What Is an Urban Planner?What Is an Urban Planner?What Is an Urban Planner?

City living comes with advantages such as varied job opportunities, diverse cultural experiences, and more entertainment options. Cities also have disadvantages such as traffic, pollution, and a lack of affordable housing. City governments hire urban planners to help manage growth and improve livability for all residents. These experts design solutions to help cities meet current and future challenges. A degree in sustainability or a related field can provide a foundation for this in-demand career.

What Does an Urban Planner Do?

The role of an urban planner is to design infrastructure and outline appropriate land use for a city or community. Urban planners work with city officials and department managers, including the heads of transportation, utilities, public safety, parks, and codes and ordinances, to develop plans that work within an existing city framework. They also work with community stakeholders, such as property owners, residents, and developers, to create plans that meet the city’s current needs, as well as its vision for future growth.

Urban planning responsibilities span the following areas:

  • Feasibility studies. Urban planners conduct studies to determine if a proposed project can be built safely.
  • Site planning. Urban planners work with architects, engineers, and other experts to develop site plans.
  • Affordable housing. A major issue facing cities is the development and location of affordable housing.
  • Environmental projects. Climate change, sustainability, and environmental protection are increasingly important to cities and towns.
  • Infrastructure. Upgrading infrastructure, including roads, water, and electric utilities, to meet growth projections is one aspect of urban planning.
  • Planning and zoning. Urban planners must be knowledgeable about and work within a city’s planning and zoning codes, tax districts, and legal constraints.
  • Historic preservation projects. Urban planners work with city officials and residents to preserve a city’s history and legacy.
  • Communications. Urban planners must communicate with politicians, city administrators, and local communities to present their plans and get support from stakeholders.
Urban planners review blueprints.

What Is Sustainability in Urban Planning?

What is an urban planner, and how does sustainability fit into the profession? One of the most important challenges for urban planners is building sustainable cities. Sustainability in an urban setting means that cities focus on the issues that make a place eco-friendly, livable, equitable, and healthy for all residents. Aspects of a sustainable urban plan include:

Mass Transit and People Movement

Sustainable cities make people movement a priority. Instead of relying on passenger vehicles, cities are investing in mass transit projects such as light rail. Even small projects — such as adding sidewalks and bikeways, charging stations for electric vehicles, and pedestrian-friendly areas — improve sustainability.

Green Space

Cities are reenvisioning the concept of a public park. Green spaces now include linear parks, in which former rail lines or other areas are turned into bike and walking paths. Creating green space also means planting trees and landscaping to reduce heat islands — paved areas that make cities hotter.

Urban Farms

Urban farms use local space to grow vegetables for neighborhoods and communities and contribute to green space. Local produce can reduce emissions by reducing the need to truck vegetables from hundreds of miles away. Urban farms can also help address the lack of access to healthy food in neighborhoods in need. Although urban farms make up a tiny fraction of the agriculture industry, these initiatives are a growing part of many cities’ sustainability efforts.

Water Infrastructure and Water Use

For many cities, delivering drinking water safely and efficiently is a challenge. Old pipes can leach contaminants into drinking water. Aging water infrastructure can lead to water waste. Updating water and wastewater pipes, water treatment plants, and other projects are part of sustainable initiatives. Other initiatives may encourage water conservation by promoting sustainable landscaping.

Energy Infrastructure and Green Architecture

As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, more cities are looking for alternatives to coal, oil, and natural gas. Cities are turning toward wind and solar energy. As the reliability of these technologies improves and their costs decrease, they will help boost sustainability.

Green architecture — wherein new construction is built according to such standards as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) — is designed to make buildings less energy intensive. For example, green roofs, which use plant cover to help reduce the heat island effect, can filter stormwater runoff and absorb pollutants. Cool roofs, which are made of materials that reflect rather than absorb heat, are designed to reduce energy consumption by keeping cities cooler during peak temperatures.

How to Become an Urban Planner

Students interested in urban planning should begin with an undergraduate degree in sustainability or a related field. Coursework should include topics such as urbanism and the built environment, environmental law and science, economics and sustainability, statistics, and biology, among others. Although some entry-level positions in urban planning may be open to those with a bachelor’s degree, most require a master’s.

Urban planners also may be certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). To be eligible to sit for the certification exam, urban planners must have at least a bachelor’s degree and two to eight years of experience in the field, depending on their education. To maintain the AICP credential, urban planners must take continuing education courses.

Salary and Job Outlook for Urban Planners

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for an urban planner in 2020 was $75,950. The BLS projects 7% job growth for urban planners between 2020 and 2030.

Most urban planners work for local governments. Other employers include architecture and engineering firms, technical consulting firms, and the federal government.

Make a Difference as an Urban Planner

Urban planners are helping build the cities of the future. They use their education and experience in sustainability to design cities and communities that are livable, healthy, environmentally sound, and equitable for all residents. To learn more about what an urban planner is, explore the Maryville University online Bachelor of Science in Sustainability. With courses in sustainability, economics, law and policy, and environmental science, the program offers a solid foundation for a rewarding career in urban planning.

Recommended Reading

Careers in Sustainability with a Bachelor of Science Degree

Careers in Urban Planning: Sustainability in Action

Sustainability vs. Sustainable Development: Examining Two Important Concepts


American Planning Association, AICP

Architectural Digest, “How Urban Planners Are Reacting to Climate Change”

Career Girls, “Urban Planner”

DIGI, “6 Traits of a Sustainable City (with Examples)”

Nature, “Finding Feasible Action Towards Urban Transformations”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Urban and Regional Planners

U.S. Green Building Council, “Why LEED”

Be Brave

Bring us your ambition and we’ll guide you along a personalized path to a quality education that’s designed to change your life.