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What is a City Planner

Jill SutherlandJill Sutherland is a Planner

1. What is a planner?

A planner partners with communities to help them become wonderful places to live, work, grow up, and play. They help decide what kinds of buildings should go where, where new parks might be needed, and what areas in the community are in need of changes to make them better places to be.

2. What exactly does a planner do?

A planner can do anything from interpreting a community's zoning code, determining what kinds of buildings are allowed in what places, and helping a community create a vision for what it wants to become, to reaching out to and educating community leaders on what can make their community better. They often get to do something different and exciting every day.

3. Why did you decide to be a planner?

I decided to become a planner because I believe that the environment a person grows up in shapes who they are. I wanted to help shape the built environment to become a place that fosters community interaction, pride, and open-mindedness.

4. What is craziest or funniest thing you've seen on the job?

The funniest thing I've seen on the job happened when I was helping a group of kids through a design workshop to get their ideas on how the area around their school could be better. They unanimously decided that ziplines had to be a part of their plan for their school. Because ziplines rule!

5. How can a student get involved with planning?

A student can get involved with planning by making sure his or her voice is heard when decisions are being made about new buildings or subdivisions in their community. Grown-ups often forget that a kid's only way of traveling is by walking or biking, so we have to remember that it's not all about the car! Sidewalks are important, and so are bike lanes. Kids have to get around safely too!

Erin AlemanErin Aleman is a Comprehensive Planner

1. What is a comprehensive planner?

Comprehensive planning takes into account all of the resources a community has and brings them together. This could include everything from transportation to the natural environment and economic development. Typically, comprehensive planners work on developing and implementing large-scale plans, called comprehensive plans.

2. What exactly does a comprehensive planner do?

A comprehensive planner works with municipalities, counties, regions, and major organizations and constituents to better understand a variety of planning-related issues — some are typical like housing, water, transportation, and land use, while others are a little out of the ordinary like workforce development. Think of it as making a pizza for seven of your friends, each with different likes and dislikes. Everyone has to come together to discuss the options and determine how to put all the toppings on in a way that makes each individual happy.

3. Why did you decide to be a comprehensive planner?

I decided to focus on comprehensive planning because I feel it is important to take a holistic approach to community issues and opportunities. It allows me to use a diverse set of skills and work on projects that are different every day. I also really like working with local residents to better understand what they care about in their communities.

4. What is craziest or funniest thing you've seen on the job or heard about?

I was working with a middle school STEM teacher to teach her class about the importance of planning. After doing research about the regional plan I had been telling them about, the students decided to work on a project to promote alternative transportation. They developed what they called a "wheel-in." The wheel-in was a day where they got their entire 6th grade to bike around the community and tell neighborhood residents about the benefits of biking — it's cheap, can improve air quality, and it's healthy. They made banners and handed out the brochures they had made at the train station. It was really exciting to see young people take planning in their community so seriously!

5. How can a student  get involved with comprehensive planning?

Young people can get involved in comprehensive planning by participating in their local government. Many communities have planning or zoning committees that discuss these ideas monthly. Their meetings are open to the public and will give you a good idea of what types of ideas — housing, environment, business — your community has planned for the future.

Megan Lewis, AICPMegan Lewis, AICP, is an Environmental Planner

1. What is an environmental planner?

Just like in planning overall, an environmental planner can be a generalist or a specialist. You can be someone who focuses on water issues, or solid waste, or wildlife habitats, or you can be more general and work on environmental compliance to make sure projects perform the way they are supposed to and comply with the law.

2. What exactly does an environmental planner do?

Lots of different things! Design projects so that they have minimal, if any impact, on the environment. Help identify places that should be conserved as valuable natural resources. Make sure projects comply with environmental laws and regulations, and help clients fulfill permit requirements.

In my job right now I'm focusing on two areas — helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepare Comprehensive Conservation Plans for two National Wildlife Refuges in Virginia, and helping communities in Illinois fix old factory land by designing and installing "green infrastructure" to manage stormwater and create natural landscapes.

3. Why did you decide to be an environmental planner?

I got interested in environmental issues when I was in college — I was an economics major, and I learned about the concept of "externalities" — those things that aren't accounted for on a spreadsheet like air pollution, or positive things, like open spaces. I learned more about pollution and contamination issues there, but more importantly I discovered land-use planning, and the idea of land conservation as a career. So I applied to graduate schools for planning that had strong environmental planning faculty, and ended up going to the University of Pennsylvania for my planning degree.

4. What is craziest or funniest thing you've seen on the job?

Early on in my career I was working as a junior planner in Philadelphia, and I had to go down to Washington, D.C., to do a site visit for an environmental assessment we were doing. It was for a fire station that had to be moved for a train extension. I did not have a car, so I remember taking the train down, getting into a cab, and having this taxi driver take me all around the various sites. I would jump out, snap my pictures, take my notes, and then get back into the cab. Some of the neighborhoods were a little rough, so it was nice to have someone along with me!

