What is an Environmental Planning Degree?

Environmental planners are concerned with the relationship between people and the environment. They focus on minimizing the effects of human activity on the natural world by working with other professionals who design and build the spaces where humans live, work, and play.

Degree programs in environmental planning teach students how to balance human needs and wants with environmental sustainability and protection. Classes span the principles of general architecture, landscape architecture, interior architecture and design, and urban and rural development.

The curriculum may also include coursework in sociological concepts in environmental planning. Topics addressed in this area may include poverty and the environment, population and environmental planning, and social policies that shape environmental planning.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Planning – Four Year Duration
Students who earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Planning generally qualify for entry-level roles in the urban and regional planning field. In smaller jurisdictions this undergraduate degree may be sufficient to work in mid-level planning positions.

In addition to classes, some programs require that students participate in an internship with an education partner from the planning community. In other programs, an independent research project and report are part of the curriculum.

Below are some of the courses that typically make up the bachelor’s curriculum:

  • Planning – Introduction – overview of the history of planning, planning methodologies
  • Planning – Principles and Practices – land use planning systems, legal requirements, social implications
  • Environment and Society – relationship and interactions between humans and their environments
  • Planning Analysis and Methodologies – qualitative and quantitative planning techniques, forecasting, policy analysis
  • Computer-Aided Design (CAD) for Planners – design theory, 2D and 3D modeling of infrastructure plans
  • Structure and Sociology of Sustainable Communities – the characteristics of sustainable communities, why some human settlements flourish and others decline, how physical structures can invite or discourage social interaction
  • Planning with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) – the use of GIS in planning
  • Mediation, Negotiation, and Public Participation – methodologies and approaches
  • Environmental Impact Assessment – health and socio-economic implications, assessment methodologies, related legalities
  • Rural Community Planning and Economic Development
  • Ethics and Planning
  • Social Research Methods – designing planning research, collecting and analyzing data
  • Environmental Law – local, state, national, and international laws that influence planning
  • Land Use Planning – how property rights impact land use planning
  • Planning Theory, Process, and Implementation – the process of implementing plans, the role of politics in planning
  • Ecological / Green Design

Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning – Two to Three Year Duration
Holders of a Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning often go on to work in senior roles in the field. The coursework at this level is most often a combination of required classes and independent research leading to a master’s thesis.

Here are some sample graduate level courses from environmental planning master’s programs:

  • Issues in Global Warming and Climate Change
  • Carbon Free Energy
  • Poverty and Environment in Developing Countries
  • Health in Urban Environments
  • Planning Policy Analysis
  • Transportation and Air Quality
  • Solid Waste Management
  • Water Resources Management
  • Environmental Risk Analysis
  • Sustainable Financial Investing
  • Environmental Planning and Bureaucracy
  • Smart Cities Design
  • Health and the Built Environment
  • Designing and Planning Urban Green Space

Doctoral Degree in Environmental Planning – Three to Six Year Duration
The Doctoral Degree in Environmental Planning is targeted at individuals who wish to work as industry leaders, researchers, or professors in the field.

In many cases, the courses completed in an environmental planning master’s program fulfill the graduate course requirement. This means that doctoral candidates largely dedicate their time to research and practical work in preparation of their Ph.D. dissertation.

Some schools, however, may require students at this level to complete core courses in advanced planning theory and advanced research methods.

These are sample areas of research:

  • The Built Environment and Human Health
  • Environmental Architectural Design, Technology, and Construction Processes
  • Land Ecology and Restoration

Degrees Similar to Environmental Planning

A degree in architecture will appeal to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for both the sciences and the arts. This is because architecture is itself the art and science of designing and engineering structures and buildings. It is a field with a foundation in creativity, technology, and social and cultural trends.

Civil Engineering
This degree field is focused on the processes of design and planning of civil infrastructure like roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, railroads, and airports. In their work, civil engineers are concerned with such things as how much weight a structure can support and the environmental issues presented by construction. The emphasis of civil engineering degree programs is math, statistics, engineering systems and mechanics, building codes, and statistical analysis.

Students who pursue a degree in ecology study how organisms interact with the natural environments that they live in and how these environments can be protected. In other words, the focus of ecology is to understand ecosystems as well as the social and political interests and policies that threaten them. An ecology curriculum, therefore, starts with courses in both the natural sciences – like biology, chemistry, physics, and geology – and the social sciences.

