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City Planning

City planning brings community stakeholders together to decide what is best for the community.

A city planner helps to create better communities. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
A city planner helps to create better communities.

City Planning

As described by the American Planning Association (APA), city planning is when government officials, for-profit and non-profit business leaders and citizens come together to build communities that enrich people's lives. A city's viability is dependent upon its integration of economic opportunities, decent affordable housing and a suitable living environment.

As a Career

A career in city planning, whether in the public or private sector, involves helping government officials, business leaders and citizens create a community that offers better choices for living and working. To become a professional planner, students should attend a college or university that offers an accredited city planning-specific program and degree. There are many planning scholarships available to qualifying students. There are also opportunities for additional training while working on a higher education degree or after graduation. These opportunities include interning for a planning office or attending professional conferences and lectures.

Most professional city planners work for local governments. Job duties include:

  • Developing a master plan in order to achieve the best possible land use for the city and the needs of its citizens
  • Soliciting appropriate proposals from developers
  • Reviewing site plans to be in accordance with the master plan and zoning regulations
  • Presenting plans to city council and the public for approval and opinion
  • Preserving the integrity of the natural environment as well as historical structures


Higher levels in a city planning career path often require memberships in professional organizations, certifications and licensing. The most highly regarded certification in the planning field is the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) designation issued by the APA. Those interested in obtaining their AICP certification must first be a member of the APA and then submit an application to the APA. Applications are subject to meeting education and experience criteria. Finally, an accepted applicant must pass an exam before receiving their AICP title.

There are other active community advocates who, even without a formal planning education or AICP, have become respected community outreach leaders and played important roles in the history of city planning. Such people are typically professionals in other fields, such as architecture, engineering and law.

Impact on Politics

It is an understatement to say that city planning has a large impact on city politics. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the overlying governing body of planning in the U.S. HUD issues policies, research and federal funding to promote the goals of successful city planning. All levels of government have a hand in planning regulations, but the local county and municipal governments play the largest role in an individual city's planning.

Politics are a prerequisite for change. Since most city planners are politicians, even though they may work for local government, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government teaches that they must understand the strategic role of governance within the city and use their expertise to lobby for changes in shaping the character of their community. Politicians are influenced by the voters and their concerns. Because of this, rallying citizen support is a planner's best avenue. Citizens may have conflicting opinions, depending on their own personal interests. Local business owners and residents or grass-roots activists, for example, may not all agree, but they keep the balance in local politics.

Benefit to Residents and Business Owners

Community residents see their homes and surroundings as a sanctuary. Naturally, residents want to protect those things and will go to great lengths to do so. When development threatens their sanctuary, residents can often find an ally in their city planning department. This is exactly what happened in Providence, RI, when the state proposed to sell waterfront property, leaving the possibility of a high-rise condominium development. Residents wanted the land to be used for public park space. Residents, a city council representative and city planner agreed that the property sale and condominium development would not be in the city's best interest. The city planning department then worked towards rezoning the land in question via a public hearing and a city council vote. Residents benefited from the city planning department's powers to make the legal changes necessary to prevent undesired development.

Where the city planner's role is that of a protector for community residents who want preservation, they also take on the role of an advocate for local business owners who want growth. Individual business owners use a city planner's expertise for guidance on how they can either physically expand their business within the limits of a master plan or economically expand based on projected changes within the community. In larger cities, business owners sometimes bond together to form their own organization or coalition that presents a united front for their concerns and desires to be presented to local government. A city planning department is more likely to partner interests with such a force rather than an individual business because of its size and dominance.

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