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Thread: What do urban planners exactly do?

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    What do urban planners exactly do?

    So lately I've been planning a lot into what I'm going to study to become an urban planner but i came to realise i don't exactly know what urban planners do.,..

    What do urban planners in general do? What are the different types of urban planners? I read on some topics most can be divided into strategic and statutory planners, what are the differences between these two? What is an average day like for an urban planner? Can it be stimulating and imaginative or are ideas bogged down by laws and policies?

    Also is it easy to work overseas as an urban planner? I'm guessing not? I'd love to be able to work overseas if it wouldn't be too hard.

    Thanks.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Clu View post
    So lately I've been planning a lot into what I'm going to study to become an urban planner but i came to realise i don't exactly know what urban planners do.,..

    What do urban planners in general do? What are the different types of urban planners? I read on some topics most can be divided into strategic and statutory planners, what are the differences between these two? What is an average day like for an urban planner? Can it be stimulating and imaginative or are ideas bogged down by laws and policies?

    Also is it easy to work overseas as an urban planner? I'm guessing not? I'd love to be able to work overseas if it wouldn't be too hard.

    Thanks.
    Probably five dozen threads on this board discussing these issues, including several combinations of Australia.
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    I have already done lots of searches but haven't found enough information.

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    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Can you be more specific then? The other threads here have covered the topic very extensively. What are some of the specific things you would like to know?
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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Clu View post
    I have already done lots of searches but haven't found enough information.
    What is 'enough'? The questions in the OP are some of the most common on this board, if not the most common. In the past 3 months there must be a half-dozen on working overseas, and there may still be one in the right column on the main page.
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  6. #6
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    What is 'enough'? The questions in the OP are some of the most common on this board, if not the most common. In the past 3 months there must be a half-dozen on working overseas, and there may still be one in the right column on the main page.
    Our search engine has taken a turn for the worse in terms of finding threads and information since Dan upgraded to V.4. ColoGI and Cardinal are correct though that this issue has been covered at length. Try using google search with the search terms cyburbia+what urban planners do and you will get all the threads on what we do.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

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    Quote Originally posted by Raf View post
    Our search engine has taken a turn for the worse in terms of finding threads and information since Dan upgraded to V.4. ColoGI and Cardinal are correct though that this issue has been covered at length. Try using google search with the search terms cyburbia+what urban planners do and you will get all the threads on what we do.
    Thanks Raf, the google search engine is a lot better. If i have more questions i'll write them here, and more specifically.

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    Okay i'm back now with some more specific questions and a repeat of what i haven't been able to find. I'm sorry if again i ask something which has been said many a times but i did spend a lot of time searching.

    Do you find the work stimulating/creative or restrictive/boring?
    I looked around on the forum and the roles of work in the field seems to be so big but i'm wondering if it can be boring. Some people said all they do is review development applications everyday, does that get boring? More specific, when it comes to working on ideas for master plans, developments, urban renewal etc. do you feel you can add a lot or are your ideas heavily restricted due to laws, policies, angry NIMBYs... Also who is it that works on designing plans for master plans and such.

    How easy is it to work in countries overseas where you can not get a working visa easily. I'd love to work in North East Asia but of course it isn't easy to get a working visa in such countries, as well as of course language issues (I am however studying Korean).
    Also would studies and experience in Australia cause trouble for trying to work overseas? Of course this all would depend on each country but a generalisation would be nice. I saw quite a few posts saying they knew people who have worked in Dubai... can't say i'm interested in working in that mess though lol.

    I'm not just interested in working in typical urban planning jobs overseas, but also international development. I found some info on this in some of the threads but i'm wondering how hard it would be to get one of these jobs and if a major in international relations or developmental studies would be at least somewhat necessary?

    Thank you.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Clu View post

    Do you find the work stimulating/creative or restrictive/boring?
    I looked around on the forum and the roles of work in the field seems to be so big but i'm wondering if it can be boring. Some people said all they do is review development applications everyday, does that get boring? More specific, when it comes to working on ideas for master plans, developments, urban renewal etc. do you feel you can add a lot or are your ideas heavily restricted due to laws, policies, angry NIMBYs... Also who is it that works on designing plans for master plans and such. .
    It is crushingly boring to me to do nothing but current planning all day, every day. Others like it, including (younger) friends of mine. YMMV. There occasionally are times when a planner can inject their ideas into plans. Depends upon where you are. Some places you have little input, others more (whether input survives public process, planning commission, other commissions, city council is another story). It also depends upon the developer, who often has their own planning firm on retainer, and if you are lucky you'll work with that representative before the process begins. Or maybe you want to be that representative, in which case private practice is a different animal with different requirements, billing minima, work expectations, reactions to the economy, and so on.