5. How can a student  get involved with environmental planning?

It's important to ask yourself what interests you, and be as specific as possible. You can also get involved with on-campus environmental organizations, which is a great way to learn about what the issues are in the community.

CJ BrightCJ Bright is a Transportation Planner

1. What is a transportation planner?

A transportation planner is someone who designs mobility options to move goods and people.

2. What exactly does a transportation planner do?

A transportation planner works with various other people to determine the best methods to move goods and people. Sometimes I feel like an overlord of transportation because I get to choose how people move around! My main job is to design bus services to get people from point A to point B.

3. Why did you decide to be a transportation planner?

I've always been fascinated with transit. I grew up using transit and loved the idea of figuring out how people got from A to B or D to G. I love subways. I lived in NYC as a kid, lived in Boston for college, and now live in Chicago. Riding the subway has always been a part of my life.

4. What is craziest or funniest thing you've seen on the job?

A coworker and I had to create five separate "transit service planning option" plans for a large system over two days. Most plans take months to do, but we only had a few days.  Also, we did not know how much money to spend since we did not have a budget!

5. How can a student  get involved with transportation planning?

Some high schools provide internships to students. I would look at the options of interning at city hall or with the local transit agency.

Julie Donofrio, AICPJulie Donofrio, AICP, is a Planner and Urban Designer

1. What is an urban planner or an urban designer?

Urban planners make recommendations and decisions that determine how cities grow and function. Though planning work typically focuses on cities and urbanized areas, many planners also focus on nonurban areas to ensure that natural resources are protected, or on the environment at large by monitoring air and water quality to protect our health. Planners can be employed by city departments, regional agencies, consulting firms (like I am), nonprofit organizations, or in government relations. No matter what, planners are always interacting with the community in order to ensure that plans that are proposed are consistent with people's desires for the place they call home.

2. What exactly does an urban designer do?

While planners can fill a variety of roles, an urban designer specifically thinks about the architecture of the city and elements and spaces that knit them together. Urban designers visualize how buildings form a block, blocks form a neighborhood, neighborhoods form a city, and cities form a region. They think about systems, too, so that all these distinct parts are tied together through streets, highways, and transportation systems, as well as parks, greenways, and natural elements. Urban designers help determine the types and sizes of buildings and streets that are appropriate for given areas of the city. They recommend the relative location and size of the city's built elements before the architect, landscape architect, or engineer take it to the next level of detail, and eventually it gets built!

3. Why did you decide to be an urban planner?

I was a history major in college and have always loved old cities and buildings and the stories they tell. I spent time studying abroad in college and loved the European lifestyle where people lived downtown, walked everywhere, and took pride in their cities as centers of community and culture.  I wondered why cities in the US couldn't do the same. While I didn't immediately translate this into a career in urban planning, I discovered it as a career by way of considering going to law school. I found a few programs that offered joint programs in urban planning and decided — wait, that's exactly what I want to do. And the rest is history.

4. What is craziest or funniest thing you've seen on the job?

When I was working in San Diego, I was out doing a site visit on an undeveloped portion of land that was a potential impact area for a new highway. While assisting a colleague to document a sensitive bird habitat, which happened to be on a steep hillside covered in cactus, I lost my balance and fell into a cactus. (It hurt!) Later that day, we spotted a rattlesnake, a roadrunner, and got stopped by armed border patrol guards for suspicious activity. Just a typical day on the job!

5. How can a student get involved with urban design or planning?

As planning is always happening around you, you should first pay attention to the built environment and ask questions! What makes that building different from the one across the street? Why is the sidewalk this wide? Are people walking or biking? Are there trees alongside the street? In the world of social media, it is also easy to become involved. Many cities and agencies have dedicated websites, Facebook and Instagram accounts, and blogs that share updates on happenings in the city and public meetings about important issues. Finally, visit your good old-fashioned local history museum to gain an understanding and appreciation for your city, or check out a book about your city's history in the library! Great urban planning begins with an appreciation for the world around you and the desire to make it a livable place for all.

What Is Planning?

Planning shapes cities, towns, regions, and even rural  areas. Some communities are completely designed by planners, such as Greenbelt, Maryland. In other communities, planning helps determine how communities will grow and how they will adjust to change. Planning creates the vision for the community, identifies current problems, analyzes trends, engages community members in dialogue about goals and issues, and sets the framework for growth and change.

What Is Planning? (pdf)

What Is Comprehensive Planning? (pdf)

What Is Environmental Planning? (pdf)

What Is Transportation Planning? (pdf)

What Is Urban Design Planning? (pdf)

Resources for Teachers and Planners (pdf)