification. Individuals who live in Michigan or New Jersey should consult their state regulatory boards for information about licensure or registration.

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