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Thread: Your major for entering urban planning

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Pegguy11's avatar
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    Your major for entering urban planning

    I'm starting as a first year undergrad student in the fall, studying geography / environmental studies / urban studies. I'm very interested in the planning profession and on how cities work, and am strongly considering entering the field. I haven't declared a major but it will be one of the 3 above, and I'm curious what majors others have had for a bachelors prior to graduate studies, and if any if the 3 above world be more usefully for planning than another.
    Without geography you're nowhere - Jimmy Buffett

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Plus
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    We have had threads that addressed you question -

    How many of you here just have a geography undergrad degree? http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?t=24823

    Geography undergrad, now what? http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?t=34421

    Difference between Geography and Urban Planning? http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?t=17506

    What was your undergraduate major? http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?t=32891

    Revised: geography vs planning http://www.cyburbia.org/forums/showthread.php?t=16310

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Pegguy11's avatar
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    Thanks for pointing me towards some existing threads,
    Without geography you're nowhere - Jimmy Buffett

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Any of the above would be useful, but certainly are not necessary to enter the field - I'm an English major. Architecture, landscape architecture,and economics majors also tend to be useful for planning. What's important is taking the skills you acquire and being able to apply them to the field - for example, as an English major, I'm a strong writer, which benefits me when dealing with writing plans, creating and working through policy, etc.

  5. #5
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    My undergrad was History and it fit well the needs of the program I was in.

    My program had a wide range of undregrad degrees - History, Enviro Science, Math, Arch, Civil Eng, prelaw, Bus-BA even English.

    Good times.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

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  6. #6
    Cyburbian Rygor's avatar
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    I started out as an art/industrial design major before I knew Urban Planning even existed as a program at my school, so I think you can pretty much get into it from anything.
    "When life gives you lemons, just say 'No thanks'." - Henry Rollins

  7. #7
    I started out in CJ, hoping to take that into law school. After that stopped being an option, I changed my concentration to planning until the program got folded into the public administration program. I ended up with a degree in public administration, which is considered an allied profession/degree.
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    While any major or background works, my advice is to go for a technical undergrad major (Arch, Landscape Arch, Civil Eng, Economics, Journalism, Graphic Design GIS, etc.) or anything fairly narrow that will give you strong "hard skills", coupled with a minor in something more general or "soft", such as urban studies or geography which will prepare you for a planning degree in grad school down the line. As someone who didn't go this route (I did community planning in undergrad), I wish I had because I think it's important to balance technical vs. non-technical/generalist thinking. You can either start off narrow and move towards something more general in grad school (like planning/urban studies/public admin), or start out general and do your master's in something technical. I advocate the first route because it can be much more difficult to go the second route (For example, it's difficult to get into an M.Engineering program if you haven't had a considerable background in STEM or a previous engineering degree). Another advantage to having both backgrounds is increased job opportunities, since it's difficult to get a job in the planning sector right out of undergrad.

    That being said, if you strongly feel you are more suited for the humanities, don't force yourself to study something for 4 years that you will regret. But if you think you can handle it, try going the technical route first. In many universities, it is much easier to change majors into planning or urban studies or geography as compared to switching into Arch, LA, Engineering, etc after your first year because of their strict curriculum and course sequence requirements. In some cases, programs have to be applied to separately. At my school, anyone could get into planning at any stage of their degree, but you had to specially apply to get into Arch or Landscape Arch or Graphic Design at the end of your first year. They were not programs that could be easily switched into, whereas planning was due to the flexible nature of the curriculum and more room for electives.

    Also consider whether you would like to work for local government or private firms, and which area of planning you are interested in. In the private sector, having a design or engineering skillset paired with a planning mindset *might* be SUPER valuable (ex: Say you want to be a transportation planner. In addition to someone who can write and speak well and think critically, wouldn't it be great to hire someone who could also design bike lanes, quickly visualize concepts or understand engineering drawings or traffic models? Consider it from the angle of the employer. Two for the price of one!)

