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10 Best Degrees for Urban Planning What to study for a career in urban planning and design

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Are you interested in starting a career where you help create communities and implement effective land use plans? If so, urban planning may be the right path for you. This type of career is ideal for creative individuals who are resourceful and have a drive for innovation. Urban planners have the ability to:

  • Revitalize structures and buildings in existing cities
  • Establish entirely new communities
  • Change existing communities to accommodate an increase in population

As an urban planner, you’ll be tasked with analyzing environmental factors and data to better understand how to use a piece of land. Since any plans you develop will impact a community for years to come, you’ll use technology to estimate population outcomes, identify possible challenges and goals, and predict a community’s future.

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When public officials and members of the government create community plans, you’ll be tasked with implementing these plans. You’ll also enforce zoning regulations and manage a wide range of different projects. During your work, you’ll interface with many other professionals, which include architects, public officials, civil engineers, real estate developers, lawyers, and environmental engineers.

While urban planners have many unique tasks that they must perform, one characteristic you’ll need to have regardless of your duties is the ability to solve problems. When working as an urban planner, you must determine what a community’s needs are before creating short-term and long-term solutions that will strengthen the region. If a city’s population count is growing rapidly, urban planners handle the many challenges that occur with infrastructure, services, and affordable housing.

You’ll manage an array of environmental, social, and economic issues, which include everything from planning development of a new park to making sure that the city’s aging residents have the services they require. When starting an urban planning career, you could choose to specialize in specific aspects of planning, which extend to:

  • Urban design
  • Community development
  • Historic preservation
  • Land use
  • Real estate
  • Transportation
  • Infrastructure

If you want to take the first step towards working in urban planning, there are numerous career paths to select from. Since there are many individual aspects of urban planning that you can specialize in, there are also numerous degree programs you can enter. The following guide provides a comprehensive overview of the 10 best degrees for urban planning:

  • Urban and regional planning
  • Economics
  • Environmental design
  • Landscape architecture
  • Geography
  • Public administration
  • Political science
  • Architecture
  • Public policy
  • Civil engineering

Before delving into this guide, keep in mind that there are no requisite majors for urban planning. As long as you learn about urban planning and develop the necessary skills, any of the programs detailed below will give you the tools you need to start a career in this field.

1. Urban and Regional Planning

To become an urban planner, you may need to obtain a graduate degree. However, the undergraduate degree program you enter can vary. One undergraduate degree program that’s becoming increasingly common in colleges and universities across the U.S. is the urban and regional planning bachelor’s degree. With an undergraduate degree in this field, you may be able to land an entry-level position in the form of an assistant or junior planner.

During your studies, you’ll develop problem-solving and analytical skills via workshops, internships, lab classes, and classroom seminars. The exact subjects you learn depend on the school you attend and the program you apply for. Your classes will likely involve:

  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Spatial analysis
  • Planning action and communication
  • International development planning
  • Environmental policy planning
  • City design and development
  • Community development

Unlike some of the other degrees in this guide, every course you take as part of this degree program prepares you for a lengthy career in urban planning.

2. Economics

Choosing to specialize in economic development gives you the ability to understand the function of urban economies and how nonprofit and public sector efforts influence these economies. When you earn a bachelor’s degree in economics, you’ll be given the analytical and critical thinking skills that are necessary to become an effective urban planner. This program covers a wide range of different subjects, which means that you’ll learn about everything from banking and business to finance.

Even though the policy and theoretical frameworks in an economics degree program are broad, you’ll learn how to bolster development in urban communities that have gone through disinvestment. You’ll also gain the tools necessary to improve a community’s economic opportunities. Students who obtain this degree can find employment in urban planning and public planning agencies.

Urban economic development is a rapidly growing specialization within the field of urban planning. If you use this degree to earn a job as an urban planner, you can bring your knowledge of property and land markets to resolve urban economic development issues. While this degree program can help you gain a job in any urban setting, it’s most sought-after in large metropolitan areas that have outdated downtown areas.

