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Thread: Considering career in urban planning

  1. #1
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    Considering career in urban planning

    Hello,
    I am new to the forums and I have been thinking of a career in urban planning and I wanted to get some advice. First a little about me, I am a few years out of college where I got a BA in physics. I have a strong interest in renewable energy and sustainable living, and I initially thought I would do R&D in renewable energy, but I am thinking that is not for me. Therefore, I was thinking of going into urban planning to help create a more sustainable city and lifestyle. In brief, what is the nature of the work? I would imagine its a lot of collaboration with engineers, officials, etc., is that an accurate guess? What type of person would work well in this field? What would you suggest to someone in my position looking to possibly get into the field? What are the negative aspects of this type of career? Any advice is greatly appreciated, thanks!

  2. #2
    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    Welcome. If you browse the forums like the "Career Development" forum you will see a lot of these questions already asked and answered with much detail. To be brief, Planning isn't as glamorous as college may have made it seem but nor is it as boring as some current planners may say. There are so many different kids of jobs with different organizations this question is not easy to answer quickly. It sounds like you would enjoy working for a private firm who specializes in energy issues more so than a government planner who does a lot of application processing.

    Planners need to be approachable, have thick skin, and get a long well with people. To be frank, a lot of "engineering minds" may not do well in Planning because there is so much people work, community building, etc. It's not someone sitting in a back office redesigning neighborhoods like you might do in Sim City.

    Finally, many jobs are dependent on the overall health of the economy because we are dealing directly with building and development. Many jobs require a Master's (like everything, the more popular a city the more they can demand from their applicants) but the pay is not as good as other fields that require a Master's. Right now is not an ideal time to get into the field but if you have a steady source of income or financial help from your family I'd say it wouldn't hurt to go back to school and pursue a degree as the job market will open up by the time you are done.

  3. #3
    In brief, what is the nature of the work?
    Physically, it is sitting in an office, working on a computer and talking on the phone. Designers may do work with more interaction among co-workers and clients.

    I would imagine its a lot of collaboration with engineers, officials, etc., is that an accurate guess?
    Depending on where you are in the spectrum of planning--design, permitting, public planning office, environmental, long-range planning, policy stuff, etc.--yes. A planner is a collaborator and communicator. You have to be able to communicate ideas well and write well.

    What type of person would work well in this field?
    It depends on what kind of job you have. It's a very broad field, and you could work in a lot of different capacities, from private planning firms that do design, environmental, or long-range planning, to public sector with local, state, or the federal government. You could work for a tiny company or a bureaucracy like HUD or a DOD civilian.
    What would you suggest to someone in my position looking to possibly get into the field?
    Talk to planners and listen to what they say; don't think that you're somehow different and that any advice they give you automatically doesn't apply. Be logical and yet trust your gut.

    What are the negative aspects of this type of career?
    There are several other threads going where this is discussed, including my own perspective, which is mostly negative at this point. However, I have several colleagues who are loving what they do. Mostly, they work for larger private firms or government agencies that are NOT local (i.e. city, county). Suffice it to say, there are positives and negatives depending on who you work for, what your actual duties are, and your aptitude for your current situation. The reason why I am hating where I'm at now, is that my aptitude is not ideal for my current situation. I just try to remind myself that there's no such thing as a dead-end job and everyone will be switching careers several times throughout their working life. At this point I drag myself into work every day, not just because of the nature of my work, but because mentally I have moved on to other prospects, yet I am still here. That's a very frustrating situation. After 3 years, I have a better idea of where I could thrive; it is NOT in local government, or local government planning. However, I don't think there's any way you could find that out until you've done the time. Thankfully, I have not put in that much time.

    Any advice is greatly appreciated, thanks!
    Good luck. A graduate degree can be a big investment of your time, money, and any lost savings and career advancement you will sacrifice while in school. So take your decisions seriously. Higher education is going through an inflationary phase, where degrees are worth less than they were ten, twenty years ago. Consider the worth of 2 or 3 years of experience compared to graduate degree. Depending on where you want to go, the experience could well be worth more than the degree, especially early in your career. In my experience, this is not something a lot of younger people want to hear, but it's something well worth considering.
    Last edited by chocolatechip; 03 Dec 2009 at 4:09 PM.

  4. #4
    Urban planning can be the entrance to community organizing or non-profit management. Some people do real estate development, others run airports. Some are academics, some write books. Some run for public office. (I am thinking of my fellow class members and where they ended up).

    One additional bonus: urban planning is more glamorous than being an actuary!

  5. #5
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post


    Depending on where you are in the spectrum of planning--design, permitting, public planning office, environmental, long-range planning, policy stuff, etc.--yes. A planner is a collaborator and communicator. You have to be able to communicate ideas well and write well.
    More specifically IMHO, this is an analyst job. You move from big picture, to detail, to big picture, to talking with a wide spectrum of people, to big picture, to detail, to co-workers who may or may not be competent and honest, to detail, to conversing with elected and appointed officials, to writing, to detail...

    etc.

    If you are a technician who is comfortable working in a linear fashion along a defined process, then fuhgeddaboudit as there are few jobs in planning for these folks. Planning is usually about being a generalist across many disciplines, and then reaching out to specialists in a discipline to get more information and help. And if you have to win every battle, fuhgeddabodit.

    Good luck in your decisioning.

  6. #6
    More specifically IMHO, this is an analyst job. You move from big picture, to detail, to big picture, to talking with a wide spectrum of people, to big picture, to detail, to co-workers who may or may not be competent and honest, to detail, to conversing with elected and appointed officials, to writing, to detail...
    I agree. If the job can be boiled down to two components, it would be analysis and communication, over and over again, sometimes in a big loop, and winding up back where you started.

    For example, there is this big long range plan and EIR for a high-profile jurisdiction surrounded by other jurisdictions that famously hate growth. Very political and very messy, with water and public services being the primary issues. Here's the kicker: We are talking about the same things today that we talked about two or three years ago. It's just one big circle of analysis, communication, analysis, and communication, and not necessarily making any progressive strides, especially not with multiple groups of lawyers in the mix who get paid hourly with no limit to their contract, administrators who don't want to take ownership of the project, higher-up decision makers with priorities that have little to do with the communities of concern or the environmental impacts, and the public who are frustrated with potential growth that is largely out of their control.

    Planners try to make sense out of that. Except we are way past the point where we were getting paid to do it, and past any point where progress was continuous and measurable... or even manageable. So far in my early career, that's been my culminating experience, and taught me way more than I learned in my planning degree.

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