    Quote Originally posted by Clu View post
    How easy is it to work in countries overseas where you can not get a working visa easily. I'd love to work in North East Asia but of course it isn't easy to get a working visa in such countries, as well as of course language issues (I am however studying Korean).
    Also would studies and experience in Australia cause trouble for trying to work overseas? Of course this all would depend on each country but a generalisation would be nice. I saw quite a few posts saying they knew people who have worked in Dubai... can't say i'm interested in working in that mess though lol..
    Dunno. I just saw a couple recent threads on this topic, consensus was it is tough.

    Quote Originally posted by Clu View post
    I'm not just interested in working in typical urban planning jobs overseas, but also international development. I found some info on this in some of the threads but i'm wondering how hard it would be to get one of these jobs and if a major in international relations or developmental studies would be at least somewhat necessary?.
    That's probably a Master's if you want a good shot at it. Lots of folks have that idea.
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  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Clu View post
    Do you find the work stimulating/creative or restrictive/boring?
    I think this one really depends on where you work. Some jurisdictions allow for more interesting things to happen than others. If you're not in a jurisdiction that values planning, you'll probably be in a situation where you're largely relegated to issuing approvals and not actual planning. At least to me, that type of stuff can get boring quick.

    I'm not just interested in working in typical urban planning jobs overseas, but also international development.
    I think the key for any of these jobs is getting international experience. It's kind of a catch-22 though since you'll need to somehow get international experience without having any first. This is what makes breaking into the field somewhat difficult.

    As for how easy is it to work overseas. That really depends on what country you're interested in going to. In general, most first-world countries are going to be difficult to find employment in since they'll likely have sufficient pool of candidates to fill the job domestically. You may have an easier time finding employment through some NGO or contractor in a developing country but that'll still likely require you to have some international experience to be considered. You're best bet is either volunteer abroad in some capacity to get some international experience or to try to find work with some transnational company and hope they move you around.

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    Thanks guys! I've read up on the differences between urban planning and urban design, but i'm kinda having trouble working out who out of the two works on master plans? The thing i find most interesting is masterplans, of course they'd both work on these together but who plans how the streets will set out, the density and land use of areas, where a park will be and where houses will be etc.

    My take is that urban designers focus on the feel/look of a place where else urban planners decide the land use?

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    I do a lot of physical land use planning/physical site design. I don't call it "urban design" because the majority of my projects are "suburban" in character and the rest are rural. I design streets and lots (subdivisions, master planned communities, town centers). My degree is a BUP but it is policy/analysis oriented. I started designing imaginary cities as a kid, started college in architecture, switched to planning, and built up a design portfolio over several years of internships and entry-level work. If you are interested in this type of work, I would recommend a degree in landscape architecture.
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  13. #13
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    I do largescale master planning work - meaning I function as both an urban planner and as an architect - of large-scale master plans, focusing on building programs. Most of my projects are urban, often in the hearts of big cities all over the world. A lot of it is redevelopment-oriented. A small amount of my work has been in suburban contexts, but that's usually because somebody wants to densify and create a new core. Sustainability in terms of resource management is an important part of my approach, so I get involved in a lot of planning around environmental design issues, infrastructure and building energy and water use. Each plan is multi-disciplinary, covering different elements - such as the physical massing strategy, program, public realm, transportation, open space, etc. My job is either to (a) shape the overall vision and plan, (b) develop the physical massing and program, or (c) provide sustainability strategies for a plan, depending on the whether it is project I'm running or am contributing to.