3. Environmental Design

An environmental design undergraduate degree teaches students the skills they need to design environmentally sustainable spaces, which is a major component of modern urban planning. When you’re enrolled in this program, you’ll learn to make decisions that benefit the population as well as the natural environment. When you enroll in an environmental design program, you’ll take courses like:

  • Landscape technology
  • Drawing skills
  • History of technology
  • Architectural history
  • Site planning and analysis
  • Management
  • Applied ecology

As an urban planner, you’re responsible for making blueprints for old urban locations that require ecological updates or new urban areas that are designed to keep sustainability in mind. During an environmental design program, you’ll find out how to apply the skills you learn to an urban planning career. For instance, environmental design students gain technical skills during their coursework. Your coursework will teach you how to use geographic information systems (GIS) and global positioning systems (GPS) to obtain information about infrastructure and landscape. Urban planners are often required to gather data from environmental studies, market research, and technology.

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4. Landscape Architecture

Landscape architecture degree programs involve designing, managing, and planning all aspects of a physical environment. This planning can apply to everything from small sites to vast regions, which is why the knowledge you gain can be readily applied to your career as an urban planner. While the coursework will also teach you how to design wilderness landscapes, a large portion of your studies will center around densely populated urban areas.

During your studies, you should gain the ability to solve problems creatively and approach cultural and environmental issues in an effective manner. The types of projects that a landscape architect degree helps you learn how to perform include ecological restoration, community revitalization, open space systems, and public plazas, all of which will help you when it comes time to develop land use plans as an urban planner.

Whether you’re spending time in the classroom or outside of it, you should have ample opportunity to gain relevant experience in everything from city planning and architecture to historic preservation and real estate development. These programs are often generalist, which means that they cover a wide array of subjects that include everything from large-scale landscape planning to design basics. Elective credits can center around subjects like professional development and environmental issues.

5. Geography

An undergraduate degree in geography prepares you for many of the tasks you’ll perform as an urban planner. You’ll study the Earth’s landscape as well as its plant, human, and animal inhabitants. Much of this coursework involves gaining a knowledge of spatial patterns and how to use a wide range of unique geographic tools. These tools include computer-based cartography, GPS systems, and remote sensing.

It’s possible to earn a geography degree via a bachelor of arts (BA) program or a bachelor of science (BS) program. The BS track focuses on technology and the environmental components of geography. In comparison, the BA track centers around humanity and the relationships it has to the earth. For the purpose of becoming an urban planner, you’ll want to pursue the BS track.

Most undergraduate programs in geography include curriculum that involves physical geography, research, and statistics. Since the field is relatively broad, the majority of geography degrees provide concentrations that allow students to position their education in a manner that aligns with their urban planning goals. When you graduate from this program, you should have a better understanding of how to use geo-technical tools, conduct research, and develop data sets.

6. Public Administration

Public administrators are tasked with promoting urban development, protecting public safety, and implementing public policies. Most of the skills you learn are transferable to a career as an urban planner. During this degree program, you’ll take courses in business, nonprofit, and government management. Even in the areas that aren’t directly related to an urban planning career, you’ll gain insight on how to interact with government and business officials, which is a major part of the job.

When you take part in a public administration undergraduate degree, you should be able to strengthen your research, writing, and analytical skills while completing group projects, attending lectures, and performing research. Urban planners are required to take the latest building and zoning codes into account when developing land use plans. During your coursework in a public administration degree, you’ll learn about public policy and how it’s created, which should prove invaluable during your career.

7. Political Science

Political science focuses on the practice and philosophy of political systems. However, the skills you develop in these courses are applicable to urban planning and can help you interface with many of the government professionals you’ll work with during an urban planning project. The four core areas of political science involve political theory, comparative politics, international relations, and American government and politics.

You’ll develop new techniques for studying politics via econometrics, experiments, and statistics. While political science degrees aren’t directly related to urban planning, you’ll gain a considerable amount of research experience during your studies, which will be highly beneficial when applying for jobs in urban planning.

