What Roles Can Planners Play?

So you’ve developed an interest in urban planning, started pursuing higher education to become a certified planner, or just want to know how you can get more involved in your local community’s planning decisions?

The good news is that there is a wide range of possible roles for aspiring urban planners – but for those new to the field, it’s not always clear what these roles are, requirements to play them, and how they’re related to each other. Here is an attempt to document some basic details about the types of “jobs” planners can have to aid in potential career explorations.

The following diagram summarizes currently known roles in the world of urban planning. The arrows signify the primary target audiences of each role’s work. The size of each role in the diagram roughly reflects the number of people who play that role – not the relative influence or importance of each one.


Academics

In some sense, most planners start out as quasi-academics while in graduate school. This is where aspiring planners are exposed to foundational theory relevant to how societies form, how urbanization occurs, how resources such as land can be organized, and how the built environment can be designed for sustainability. While most students quickly shift more towards practice in their coursework (e.g., reviewing actual General Plans, development proposals, CAD documents), delving back into the academic literature (e.g., journal articles) to inform policy prescriptions is usually needed. Furthermore, it is also expected that Master’s capstone projects would play some part in expanding the field of planning knowledge – which can lead some to being publishable works in their own right.

From there, many budding planners graduate and choose either public, private, or non-profit sectors to practice in. However, those who feel they have more to contribute to planning theory (or wish to eventually teach that theory) may find doctoral (PhD) programs are a better fit. The key determinants of whether a PhD is right for you include:

  • Whether you have a research interest or idea/theory you’re ready to pursue for 4+ more years
  • Whether you have found an academic advisor (professor) that you’re eager to work with
  • Whether you’re aiming for future roles that would only be possible with a PhD (i.e., being a professor, working in a high-level government research arm, or finding an extremely specialized consulting niche)

Those that meet all the criteria tend to become academics for the long haul. Their activities include conducting research, publishing lots of papers (“publish or perish” is the common refrain) and attending academic conferences such as the ACSP Annual Conference or the TRB Annual Meeting.

Academics primarily aim their work at policymakers (politicians), but consultants also often cite their papers in methodology as part of their deliverables.

Public Sector Staff

These are the staff you see working the permit counters at City Hall, engaging with the community at public meetings or outreach events, drafting reports and presentations within government agencies, etc. Increasingly, they are also organizing and interpreting many disparate data sources to inform agency actions or preparing grant proposals to apply for project funding at various levels of government.

While the nature of their work varies greatly, the key defining feature of these roles is that they are ultimately accountable to the general public (a.k.a. the taxpayers). Public sector staff often act as the face of their government agency, which means they endure most of the complaints (no matter how unhinged) but also can take the most pride when projects are delivered well. They also need to serve the wishes of elected officials (politicians), to the extent that their interests reflect the will of their constituents (i.e., the general public).

Unfortunately, public sector agencies are often understaffed in countries where there are efforts to limit government spending (e.g., the United States) – which leads to a high dependence on external contractors/vendors/consultants to do much of the technical work. Contrast this with countries where public service roles are paid well and considered highly desirable (e.g., Singapore) – which can lead to more efficient project delivery and higher quality outcomes.

Consultants

Most entry-level planners seem to start their careers as consultants. This could be due to the wider availability of entry-level positions in the private sector, or the innate desire to start one’s career in a fast-paced environment with a lot of project variety. Regardless, there is a lot that can be learned in short order while working at a consulting firm, so this kind of experience is often sought after.

Consultants most often work behind the scenes to support public sector staff. They may not interface as much with the general public, but they still need to keep both the end users and the political landscape in mind while designing solutions – to ensure their work will remain relevant, feasible, and valuable. More about consulting and how it compares with public sector work can be found here.

Politicians

Running for an elected office is not for the faint of heart. In fact, given the inherently “dirty” nature of politics, only the most thick-skinned should apply. But if one is comfortable being in the spotlight, naturally extroverted, and willing to do the challenging work of connecting endlessly with constituents, becoming a politician can be quite empowering. The fact that your beliefs and values can be projected broadly (as if always using a megaphone) and the ability to influence the direction of public sector projects can result in some dramatic outcomes. Great examples of this can be seen in the changes made in response to political forces in Paris, Boston, Bogotá, and more.

Quite frankly, most politicians do not have formal training in urban planning and this might explain some of the poor decisions made in places like Houston. Thus, it seems to be increasingly valuable for planners to dabble in the political arena at some point in their careers, or at least continue to push on politicians from the public sector, academic, or advocacy sides.

The downside of being an elected official (at least in more democratic societies) is that it becomes necessary to defend your post and justify your value constantly. Some say half the work is just fundraising for the next political (re-election) campaign; this necessity and dependence on financial backers is why it can become difficult for elected officials to stay true to the values they began with (or that most of their constituents actually want). As the Lord Acton quote goes: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Advocates / Non-Profit

If you’re still relatively new to planning, not fully credentialed, or feel that you can’t be effective at implementing plans to improve your community in public or private sector roles, perhaps exploring a non-profit or advocacy route is more appropriate. These organizations play a significant role in ensuring better planning outcomes through activities such as:

  • Communicating with politicians directly about the values of their community (e.g., safety, environmental stewardship, etc.)
  • Rallying members of the public to speak up about relevant issues at public meetings or other outreach events
  • Preparing policy briefs and even potential legislation that can expedite the change they seek

You don’t usually need a specific background or education to support the work of a non-profit. Jobs can include anything from volunteering to gather signatures on the street to organizing fundraising events. It’s a great way to get more familiar with all the stakeholders around a particular cause, and some people feel it can be even more rewarding than a more standard planning professional role in that it is inherently more “grassroots” and people centric. Just be aware that public sector staff will ultimately be directed to respond to your efforts, so remember to treat them with respect!

Influencers

A relatively new type of role that has appeared in the planning scene (along with the rise of social media) is the “influencer.” These are people who may have started in advocacy groups but have found their own voice and medium for delivering gospel about planning-related concepts. Here are just a few examples from YouTube, which has become a major platform for these types of creators (given the popularity of the video essay format):

Their content is primarily educational in nature, with the underlying intention usually to supply valuable ammunition for advocates / the general public to put pressure on policy makers for more sustainable outcomes. Clearly, some skill with social media / video production and marketing is necessary here, but this can be the right type of role for someone who wants to impact the world of planning “at scale.”

Some would say this job might be even more effective at engaging the public about planning issues than being an actual practicing planner would! (Obviously, your mileage will vary.)

The General Public

Finally, it’s important to note that no matter which of these roles you play as a planner, we’re all also members of the general public and have an inherent stake/interest in well-designed and sustainable built environments for our communities. Help educate your neighbors whenever possible, advocate for good governance and sustainable outcomes, and spread the word about best practices in planning.

Furthermore, nothing is really stopping you from dabbling in any or all these roles to see where you can make the most impact at the end of the day. It is not uncommon to see a planner rotate through several of these roles throughout the course of their career. In fact, it helps build perspective and mutual understanding between all the stakeholders involved in planning, so it’s often encouraged!

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