6 Best Urban Planning Careers [Degree & Salary Guide]

5 min read
someones hands, holding a red pencil, are holding down large white rolls of paper with building plans on them across a desk

How can we design our cities and towns to support a healthy, just and sustainable future for their inhabitants? Wherever humans make their home, there needs to be a conversation about how the built environment affects the natural one, as well as how it affects the health and safety of residents.

Urban and regional planners are at the forefront of this ongoing conversation, identifying community needs and developing both long- and short-term solutions for improving and revitalizing our living spaces. These professionals play a key role in ensuring that urban areas support a safe, healthy and equitable future for all.

But what exactly does an urban planner do, and what degrees or education do they need? Read on for urban planning career opportunities, salary information and degree options.

Urban Planning Roles and Responsibilities

As the world’s cities and towns continue to grow, urban and regional planning is becoming an ever more vital profession. Urban planners are increasingly called upon to design and build healthy cities that support citizens’ quality of life. Cities contain the majority of the world’s population and, subsequently, experience many of the infrastructure challenges that come with high concentrations of people. It is an urban planner’s job to meet these challenges with creative, equitable and sustainable solutions.

Urban planners (sometimes called city planners or urban designers) essentially identify the best ways for populations to live and thrive together, traverse their communities and sustain a healthy future. While “urban planning” is the common way to refer to this type of work, there are also planners at the regional, small town, rural, environmental and community levels.

Specific responsibilities in urban design jobs include:

  • Gathering and analyzing data from market research, censuses and local economic and environmental studies
  • Conducting field investigations to analyze factors affecting community development and decline, including current land use
  • Identifying abandoned or underutilized plots of land for potential revitalization, accounting for environmental impact and the local population
  • Reviewing site plans submitted by developers
  • Recommending whether proposals be approved or denied
  • Liaising with multiple stakeholders during the proposal, design and development process

Urban and regional planners meet with public officials, developers, subject matter experts and the public regarding land use and development plans to determine the best path forward for improvements or revitalization. They consult and collaborate with environmental engineers, lawyers, architects, sustainability experts, policymakers and community advocates, taking all local needs, concerns and constraints into consideration as they develop their plans.

Urban Planning Career Requirements

Urban planning involves elements of multiple disciplines and fields, including architecture, sociology, engineering, geography and even politics. As such, aspiring urban planners should hold a bachelor’s degree in one of the following disciplines:

  • Economics
  • Geography
  • Political Science
  • Architecture
  • Criminal Justice
  • Civil Engineering
  • Sociology
  • Public Health
  • Environmental Studies

Most urban and regional planners have a master’s degree from an accredited urban or regional planning program. Some positions may require candidates to have 1–2 years of work experience in a related field, such as architecture, public policy or economic development.

Skills and Experience Required for Urban Planning Positions

Since urban planning is truly a transdisciplinary profession, the skills required combine a range of technical and interpersonal abilities.

Urban planners must be able to use and interpret the following:

  • Geographic Information System (GIS) software
  • Statistical software
  • Environmental design software
  • Data visualization
  • Data presentation programs
  • Financial management spreadsheets
  • Database analysis and management (i.e. when studying population density, demographics, etc.)
  • Municipal approval processes and procedures

Since regional and city planning requires interfacing with stakeholders from all corners of a community, urban planning professionals should possess the following interpersonal skills:

  • Effective verbal and written communication
  • Negotiation 
  • Mediation
  • Problem solving 
  • Critical thinking
  • Organization
  • Managing teams
  • Time management
  • Some public speaking and presentation abilities

Urban Planning Certification/Licensure Requirements

Currently, most U.S. states do not require urban planners to be licensed in the field. However, there are opportunities to boost your professional credibility.

The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) offers “the only nationwide, independent verification of planners’ qualifications”. To become certified, candidates must meet certain requirements for education and work experience and pass an exam.

While licensure and certification indicate a dedication to the profession, check with your state’s board of licensure to see if you need a specific credential to begin working.

Careers and Average Salary for Urban Planners

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2021, the average urban planner earns about $78,500 per year with a relevant master’s degree. The number of careers is projected to grow by about 4% over the next decade, which translates to 1,600 new urban planning jobs created between now and 2031, and 3,800 openings per year.

Urban planning positions are not limited to one type of employer or industry; these professionals are hired by architecture and development firms, educational and research institutions, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. They can either be employed full-time by one company, or serve as consultants for hire.

So what can you do with an urban planning degree? Graduates with this or a related degree may be suited to any of the following positions*:

  • Town Planner — $66,989

Proposes designs and development plans for smaller towns or suburban areas, balancing community needs with local ordinances and available budget. A town planner is usually an employee of the local government and may work closely with the mayor, the city or town council and public works employees, among others. 

  • Civil Service Administrator — Varies

This is a broad title that can encompass municipal roles ranging from city clerk to department director to mayoral assistant. As such, there is a wide salary range; a city clerk, for example, can make $62,439 per year, while a director of public works may make up to $135,000. 

  • Community Development Manager — $56,520

Someone with this title might oversee community programs, lead development projects and create new enrichment opportunities for community members. A community development manager with a background in urban planning might focus on expanding and improving physical community spaces, including managing new construction projects or facilities renovations. 

  • Environmental Health and Safety Officer — $97,859

Responsible for ensuring a community’s physical environment and supporting the continued health and safety of its residents. With a background in urban planning, an environmental health and safety officer might assess the air quality of public buildings, analyze municipal vehicle and public transportation emissions or propose structural upgrades to support accessibility and public safety.    

  • Surveyor — $77,416

Land surveyors determine property boundaries using field measurements, public records and land titles on behalf of developers, investors, municipal governments and the public.  

  • Sustainability Consultant — $81,350

Acts as an advisor and implementation partner to help companies meet their environmental and social governance (ESG) goals. Consultants work on a temporary, for-hire basis, often for themselves, and usually set their own prices. Their job is to develop and propose a strategic plan that will establish or improve a company’s sustainability practices.  

*Salary information generated by a March 2023 search on Indeed.

Urban Planning and the MESH Program

Urban planners play an essential role in developing a just, healthy and more sustainable society. Working closely with civil engineers, public health specialists, community advocates and policymakers, they have a major influence on equitable environmental practices at the city-wide level. The city and urban planning profession is transdisciplinary by nature, and requires educational programs that help students develop multiple skill sets.

A transdisciplinary degree program like USD’s online M.S. in Engineering, Sustainability and Health (MESH) can serve as the ideal foundation for any of the careers mentioned in this post, as well as preparation for communicating with professionals in adjacent or related positions. As cities continue to expand and our environmental challenges become ever more urgent, the MESH program helps dedicated sustainability advocates tackle complex problems with creativity and technical expertise.

Urban Planning FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some helpful resources for urban and regional planners?

Several professional organizations set the standards for urban planning, both in North America and abroad. The American Planning Association and the Canadian Institute of Planners are two membership organizations that serve to connect planning professionals to one another for collaboration and educational opportunities. For the latest urban planning news, Next City is a nonprofit online publication that highlights innovative city planning solutions across the U.S.

Are there any scholarships for urban planning?

There are many scholarships available from nonprofits, international organizations and private donors that support sustainability education and career development. The U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool is a great place to start exploring your options.

Are there any volunteer opportunities for urban planners?

Perhaps not surprisingly, many urban planning professionals start their journey in the field through volunteer work. Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity provide excellent opportunities to improve the lives of real people while gaining valuable hands-on experience. The American Planning Association is always looking for volunteers to sit on committees and task forces for various initiatives. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) compiles a list of volunteer programs related to community development and enrichment.

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