    Juniors on my teams tend to focus on one or more aspects of the plan, with one or two people focusing on the overall - designing and putting together books and presentations that pull everything together. Generally, everybody on the team will have an assigned executive or production role: one person will focus on maintaining the CAD base and rendered site plan, another person or two might focus on diagrams, and more than one somebodies will focus on the 3d model and liaising with outsourced digital artists and animation artists. Team members also will have specialized design roles: land-use and program, overall character, the look of buildings, retail, landscape, accessibility and circulation, environmental design analysis, energy, etc.

    Since a plan is a complex thing, no one person will do all of the work, and they will inevitably require outside specialist input. For me, that means bringing in the right outside people for areas such as site civil, geotechnical, transportation, landscape design, ecology, brownfield work or other specialized areas. Not all of these specialists may be engaged at the onset, and many of them will come on board in something other than a consultative/site survey role - only after the basic plan we develop has been accepted and developed to a certain point

    In what I do and how I work, there is no real distinction between the urban design and planning roles. The team members may have background training in either planning or architecture or both - we do not draw a distinction based on a person's background, and they are all expected to do be able the same work, or at least to quickly get to the point where they can.

    No two master plans are the same.

    Hope that helps.

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I would add to the great feedback so far that another way to think about things is to ask not just “what do urban planners do?” but “what can one do with an urban planning background?” I think that attitude shift will be important in the coming years anyway as the economy continues to readjust to current economic realities. Graduates will have to be more innovative in how their skills can benefit a wide range of activities beyond what might be labeled “urban planner” in the want ads. Planning, I believe, is well positioned for this. At least the training I received. But the sell is not always easy.

    I have an MCRP degree (community and regional planning) and now work for a non-profit housing developer. Much of my day-to-day is focused on managing the financial resources needed to build housing (and these funding packages can be very complex) and project management for the things being built, but also bleeds over into public planning activities. For example, every time we are about to embark on a new phase of development, we heavily engage with our local residents to flesh out the nature of the new phase. We then use this medium-range plan to guide the actual development process/implementation. The advantage to our approach to development is that we take our licks from the public up front in the planning stage. Then, by the time we are ready to go to the City for variances and other approvals, we show up with community members in tow, saying they support the plan (because they were involved in its design). Its more time-intensive than typical development approaches, but the advantage (drawn directly from public planning best practices) is that you enter the project in league with the neighborhoods and not opposed to them. Of course, on the ground it’s a little messier and there are always people who are not in favor of this or that element. But overall, people appreciate being involved even if all their ideas do not come to fruition.

    As a planner, my role in all of this focuses both on facilitating public input (running meetings, collecting ideas) and working to massage those into concrete plans. It’s a dance between listening and distilling what people want or what concerns they have and knowing what is feasible financially and design-wise. There is a lot of back-and-forth, devising plans, critiquing them, getting feedback from builders and other design professionals like architects, then going back to the community and doing it again.

    I think a challenge in any field (from medicine to law to planning ) is that until you get into it, start taking classes, engaging in real world projects, its hard to know what the options even are. Opportunities and little zones within any field tend to emerge as you go along in the process. Planning and medicine, for example (particularly public health) is something that had not occurred to me until I was already partway through my studies and a course was offered. I thought that would have been a cool area to focus in but it was too late for me. I guess with this I am just saying to keep your options a little open and take advantage of internships, professional assistanceships, etc. as opportunities to both network and get experience in some of these planning and planning-related opportunities. You may be surprised at what comes up!
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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Most of my physical work has to do with green infrastructure (ColoGI) in built environments, dense urban or in suburbs or McSuburbs. Streets, drainage, LID, trees, plans, gardens, assessment, stormwater, etc. Some of this is design, some is buy-in from stakeholders, some is funding, lots of paper pushing.

    I've adopted the optic of 'herding cats' as a useful description for planning, as that phrase is a slightly exaggerated descriptor that everyone can understand, but not everyone wants to do.

    We were in a bar yesterday and my neighbor started talking to me and when I said some of what I do is an urban planner, I got that reaction. We all know what that reaction is.
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  16. #16
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    Most of my physical work has to do with green infrastructure (ColoGI) in built environments, dense urban or in suburbs or McSuburbs. Streets, drainage, LID, trees, plans, gardens, assessment, stormwater, etc. Some of this is design, some is buy-in from stakeholders, some is funding, lots of paper pushing.
    Sounds like land development and civil engineering with some landscape architecture thrown in.

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