What Is Planning?

Planning, also called urban planning or city and regional planning, is a dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive places for present and future generations.

Planning enables civic leaders, businesses, and citizens to play a meaningful role in creating communities that enrich people's lives.

Good planning helps create communities that offer better choices for where and how people live. Planning helps communities to envision their future. It helps them find the right balance of new development and essential services, environmental protection, and innovative change. 

Planning is done in many arenas and involves professionals who are planners and those who are professionally certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). Planners work with elected and appointed officials, such as mayors and planning commissioners, to lead the planning process with the goal of creating communities of lasting value. Planners help civic leaders, businesses, and citizens envision new possibilities and solutions to community problems.

The American Planning Association and its professional institute, AICP, help planners, officials, and citizens better serve their communities by providing research, educational resources, practical advice and tools, and up-to-date information on planning. Planners working with community members help communities meet the challenges of growth and change.

Read the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor's listing for "Urban and Regional Planners" in its most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook.

What Do Planners Do?

Professional planners help create a broad vision for the community. They also research, design, and develop programs; lead public processes; effect social change; perform technical analyses; manage; and educate. Some planners focus on just some of these roles, such as transportation planning, but most will work at many kinds of planning throughout their careers.

The basic element is the creation of a plan. Planners develop a plan through analysis of data and identification of goals for the community or the project. Planners help the community and its various groups identify their goals and form a particular vision.

In the creation of a plan, planners identify the strategies by which the community can reach its goals and vision. Planners are also responsible for the implementation or enforcement of many of the strategies, often coordinating the work of many groups of people. It is important to recognize that a plan can take a variety of forms including: policy recommendations, community action plans, comprehensive plans, neighborhood plans, regulatory and incentive strategies, or historic preservation plans.

Other examples of plans include: redevelopment plans, smart growth strategies, economic development strategic plans, site plans, and disaster preparedness plans.

Where Do Planners Work?

Planners work in every state and around the world. They work in rural areas, suburban areas, and large cities. They function in the public sector within federal, state, and local governments. They also work in nonprofits and within the private sector in real estate development companies and planning or multi-disciplinary consulting firms. Click here for selected geographic and employment-sector data from the APA Salary Survey.

To gain insight the variety of contexts within which planners work, visit the websites of APA's divisions. You'll learn about transportation planning, urban design, planning law, and many other arenas of planning.

APA has 47 chapters that represent every state in the U.S. Chapter websites provide information on planning at the state or regional level.

Planning Professional Associations in Other Countries

Planning is an international profession and practice. Many countries have a long history of community planning and have professional institutes similar to the American Planning Association and its institute, AICP. Here are examples of other organizations and links to their websites.

Canadian Institute of Planners

Royal Town Planning Institute (UK)

Planning Institute of Australia

Institute of Town Planners, India

New Zealand Planning Institute

South African Planning Institute

City Planning Institute of Japan

China Association of City Planning

Urban Planning Society of China

Sociéte Française des Urbanistes (SFU)

A Typical Day for a Planner, and With Whom Do Planners Work

Planning is a highly collaborative field, and planners spend much of their time working with others. A planner's day may start with a staff meeting to discuss the management of a planning project. Other meetings might include a team meeting with engineers, architects, health professionals, and landscape architects to review the specifics of a plan. Yet other meetings might take place with developers as part of a pre-application process. The planner's role is to provide the big picture and to relate the project to various goals and guidelines, such as ordinances or design review, in order to achieve a final project that meets the needs of the community. This might include appropriate design, environmental considerations, support for the local economy, or equitable access for all members of the community.

Planners are also responsible for knowing state and federal legislation and court rulings that relate to the project, plans, or guidelines. For example, planners must know how the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution relates to sign controls or how street designs relate to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Once again, planners are responsible for providing this technical knowledge to the projects. In complex projects, a developer will likely consult his or her own legal experts.

Some part of the planner's day involves working on his or her own. Planners may conduct research and gather data from a variety of sources, including economic development or market research studies, from census reports, or from environmental studies. The planner tests assumptions about the meaning and importance of the data by using a variety of technologies. One common tool used in planning is Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that link data and electronic mapping. Other tools may include scenario building visualization tools, electronic poling systems, financial analysis spreadsheets, and demographic databases. Planners prepare reports on their findings and analysis. Often, they will provide alternatives for policy makers to consider. Writing and synthesis skills are necessary for this part of the job.

Planners also do presentations. Presentations are made by mid-level staff, department heads, or the planning director. Planners frequently provide presentations to the city council, business groups, neighborhood groups, and professionals. These presentations place the specific project or issue in the context of the community's plans and guidelines for development and change. Today, planners are proficient in using PowerPoint and other visual technologies to present information and ideas in planning. Presentation skills are very important for private sector planners who have to present projects at various stages to clients, officials, or the public.

Project management is another important skill for planners, especially for those working in the private sector. Planners manage a variety of projects from neighborhood planning programs to the design and development of a new bike path to much larger scale projects. They also oversee grant programs, such as historic preservation or community development block grants.

Planners also engage in more lengthy processes of public participation. In these projects, planners call upon their skills as facilitators working with a broad spectrum of community members. These processes have become very creative and planners often use exercises, charrettes, visualization techniques, and group work in the development of the plan.

A planner's day often extends into the evening as he or she provides staff support to the monthly planning commission meeting. Public sector planners provide reports to the commission and provide support to the public meeting. Private sector planners present projects to the commission. It is not uncommon for a planning attorney to present proposals to the planning commission or, on occasion, to provide legal counsel to the planning commission. Other evening meetings may include neighborhood meetings or staffing the historic preservation review board.

