what is it that you do again?

I get this question every single time I tell a stranger I am an urban planner. I find it fascinating that more than half the wonderful, educated, and intelligent strangers I have spoken with, have absolutely no idea what “urban planning” is. I don’t blame them for not knowing, but I have found myself often struggling with a short and sweet job description as well. What is that I do, anyway?

Upon graduation, I have learned -from hands on experience- about how broad the field of planning and design really is. As a student, you become exposed to about 50% of the jobs and creations you can be a part of as a professional. I have  learned a lot more about the field itself, as well as all its opportunities and challenges, after I had graduated college and entered the world of planning as an intern. My understanding and perception from urban planning and design was very different from its reality. We had been involved in various projects of different sizes -governmental and private sector related- but none were quite as complex as the real-life projects I was involved with now.

The field of planning is so broad that it is often quite possible for those in the field to be doing absolutely everything from very technical report writings to very creative designs. The types of projects an urban planner could be a part of varies from making smaller changes between two blocks, to designing, developing, and consulting various groups on multi-year projects on green infrastructure. But if I were to summarize the job of an urban planner, I would say the following:

Urban planners come up with/create/find places for people to live, shop, and work. Ultimately -by collaborating with other professions- they are in charge of creating spaces where people want to be.  They are in charge of making a place livable, sustainable, and attractive. They work on community development to reduce poverty and crime in a given area.

Sound familiar? Yup, because it’s Sims and the SimCity in real life. Similar to the game, urban planners play the role of the ‘mayor’ where they find places and decide on how much land to be devoted to housing, businesses, parks, schools, railroads, airports, and commercial buildings. Afterwards, as the population increases or decreases in their towns/cities, their further decisions and actions shape accordingly. Also similar to the game, urban planners learn along the way to be persistent with their goals, but flexible with their approach, as unexpected moments become the norm of their everyday lives.

More importantly, similar to almost any other field, some urban planners focus mainly on research and devote their time to studying better and more sustainable ways of solving urban issues. Urban planners work in various settings of governmental positions, public and private sectors, universities, and non-profit organizations. For instance, an urban planner could be working on a UN project to plan/design accessible clean water for neighborhoods in developing countries. He/she could also work for a private firm to design a new park/green infrastructure for their city. Ultimately, depending on one’s interest, their places of work could vary greatly, and believe me there are many options as to what to do.

photo credits; shawnleishman and inhabitat