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    I was a biology/physics undergrad. My class included people who got their undergrads in art restoration, English lit, chemistry, architecture, environmental science, and of course geography. Planning is one of those disciplines that most people don't find out about until later in their lives and is also fairly broad. If you're planning on doing a masters I wouldn't necessarily recommend one undergrad over another for getting into planning. Honestly, the best thing you could do is come out of your undergrad with an ability to communicate and write well, work hard, and approach problems with an analytical mind.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by akshali2000 View post
    While any major or background works, my advice is to go for a technical undergrad major (Arch, Landscape Arch, Civil Eng, Economics, Journalism, Graphic Design GIS, etc.) or anything fairly narrow that will give you strong "hard skills", coupled with a minor in something more general or "soft", such as urban studies or geography which will prepare you for a planning degree in grad school down the line. As someone who didn't go this route (I did community planning in undergrad), I wish I had because I think it's important to balance technical vs. non-technical/generalist thinking. You can either start off narrow and move towards something more general in grad school (like planning/urban studies/public admin), or start out general and do your master's in something technical. I advocate the first route because it can be much more difficult to go the second route (For example, it's difficult to get into an M.Engineering program if you haven't had a considerable background in STEM or a previous engineering degree). Another advantage to having both backgrounds is increased job opportunities, since it's difficult to get a job in the planning sector right out of undergrad.

    That being said, if you strongly feel you are more suited for the humanities, don't force yourself to study something for 4 years that you will regret. But if you think you can handle it, try going the technical route first. In many universities, it is much easier to change majors into planning or urban studies or geography as compared to switching into Arch, LA, Engineering, etc after your first year because of their strict curriculum and course sequence requirements. In some cases, programs have to be applied to separately. At my school, anyone could get into planning at any stage of their degree, but you had to specially apply to get into Arch or Landscape Arch or Graphic Design at the end of your first year. They were not programs that could be easily switched into, whereas planning was due to the flexible nature of the curriculum and more room for electives.
    ^smart advice. Although many planners will say that "any major will do, as long as you apply thinking", etc., that was true in days past. In today's economics, fighting for an entry level planning job is competitive. So you better has some hard-skill specialization that is uniquely useful to the department; otherwise, you'll have to get in line with the rest of the applicants and hope/pray that you've networked enough. Here's my experience, for example: after graduating from planning school in 08 and not having any luck scoring a planning job, I went into Land. Architecture and have since had a fair amount of planning opportunities. So if I were giving advice, go with an architecture, landscape architecture, engineering in undergrad and then maybe minor or get a post-grad certificate in land use planning. In my experience, planning as a degree does not make you competitive enough to break into the working ranks after school.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by mercdude View post
    ^smart advice. Although many planners will say that "any major will do, as long as you apply thinking", etc., that was true in days past. In today's economics, fighting for an entry level planning job is competitive. So you better has some hard-skill specialization that is uniquely useful to the department; otherwise, you'll have to get in line with the rest of the applicants and hope/pray that you've networked enough. Here's my experience, for example: after graduating from planning school in 08 and not having any luck scoring a planning job, I went into Land. Architecture and have since had a fair amount of planning opportunities. So if I were giving advice, go with an architecture, landscape architecture, engineering in undergrad and then maybe minor or get a post-grad certificate in land use planning. In my experience, planning as a degree does not make you competitive enough to break into the working ranks after school.
    I'm kind of torn on this advice. I did go this route, but it was before I knew I was going to become a planner. My engineering degree isn't related to planning, but the mere fact that I have one is advantageous to me. It obviously shows that I have some level of comfort with technical plans, and it also gives me credibility when working with developers and engineers. However, if I'd known that I wasn't going to actually be an engineer when I was in school, I wouldn't have put myself through that degree program. It was hard and frustrating and stressful, and even though I was never in any danger of failing out or anything like that, my grades were not what I would have expected them to be.

    The other thing is that if I could have remotely been satisfied being an engineer, I would be making a lot more money than I make now working as a planner for the public sector. If you're working for the private sector, that advice may be more true and it may be worth it to go that route. But if you really want to be a planner as opposed to an engineer that works on developments, I don't think it's necessary to go for a hard technical undergrad degree.

