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The Game Plan

Build a better city, and a great career, with an urban planning degree.

Everyone knows architects design buildings and contractors, along with many able-bodied construction workers, build them. But who designs everything in between—the roads, the parks, the waterways, even the sidewalks? That would be urban planners, a group of individuals focused on making every neighborhood a better place to live. Their jobs meet at a very interesting and often tricky intersection of public demands, political agendas and environmental concerns. Not only does an urban planner need to be trained with the skills to make everyone’s request a reality, they need to know how to balance them.

How do urban planners get the credentials and experience for the work they do? That would be their urban planning degree. There are graduate and undergraduate urban planning degrees, but graduate programs are the most popular—and growing.

“Since 2008 we’ve seen a 30 percent increase in undergraduate applications, and a 70 percent increase in Ph.D. applications,” says Robin McCallum, graduate advisor at the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Luskin School of Public Affairs. McCallum says this is partly due to “the expansion of planning needs nationwide.” As of January 2013, the U.S. Planning Accreditation Board accredits 72 master’s and 15 bachelor’s programs at 76 North American universities.

Core courses in grad programs typically include history and theory of urban planning, statistics, urban design, urban economics, land use and planning law, and planning practice. Though there are plenty of schools to choose from, a few programs rise above the rest.

Ezra Haber Glenn, a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the number of enrolled international students, especially from India, has been rising. “MIT’s program in urban planning has a long tradition of work in international development, and the challenges of planning for the next generation will be increasingly global—so it makes sense to have students come from all over.”

So what should you major in for your undergraduate degree if you would like to be an urban planner? Earth sciences, mathematics, policy, life sciences, geology, physics or geography. Diversifying your study and work experience are integral to the skill set of a future urban planner, says Kieran Donaghy, professor and chair of Cornell University’s Department of City and Regional Planning. “Students should immerse themselves in current events. Obtain a broad-based education, but develop some marketable skills,” Donaghy advises. “Seize opportunities to intern with public agencies and firms who are engaged with issues of contemporary importance: transportation, land use, housing, infrastructure, energy use and the environment.”

Once you are enrolled in an urban planning program, you should get your passport ready because you may be hitting the road, since studying abroad is an important part of the journey. “The Department of City and Regional Planning has had an enduring relationship with the Peace Corps that connects former and future volunteers to graduate studies in planning and professional international development planning opportunities,” says Cornell’s Donaghy.

But it’s not all studying while abroad—your program can also help you get work experience as well. Says UCLA’s McCallum: “Our International Practice Pathways program places students in internships, and this summer, numerous students from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs are working and interning around the globe as part of UCLA Luskin’s strategic plan to engage the school and its mission in international issues.”

But the road to becoming an urban planner isn’t all dry course work and piles of textbooks.

“I’m currently an urban planning graduate student at MIT, where a lot of time is spent deciphering exactly what it is an urban planner does,” MIT graduate student Andy Cook writes in an article on NextCity.org. “Everyone you ask will give a different answer, but a common theme is this: We’re supposed to be the ones that see the big picture.”

And the best way to be prepared for life’s big events is to first plan a truly great education.


Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.