What is an Urban Planning Degree?

Degree programs in urban planning teach future urban planners how to:

  • Design communities, towns, and cities
  • Determine where housing and other buildings will go
  • Make decisions about the need for and placement of infrastructure like roads, highways, tunnels, bridges, airports, railroads, dams, utilities, parks, and other urban projects

In short, students of urban planning learn how to become land use specialists. They learn to use land in ways that keep communities healthy and vibrant. Their studies include courses in:

  • Economic Development – the advancement of standard of living in terms of health, wellbeing, and academic level
  • Environmental Planning – making decisions that consider environmental, social, political, and economic factors
  • Transportation Planning
  • Cartography – the science and practice of drawing maps
  • Histories of Cities and Regions
  • Land Use Law

Program Options

Associate Degree in Urban Planning - Two Year Duration
An Associate Degree in Urban Planning is targeted at students who plan to transfer to a bachelor’s program or to seek an entry-level position, such as planning technician or site planning assistant.

In this two-year degree program, students gain a basic understanding and knowledge of urban planning through courses in urban coding, geographic information science (GIS), and land use. The curriculum also typically includes classes in general education. Not all associate level programs include an internship.

Bachelor’s Degree in Urban Planning - Four Year Duration
While many urban planning roles require a master’s degree, a bachelor’s in the field prepares students for some positions as urban planners, assistant planners, and environmental planners. Some common courses offered at the bachelor’s level are:

  • Land-use Planning
  • Community Development
  • Commercial and Residential Zoning
  • Urban Policy, Public Affairs, and the Law
  • Urban Planning and Restructuring
  • Urban Planning and Environmental Sustainability
  • Budgeting for Urban Planning and Growth
  • International Outreach Programs in Urban and Community Planning
  • Social Sciences: Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Politics, Geography
  • Professional Practicum/Internship

It is worth noting that some schools offer both a Bachelor of Arts (BA) and a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Urban Planning. The focus of the BA program is on the physical, social, economic, and aesthetic aspects of communities. The BSc program is focused more on the impact of urban planning and development on wildlife and the environment, as well as on the use of technology in urban planning.

Master’s Degree in Urban Planning - Two Year Duration
This is the degree held by most urban planners in senior roles. The core Master of Urban Planning program is commonly made up of a supervised internship and research project, and courses like the following:

  • History and Theory of Planning
  • Graphic Techniques for Planning – classwork and assignments to apply practical skills
  • Real-world Urban Research and Planning Practice – defining planning problems at the neighborhood level, data collection, plan design, plan implementation, plan presentation
  • Planning Law – examination of private and public control of land use and development
  • The Urban Landscape – understanding urban environments and how the people who live in them go about their daily activities
  • Introduction to Planning Data – how census data and other statistics are used in planning
  • Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – the use of GIS in the field of urban planning
  • Urban Transportation Planning
  • Environmental Policy and Planning

At the master’s level, many schools offer specialization programs. Two of the most common are the Master of Urban Planning – Transportation Planning, and the Master of Urban Planning – Urban Development and Urban Design.

Doctoral Degree in Urban Planning - Five to Seven Year Duration
Ph.D. programs in this field focus on urban planning theory, advanced research methods, and the application of the principles of urban planning. Programs prepare students for positions as university professors, applied researchers, and senior-level policy makers.

Degrees Similar to Urban Planning

There is a clear connection between the work of the architect and that of the urban planner. Both work to make urban areas functional and attractive.

Landscape Architecture
Both urban planners and landscape architects design environments. The urban planner determines which infrastructures are needed, where they should be placed, and where buildings can be constructed. The landscape architect designs outdoor spaces like parks, gardens, and other green spaces.

Civil Engineering
The field of civil engineering is closely connected to urban planning. Civil engineers consult on urban planning construction projects, while urban planners focus on how those projects will fit into and benefit the community. The emphasis of civil engineering degree programs is math, statistics, engineering systems and mechanics, building codes, and statistical analysis. Civil engineers identify the fundamentals of load-bearing structures and construction techniques.

Emergency and Security Management
Students of emergency and security management learn about disaster response and recovery. Their coursework includes emergency planning and preparedness, crisis management, and public policy and legal issues in emergency management.

Environmental Studies
Students of environmental studies are exposed to the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. They apply knowledge from each of these areas to examine how resources can be sustained in the face of increasing populations, various forms of pollution, and the endangerment of species and natural systems.

Students of geography study the Earth’s surface; its climate, soil, and water; and the relationship between people and the land. Some typical courses in a geography program are cartography, climatology, geology, political geography, statistics, and spatial analysis.

Public Administration
Students who enroll in a degree program in public administration learn about the process of implementing policy at the various levels of government and within non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits. As part of their studies, they typically investigate a variety of public issues, from environmental protection to crime fighting, homelessness, unemployment, and drug abuse. Like urban planning, public administration is concerned with issues that impact citizens.

Skills You’ll Learn

Through the course of their studies, students learn that urban planning is both a science and an art. It is not surprising, therefore, that they typically graduate with a skill set that can be widely applied in many kinds of work:

  • Communication
  • A Sense of Design and Layout
  • Research and Analysis
  • Policy Development
  • Information Technology
  • Negotiation and Diplomacy
  • Creativity
  • Report Writing

What Can You Do with an Urban Planning Degree?

Some positions listed in these occupational categories may require a graduate degree.

Government agencies at the federal, state/province, and city levels are the largest employers of urban planners.

Job titles in this sector may include urban planner, regional planner, strategic planner, transportation planner, urban planning technician, parks planner, zoning inspector, regional development manager, community planner, town planner, economic development officer, development permit technician, building inspector, housing officer, sustainable housing policy associate, land use planning advisor, and project manager.

For example, someone working in housing may be involved in the development of communities for low income earners or senior citizens.

Consulting Firms / Entrepreneurship
In this sector, urban planning graduates offer their services to private industries through consulting firms that employ them, or directly on a freelance basis. They may help utility companies plan and maintain their infrastructure or assist real estate developers with the planning of mix of land use.

Education and Research
Urban planning graduates with a master’s or doctoral degree can pursue career opportunities as urban planning/social policy researchers and university professors.

When engineering firms become involved with projects like public transit systems, it is not uncommon for them to seek people with an urban planning background.

Heritage Conservation
In the conservation sector, historic buildings inspectors may have a background in urban planning.

In the field of law, urban planners can be called as expert witnesses in land-use hearings.

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

Non-Profit Organizations
Sometimes, individuals with an urban planning background are hired by non-profits. They work with urban planners who are employed by city governments to ensure that non-profit interests and objectives – such as social housing – are not overlooked.

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

Real Estate / Land Development
Some real estate developers, real estate appraisers, and commercial realtors enter their fields with an urban planning education.

Urban planners may be hired by telecommunications firms to get permission to build and find the right locations for cellphone towers and transmission lines.


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