Your ability to interact with members of the public sector should also prove useful. You can earn an undergraduate degree in political science as a BS or BA degree. A bachelor of science often incorporates statistics and mathematics into the curriculum.

8. Architecture

Urban planners and architects perform similar jobs. While urban planners determine where buildings can be constructed and how outdoor areas should be used, architects focus more on the actual design of the building.

As an urban planner, you must focus on the larger picture of how to take community needs into account and how land use programs will impact surrounding areas. However, having an in-depth knowledge of architecture can be highly advantageous when applying for an urban planning job. Your knowledge can be transferred to a master’s in urban planning as well.

The curriculum in an architecture undergraduate degree involves designing structures that are suitable for human use and will remain safe and reliable for years to come. You’ll learn about budgeting, planning, negotiating with other parties, maintaining compliance with safety regulations, and handling financial accounts.

Depending on the program, students go to lectures on technology, theory, and history. You’ll learn how to use technology to complete individual projects. BS and BA tracks are available with this type of undergraduate degree.

9. Public Policy

Public policy degrees prepare you for analyzing community issues and directly influencing the lawmaking process at the federal, state, and local levels. Urban planners are consistently tasked with taking public policy into account. In fact, you’ll need to implement government policies and plans that affect land use in your role as an urban planner.

The primary curriculum you’ll study during a public policy program involves courses on:

  • Applied economics
  • Research design
  • Statistics
  • Public policy politics
  • Policy innovation and analysis
  • Applied philosophy

You’ll establish teamwork, communication, and leadership skills while developing client-centered research. The purpose of a public policy degree program is to help students gain the skills and knowledge required to enhance the lives of the public.

During your coursework, you should learn how to think independently and critically. You’ll also spend time finding out how to communicate and reason with others. Two aspects of this program that can help you become a more effective urban planner include quantitative analysis and developing research methods. Depending on the program you enter, it’s possible that your skills and knowledge will be tested in real-world environments outside of the classroom.

10. Civil Engineering

Civil engineering is a key aspect of urban planning and often involves the planning of bridges, ramps, and roads. In fact, most of your coursework will directly overlap with the tasks you’ll perform as an urban planner. Civil engineering is the practice of developing and designing infrastructure projects of all scopes and sizes. For instance, these projects may involve developing water supply networks or transport systems. They can also be smaller in scope and focus on the development of individual buildings or roads.

Every aspect of designing and building a structure is part of a civil engineer’s focus, which is why these skills will be helpful when pursuing a career in urban planning. Along with planning, you’ll learn how to perform construction analysis, surveying, designing, and budgeting tasks. A civil engineering undergraduate degree will teach you about modern environmental concerns, which include how to handle scarce water supplies and pollution. These issues are often addressed by urban planners when they create land use programs.

During your studies, you’ll learn how to effectively apply scientific knowledge and mathematics to real-world scenarios. Students must also take financial, environmental, ethical, and legal considerations into account. When you study civil engineering, you’ll be able to build your design skills through computer-aided design.

Undergraduate civil engineering programs often take two to four years to complete. A combination of lab work and lectures will be given depending on the program you apply to. You may also gain opportunities to take part in industry placements, which involve spending a year or less gaining real-world experience in the industry you plan to enter.

Closing Thoughts

Becoming an urban planner requires years of study and a determination to navigate the hurdles that arise along the way. While this career path is challenging, it’s also highly rewarding once you land a job. The projects you take part in have the ability to transform an entire community and change lives for the better. No matter where you want to live, city and state governments are always in need of urban planners. In fact, the urban planning industry is expected to grow by 4% over the next 10 years.

If you believe that a career in urban planning is the right option for you, getting your education is the very first step you must take. Once you’ve determined which type of degree you’d like to earn, all that’s left is to find a college or university to apply to. All the degrees listed above give you the education and skills you need to start a career in urban planning. The urban planning industry allows you to explore your creativity and drive for innovation.

Ready to start your journey?

Ready to start your journey?