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Thread: New prospective urban planning student needs quite a bit of introduction to this world

  1. #1
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    New prospective urban planning student needs quite a bit of introduction to this world

    Hi everyone,

    So I graduated with my bachelors last year in anthropology (liberal arts school) and Ive been really thinking about what I want to do as a career goal because I've been unsure of my future plans even throughout college. I came across urban planning while I was on a architectural site. I've been really interesting in seeing real estate/land develop in nyc and how communities and spaces become renovated. I feel that urban planning is right up my alley but I am unsure what urban planners actually do. Could anyone explain to me what a typical day would be like as an urban planner? I am also worried about the amount of jobs available in this field in new york city (where I live). If anyone could provide me with some advice, I would really appreciate it.

    Also, is it possible for me to breakthrough into this field without any experience? I do not want to commit to grad school without some type of volunteer/internship/work experience. Does anyone have any pointers on where to look for those in the NY area?

    Is it possible to work internationally as a planner or even to gain experience to become a planner? I really want to gain experience because I want to see if this is a good fit. It seems like a good fit to me but I really want to be sure.

    Also, one other thing I would like to know because my strongest subject isn't math, is if urban planning involved a lot of math skills?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    The short answer for everything is, "it depends." Planning gets split into different specialties, private/public sector, size of planning area (city/county/regional) so the work can be different. I'm a rural county planner so I work mostly to protect the farms from development which is hard to do is they sell their land to a developer. Mostly I do smaller things like building permits, but I also do occasional entitlement work like rezoning cases or subdivision plats. I review them and make sure they meet our codes. Pretty much what any public planner does. I also happen to handle floodplain management and environmental services (don't get excited, it's just septic systems). Private sector will most likely create the plans I review.

    For NYC, check with the local planning department. I'm not sure if they're divided by borough or what, but they might let you shadow someone if you ask nice enough. You could also check with a few private companies like architects, land scape architects, engineers, and planning firms. They might let you check it out. Also good sources to ask about internship opportunities. If you're more interested in the development side, check out the development companies. I think they tend to have more real estate knowledge than planning. They could tell you more.

    Yes you can get a job in planning without experience, but internships help a lot. So does looking outside the city you live in if you're not getting any job leads. Smaller towns are more likely to pick up an inexperienced planner than a bigger city. I'm not sure what the private sector job market would be like, but I expect they want some experience.

    Yes you can go international, but I'm not sure how to get there. It seems Dubai does a lot of hiring. Also check with the federal jobs.

    The math skills part only gets you in trouble in school when you do the data analysis part. If you happen to take a job with a lot of analysis, expect to know your statistics. Otherwise I get by with just minor algebra and a general understanding of statistics (enough to read them, not do them - unless I have to).
    I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's Law. I merely enforce it.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    The three areas which need a little bit more math are:
    • Transportation
    • Redevelopment/Real Estate/Housing (finance concepts more than math)
    • Data Analysis/Research (ability to work with complex Census data and Excel functions)

    There are lots of community organizations, advocacy groups, research organizations, neighborhood groups, and policy groups in NYC that you can volunteer, intern, or work as a junior staffer on for a year or two before you go to grad school (which I think is an excellent idea - I sometimes regret not working more before going to grad school). There are just too many organizations that do planning-ish work in the NYC area to list, unfortunately. Keep talking to people, and be ready to spend a lot of time Googling and writing cold-call style emails to people. A popular option for newly graduated liberal arts undergrads nowadays is to do some sort of "fellowship" for a year with a research group, community non-profit, or a year-long internship with a city government agency. Another popular option is to do AmeriCorps Vista or Fulbright program for a year. I would also spend your "gap year(s)" trying to attend some community meetings, city council/planning commission meetings (they are all open to the public), and interviewing/shadowing planners from a range of fields: public, private, and non-profit/research.

    As to your question about "what do planners actually do" - great question. Things in the planning world are changing so fast that what we do and where is often vague and unknown. As a recent planning school graduate and young professional in the field, here is my take:
    • Public Sector planners at the local municipality level do a lot of land use, zoning and development review as their day to day job. Long term policy and comprehensive planning happens depending on the size of the staff and the City's priorities. Big cities like NYC do a lot of policy and long range planning work, particularly in sub-fields like public health, food systems, public space, resiliency, etc. Public sector planners, no matter what their role, also end up doing a lot of community engagement, project management, managing consultants, and reviewing plans for code compliance. Sometimes they get to write policy. The higher up in government you go (city>regional>state>federal level), the more you tend do deal with budgeting, finance, and high level policy rather than physical projects.
    • Non profit planners are either in the community development/housing field, do a lot of community engagement, education and advocacy, or do policy research.
    • Private sector planners tend to be more technical and do the work that city departments do not have the time, staff, or expertise to do. They are more likely to do heavier statistics, transportation modeling/engineering, environmental, legal, high-tech, or architectural/urban design work. Some also do a lot of community engagement work on behalf of the client (which is usually a city)

    On the spectrum of soft skills (policy/communication/negotiation/community organizing work) vs. hard skills (technical work) it probably goes: non profit planners --> public sector planners ---> private consultants. This is not to say a lot of planners don't overlap their skills and day to day job functions, or that there aren't exceptions. This is just my very broad and personal observation as a young professional who has been working full-time for a year and has interned in all three of these sectors in various parts of the country.

    I know this is a very late response, but I hope it is helpful to anyone that comes across this post and is wondering! Thanks for asking the question.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by NPlanner View post
    I feel that urban planning is right up my alley but I am unsure what urban planners actually do. Could anyone explain to me what a typical day would be like as an urban planner?
    Please view.. I can really use the money..

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  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by akshali2000 View post
    /snip
    I wish someone had posted this about 12 years ago when I first thought about going to planning school! One of the clearest general breakdowns of the profession I've read in a while, or ever maybe.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    td;lr version: Very generally speaking here, but from what I've gathered, local public sector handles more of the regulatory and day-to-day aspects of planning, whereas private consultants are the ones that actually do the projects. Non-profits advocate or research.

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