What Specializations Are Common in the Planning Profession?

Most planners perform their work in one or more particular fields of specialization within the larger planning profession. These specializations represent specific bodies of planning knowledge that jointly further the welfare of people and communities. While some planners spend their entire career within one of these specializations, most will move between them or find employment opportunities that combine specializations. Here are several of the most common specializations within the planning profession:

• Community Development

• Land Use & Code Enforcement

• Transportation Planning

• Environmental/Natural Resources Planning

• Economic Development

• Urban Design

• Planning Management/Finance

• Housing

• Parks & Recreation

• Historic Preservation

• Community Activism/Empowerment

How Are Planners Educated?

Three main degrees are awarded in the field. The first is an undergraduate degree in planning. Many with undergraduate degrees will go on to receive a master's degree in planning. However, planners with undergraduate degrees do work in planning practice, often in entry level positions. A degree from a Planning Accreditation Board (PAB) accredited university in Urban Planning or City and Regional Planning is the most thorough educational preparation for the planning field. PAB accredits undergraduate programs.

A master's-level graduate degree is considered the standard for those who are planning practitioners. Some planning graduate students have an undergraduate degree in planning, but others may have studied geography, urban studies, architecture, or sociology. PAB also accredits master's degree programs in planning.

When hiring for professional planning positions, many organizations require or give strong preference to candidates holding graduate degrees. In 2004, 43 percent of all APA members (note: approximately one-sixth of the APA members are planning commissioners, officials, or students, who do not have a degree in planning) had earned a master's degree in planning. Many employers also give preference to those who are certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).

The third level of planning degree is the Ph.D. Most often, those who obtain a Ph.D. in planning pursue a career in academia or with research or policy institutions. Ph.D. programs in planning are not certified by PAB.

What Skills Do Successful Planners Possess?

In addition to a formal educational background, planners possess a unique combination of skills that enhance their professional success. Because planning is a dynamic and diverse profession, individual skills vary depending on a planner's role and area of specialization. Successful planners possess a combination of these skills:

  • Knowledge of urban spatial structure or physical design and the way in which cities work.
  • Ability to analyze demographic information to discern trends in population, employment, and health.
  • Knowledge of plan-making and project evaluation.
  • Mastery of techniques for involving a wide range of people in making decisions.
  • Understanding of local, state, and federal government programs and processes.
  • Understanding of the social and environmental impact of planning decisions on communities.
  • Ability to work with the public and articulate planning issues to a wide variety of audiences.
  • Ability to function as a mediator or facilitator when community interests conflict.
  • Understanding of the legal foundation for land use regulation.
  • Understanding of the interaction among the economy, transportation, health and human services, and land-use regulation.
  • Ability to solve problems using a balance of technical competence, creativity, and hardheaded pragmatism.
  • Ability to envision alternatives to the physical and social environments in which we live.
  • Mastery of geographic information systems and office software.

Does Certification Exist in the Planning Profession?

There are two types of certification — one certifies planning schools offering degrees, and the other certifies practicing planners.

College and university programs are certified by the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB)

Practicing planners are certified through the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), the professional institute of the American Planning Association. AICP provides leadership in setting nationwide standards for the planning profession. Planners who demonstrate that they meet high standards of technical, theoretical, historical, and ethical knowledge in the field earn AICP Certification.

Planners who are interested in seeking AICP Certification must take an exam, which is offered twice a year, and meet other eligibility requirements. Planners with an accredited graduate degree, for example, must also have at least two years of professional planning experience before they may apply to take the AICP Comprehensive Planning Examination.

Upon receiving AICP Certification, planners may use the initials "AICP" after their names. AICP certified planners are required to adhere to the AICP Code of Ethics.

AICP Certification yields tangible results for prospective employers and planning professionals as demonstrated in the results of the APA Salary Survey. The 2014 survey showed that certified planners earned $15,700 more, on average, than non-certified planners. Many organizations either require certification or give strong preference to certified planners in hiring practices.

The American Planning Association does not encourage the licensing of planners on either a national or state level. The APA recognizes and respects existing state licensing or credential requirements and supports its members practicing the profession of planning in those states. For example, New Jersey currently requires licensure of professional planners, and Michigan currently provides for the registration of Professional Community Planners. Some states, such as Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee, have enacted legislation pertaining to the credentialing of planning commissioners and other planning officials.

Does the Planning Profession Have Ethical Standards?

There are two standards set for ethical behavior in the field of planning. The first is a Code of Ethics binding on members of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). Certified planners are required to adhere to the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which identifies four core responsibilities incumbent upon certified planners:

• Planners' primary obligation is serving the public interest.

• Planners are responsible for diligently and competently performing work on behalf their client or employer.

• Planners are responsible for contributing to the development of the planning profession and their colleagues.

• Planners are responsible to themselves for high standards of professional integrity, proficiency and knowledge.

The Code is a helpful guide for all planners as they negotiate the ethical and moral dilemmas they encounter. It also informs the public of the principles to which professional planners are committed.

The second ethics standard applies to anyone participating in the planning process and is called APA's Ethical Principles in Planning. This includes elected and appointed officials, such as planning commissioners. It also applies to citizens and non-AICP certified planners. This standard is not binding; it is a set of guidelines. However, some planning commissions formally adopt the ethical principles to assist them with ethical public decision making.