Hydrology is about the active nature of water, the movement of precipitation. Hydrologists study surface waters like rivers, lakes, and streams and examine how rainfall and snowfall cause erosion, generate caves, and permeate soil and rock to become groundwater or flow to oceans and seas. They work with other scientists, engineers, and public regulators to forecast and manage floods or droughts, reduce waste water, promote sustainable usage of water, evaluate the feasibility of projects like irrigation systems and hydroelectric plants, and protect water resources.

Interior Architecture
The focus of interior architecture is interior construction versus interior design. An example of the work of interior architects is the transformation of a centuries-old church into a residential building. The goal is to preserve the heritage exterior while creatively adapting the interior space. The field of interior architecture is more technical than interior design. It involves design analysis and collaboration with builders and contractors.

Landscape Architecture
Landscape architecture students learn how to apply both the creative and technical skills of architecture to plan outdoor spaces and landscapes, such as parks, gardens, playgrounds, residential areas, and college campuses. The curriculum includes computer-aided design (CAD) and courses specific to landscape architecture, such as horticulture, hydrology, geology, environmental design, and landscape design.

Natural Resource Management
Natural resource management is about finding ways to sustain the Earth’s resources in the face of the growing human population. Majors in this discipline are typically passionate about clean water, clean energy, and clean environments. They study in the classroom, in the computer lab, and in the field and learn how to apply scientific and ecological knowledge, as well as economic and social awareness to find solutions to preserving our natural world.

Urban Planning
Degree programs in urban planning teach the processes involved in designing communities, towns, and cities. Students learn how to make decisions about the need for and placement of infrastructure like roads, highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, railroads, dams, utilities, parks, and other urban projects. Coursework includes environmental planning, which considers environmental, social, political, and economic factors.

Skills You’ll Learn

The process of earning a degree in environmental planning leaves students with a notably wide scope of skills:

  • A sense of design and layout
  • Attention to detail – precise design and implementation
  • Communication – interacting with clients, management, and staff
  • Critical / analytical thinking – critically analyzing complex problems
  • Data collection, management, and analysis
  • Field skills / comfortable working outdoors
  • Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution – reconciling differences among team members
  • Observation and creativity – recognizing, developing, and improving on solutions
  • Organization and time management – efficient scheduling and planning
  • Policy development
  • Problem solving – responding to challenges and issues in a calm and efficient manner
  • Project management / leadership – leading teams; complying with standards and regulations
  • Report writing
  • Technical – math and physics; design techniques; working with maps, drawings, models, and CAD software
  • Visualization – envisioning how functional and aesthetic designs can also be sustainable

What Can You Do with an Environmental Planning Degree?

Architecture and Construction
Environmental planners have a role to play in the architecture and construction industries. They advise these industries on various aspects of industrial, commercial, and residential building projects, including air quality, water quality and drainage, noise and vibration, geology and soils, landscape and visual impact, nature conservation, archaeology and cultural heritage, people and communities, waste, energy, transport, and materials.

Consulting Firms / Entrepreneurship
Environmental planners may offer their environmental consulting services to private industries through consulting firms that employ them, or directly on a freelance basis. Some of the industries that may need their expertise are transportation, utilities, landfill management, engineering, and law.

Education and Research
Environmental planning graduates with a master’s or doctoral degree can pursue career opportunities as environmental planning and policy researchers and university professors.

Federal, state, and municipal government departments and agencies also hire environmental planners. Examples at the Federal level include the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Natural Resources Conservation Service, and US National Park Service.

In this sector, environmental planning expertise may be crucial to effective lobbying for or against proposed land use or development.

Non-Profits and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) Sometimes, individuals with an environmental planning background are hired by non-profits and NGOs. For instance, they may work to protect wildlife in a geographic area designated for development of a utilities project or to preserve or restore a historical site.

Some examples of these agencies and organizations are the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club Foundation, Rocky Mountain Institute, Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Politicians – such as city councilors – with an environmental planning education are naturally better equipped to discuss and debate the environmental and social issues connected to land use and development.

Urban Planning
In urban planning, environmental planners focus on sustainable community development. Their goal is to use land efficiently and in ways that avoid creating health hazards, loss of biodiversity, and diminished quality of life. This involves applying green building technologies and renewable energy sources to preserve ecosystems.


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