I Think Bay Area Residents Need A Reminder As To What Urban Planners Actually Do

Urban Planning and Legos
Youth collaborative community build guided by Denver city planners, architect, and streetscape designer. Photo by Cherie Lewis, August 6, 2011.

After repeated disruptions at regional plan workshops in support of Plan Bay Area across the San Francisco Bay Area, I think it would be a good time to remind residents what urban planners actually do.

Here’s an excerpt from John M. Levy’s Contemporary Urban Planning (pg. 95):

Planners are basically advisors. Alone, the planner does not have the power to do many of the things that cause change within the community: to commit public funds, to enact laws, to enter into contracts, or to exercise the power of eminent domain… The planner’s influence on events, then, stems from the capacity to articulate viewpoints and develop consensus and coalitions among those who do wield significant powers.

And similarly, of the importance of holding such workshops (pg. 95):

A more modern view is that good plans spring from the community itself. In this view the planner’s proper role is to facilitate the planning process and to aid it with his or her own expertise, rather than to deliver the plan full blown… The very act of participating in the planning process informs the citizen about the details of the plan. Giving time and energy to the process of planning builds the citizens’ commitment to the plan.

More positivity would help.

[photo via Cherie Lewis]

Don’t Know What Urban Planners Do? Please See BLS…


Many of the graduate urban planning courses I took typically started with a brief class exercise to describe urban planning and the roles of urban planners. It seemed tedious at the time. Of course, I know what urban planning was and what urban planners did.

Fast forward to me describing urban planning to one of my friends. And guess what? I failed. I froze. Describing urban planning was easy. Proving why urban planning was important was slightly more difficult, especially to someone who repeatedly asked why. I floundered in my attempts to re-articulate my descriptions in a way that person would understand.

After more failure, I gave up. Looking back, I wish I had redirected my friend to the U.S. Bureau Of Labor Statistics’ “Urban and Regional Planners” entry in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition (PDF).[1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Urban and Regional Planners, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos057.htm (visited December 21, 2011).] I have not read a more concise and accurate summary of what urban planners actually do.

Urban and regional planners develop long- and short-term plans for the use of land and the growth and revitalization of urban, suburban, and rural communities and the region in which they are located.” Among the significant highlights of the entry (verbatim, emphasis mine):

  • Local governments employ about 66 percent of urban and regional planners.
  • Employment is projected to grow 19 percent, which is faster than the average.
  • Most new jobs will be in affluent, rapidly growing communities.
  • Job prospects will be best for those with a master’s degree; bachelor’s degree holders with additional skills in GIS or mapping may find entry-level positions, but advancement opportunities are limited.


I would be remiss if I did not mention that the employment projection was made in 2009 and is probably less accurate now given the shape of the economy and the decimation of local government budgets. Planning tends to be paid for by developer fees and without steady development (good-bye sprawl) planning and/or community development departments were trimmed to bare-bones staffing levels. Ironic, no?

[photo via Chascamp/Charles Campbell (top) | TORONTOist/Waterfront Toronto/Heritage Toronto (bottom)]