Hilbert College Global Online Blog

What Is an Urban Planner?

Written by: Hilbert College   •  Jan 2, 2024
Two urban planners review a neighborhood map on a laptop.

What Is an Urban Planner?

There is much more to building a city than erecting structures; it requires a carefully planned process that impacts the community in countless ways. A city’s architecture, infrastructure and open spaces affect its economy, environmental footprint, population health and social equity. A poorly or improperly planned city can have negative effects on its residents.

The quality—and the residual impacts—of a city’s development lie in the hands of urban planners. Urban planners are civic strategists whose decisions can have massive ramifications on a city and its inhabitants, long into the future. Urban planners also are influential community leaders who can spur innovation in a new city or inspire revitalization in an existing one. Fully understanding urban planners’ scope of influence requires an examination of what an urban planner is, and how they apply their education, experience and skills to improve communities.

What Does an Urban Planner Do?

Urban planners create land-use programs and initiatives designed to develop and rejuvenate communities, from small towns to large metropolitan areas. Their work can focus on large-scale projects, such as master planning a new suburb on undeveloped land, or smaller projects, like creating a public park in a depressed urban space. 

Urban planners rely on research and collaboration to do their work. After studying and analyzing the potential effects of using the land for a certain purpose, they coordinate with public officials, developers and the general public to develop strategies based on their findings. Once these strategies are approved, urban planners work with various teams to complete the project in a manner that complies with federal, state and local laws.

Where Do Urban Planners Work?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 65% of urban planners work for local government agencies, excluding educational institutions and hospitals. They also work for architectural and engineering firms, management and scientific consulting organizations and federal government agencies.

Urban planners typically work in large metropolitan areas. However, some work in smaller, less populated regions.

Key Responsibilities

An urban planner’s analytical and research duties set the framework for new development projects. One of their primary tasks involves collecting and analyzing data from market, census and socioeconomic studies to gain insights into a community’s needs and concerns.

Urban planners also conduct field investigations to assess problems that can impact a community’s development and decline. This can include determining if there are better, more efficient ways to use the land in a community. Additionally, urban planners must monitor a community’s zoning laws, building codes and environmental regulations.

Urban planners can have a profound impact on their communities. One example of this involves considering sustainability and its health benefits when drafting plans. Cities that are designed to promote public transportation use or encourage walking and biking—such as by adopting the “15-minute city” concept, in which residents are able to access most of their daily destinations via a 15- to 20-minute walk, transit ride or bike route—can benefit from reduced emissions and strengthened sustainability in the city, which can lead to a healthier environment.

Research can also help urban planners find ways to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. For example, urban planners can create strategies that seek to reduce the ongoing effects of “redlining,” a real estate practice that limited people of color to certain neighborhoods. Their efforts can have profound effects on people living in underserved communities, such as by increasing their access to healthy, affordable food and improving their access to government services.

Those interested in what an urban planner is will find that these professionals don’t just build or revitalize communities—they can help move society forward.

Education and Skills Requirements for Urban Planners

Prospective urban planners must have at least a master’s degree, such as a Master of Public Administration (MPA), to qualify for the role. These master’s programs typically accept students with a wide range of undergraduate degrees, including political science, geography, economics and architecture degrees. Those aspiring to be urban planners may also need to gain some work experience in a related field, such as economic development or public policy.

Because analysis plays a vital role in urban planning, those in the role must have strong analytical skills to be able to extract insights from a host of different sources. They must also have leadership skills that allow them to guide others through the execution of their urban planning strategies. Because their work involves engagement with the general public, developers and government officials, strong communication skills are a must as well. 

Urban Planner Salary and Job Outlook

Urban planners’ salaries reflect the critical nature of the role. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for urban and regional planners in 2022 was $79,540. Factors that can affect an individual’s salary include their education, years of experience and geographic location.

The BLS projects that the number of positions for urban planners will grow 4% between 2022 and 2032, which is about as fast as the average growth projected for all professions. The BLS also notes that specific types of urban planning projects will drive the new employment market. For instance, the suburban migration that occurred during the pandemic placed an emphasis on planning to accommodate these new residents, in areas that range from transportation systems to housing supplies. Urban planners who address the environmental deterioration in local communities and other forms of urban revitalization also are expected to be in demand.

Build a Better, Brighter Future as an Urban Planner

What is an urban planner? An urban planner is a professional who can make a significant impact on a community and beyond. Their work is vital to making positive change in a way that can have long-term effects on a community’s residents and environment. 

Hilbert College Global’s accelerated 16-month online Master of Public Administration program can help equip you with the knowledge and skills required to make a real impact in the field of urban planning. The program’s curriculum is designed to help you develop the expertise to be able to assess a community’s needs from multiple angles and create plans that address its most pressing infrastructure concerns. 

Find out how Hilbert College Global can prepare you for success in a career in which you can truly make a difference.

Recommended Readings

A Guide to Small Business Sustainability Resources

Public Speaking Tips, Skills and Exercises

Why Are the Humanities Important?


American Planning Association, “Strategies for Creating More Just and Equitable Societies”

ArchDaily, “What Is Urban Planning?”

The Guardian, “Why Health and Wellbeing Should Be at Centre of Urban Planning”

The Hill, “Two Million People Fled America’s Big Cities From 2020 to 2022”

Indeed, “How to Become an Urban Planner”

National League of Cities, “Exploring the 15-Minute City Concept and Its Potential for Communities of All Sizes”

Sierra Club, “Deep Dive: Redlining, Racism and Urban Planning”

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

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