    Just my two cents. If I knew I would end up here, I probably would've gone for an undergrad degree in economics. I'm satisfied with my life, and I'm proud of my educational accomplishments, I just don't think I would've put myself through that if I knew I wasn't going to actually use those hard skills directly.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I majored in, um, planning then got a masters in public admin. I should say that I started as an Arch major, but after two years I didn't make it into the upper division so I switched over to planning like so many others. I found I'm much better at planning than arch anyway.
    I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's Law. I merely enforce it.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by gtpeach View post
    I'm kind of torn on this advice.... However, if I'd known that I wasn't going to actually be an engineer when I was in school, I wouldn't have put myself through that degree program. It was hard and frustrating and stressful, and even though I was never in any danger of failing out or anything like that, my grades were not what I would have expected them to be.
    Totally understand. But aren't you proud of the struggle? I know that my engineering and architecture friends sure as hell are, and they don't ever forget it or let anyone else forget it. I commend you for making it through. Think of it this way: would you rather struggle as a student, or struggle later on your job when you lack "credibility" as a planner and are forced to spend 2 hours of your day going through manuals and frantically Google searching standards hoping someone will have mercy to teach you their engineering wisdom? Obviously, yeah as a planner, you won't be using your technical degree to the amount you would be if you stayed in that field. But looking back at my personal experience, having gone through the rigor would have been helpful to me. Learning the planning stuff later (whether on the job or in graduate school) isn't really that hard - it's quite relatable to an anyone who follows the news, comfortable with reading, is a decent communicator and wants to make the world a better place (IMHO).

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by akshali2000 View post
    Totally understand. But aren't you proud of the struggle? I know that my engineering and architecture friends sure as hell are, and they don't ever forget it or let anyone else forget it. I commend you for making it through. Think of it this way: would you rather struggle as a student, or struggle later on your job when you lack "credibility" as a planner and are forced to spend 2 hours of your day going through manuals and frantically Google searching standards hoping someone will have mercy to teach you their engineering wisdom? Obviously, yeah as a planner, you won't be using your technical degree to the amount you would be if you stayed in that field. But looking back at my personal experience, having gone through the rigor would have been helpful to me. Learning the planning stuff later (whether on the job or in graduate school) isn't really that hard - it's quite relatable to an anyone who follows the news, comfortable with reading, is a decent communicator and wants to make the world a better place (IMHO).
    What are these "manuals" you speak of? Haha. Again, I'm very proud of my degree and the work it took for me to get it. I just wouldn't advise it if doing something engineering-ish isn't really your goal!

    I went to grad school in Public Policy, and even there having a technical background was helpful. I was a much stronger technical writer than a lot of the people I was in grad school with. And I do agree the "softer" skills are easier to pick up...

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    ^ My thoughts exactly. Coming out of planning school and then going into a more technical field (LA), it was obvious to me that planning students would either 1) not be as competitive in the development industry 2) would need a lot of OTJ training. Which is the same training you walk out of architecture/engineering school with, so it makes the transition that much easier - soft skills are easily learned. If I had to guess, the difference probably lies somewhere in the theoretical approach to how the disciplines get taught in school: AE - technical training for a defined profession P - broad training for undefined positions that are tailored for each organization.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by gtpeach View post
    What are these "manuals" you speak of? Haha.
    Whoops, should have mentioned I'm an entry-level transportation planner . Hence, by manuals I meant, FHWA, AASHTO, NACTO, MUTCD, etc.

    To the OP: If Civil Engineering or Arch/Landscape Arch are not your thing, some liberal arts-esq majors that would also be great background for planning include:
    • Statistics
    • Data Analytics, Information Science or Computer Science* (that one's probably not in liberal arts, but hey, maybe! Some universities have two CS programs - one in Engineering and one in LAS)
    • Economics
    • Journalism
    • Environmental Science/Studies or maybe geography, if it has a strong GIS component and you can get a job doing research, in the private industry, or with a non-profit after you graduate for a year or two.

    Open to other ideas as well!

  17. #17
    Cyburbian
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    Some good cross-overs:
    Geography - these guys typically get hired to do GIS
    Real estate - sometimes go into prop mngt or leasing
    Public policy - general management analyst
    Social Psychology - same
    Environmental Science/Studies - same

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Ringo's avatar
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    I guess I would be a minority with a Community and Regional Planning Degree

  19. #19
    Without being too much of a contrarian on this one, as a lifer civil servant, we've always either used the county/city engineer or subbed it out. While I don't have a degree in engineering, I've picked up a fair amount of knowledge working with engineers, reviewing plans and writing ordinances. My degree in public admin helped me out far more than I would have thought, especially after I became a
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

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