How To Become An Urban Planner

29 May 2020 | Careers Advice | Guest Author

You have skills in decision-making, strategic thinking and spatial design. You want a role that will have an impact on your local community in the most direct way possible. It sounds like you want to be an urban planner!

What is an urban planner?
Urban planners responsible for planning our towns and cities is part art, part science and part diplomacy. You will be expected to balance the demand for housing, business, leisure, transport, the people, community and the environment. What is beneficial for one may be detrimental to another. Therefore, your role will be to balance the consequences of decisions and seek the outcome that helps most.

Once qualified, you could work in the private or the public. You could work in transport, the environment, utilities, land regeneration, heritage and conservations, as well as urban design for the local authorities. Any role will likely cover many of these areas. For instance, you could be responsible for planning homes that are energy efficient. You may be responsible for considering the road and rail links through a sensitive area, one with specific environmental concerns. You may need to manage the water flow into a new urban area that could be impacted by flood without proper planning.
The possibilities for the role of the urban planner are extensive. From working in woodland to being active on construction sites, anything that changes the way people live in a space could be your responsibility.

When carrying out these roles, you will use surveying techniques, geographical information systems and computer-aided design. You will draw up the plans and make all the relevant recommendations to the groups who are responsible for informing decisions.
You will spend most of your time working in a planning office. However, you will also be expected to visit sites and travel to meetings with other professionals.

Becoming an urban planner
If this sounds like you, you will need to pursue a degree or a postgraduate qualification accredited by the Royal Town Planning Institute. You have lots of routes to becoming an RTPI accredited planner.

Essential qualifications

- You will need at least five GCSEs with a good pass (C or higher; 5 or higher)
- You will need at least three A levels. You would be advised to pursue courses such as Geography and Design-based courses. 
- An accredited qualification offered by the Royal Town Planning Institute.

The academic route
The degree route allows you to take subjects at university that interest you. You might not be sure you want to be an urban planner, but you know you are interested in the environment, or in the needs of different social groups in urban areas or how urban development has evolved through time. These specific subjects can be pursued at degree level, without the need for taking something specific to urban planning. 

However, if you take this general degree subject and then decide you want to be an urban planner, you will need to take a specific postgraduate qualification accredited by the RTPI.

Alternatively, you can take a degree that will lead to direct RTPI accreditation. To get on to such a degree, you will need 5 good passes at GCSE and good grades in at least 3 A Levels. Depending on your choice of course provider, the demands could be strenuous. 

The vocational route
You may not be academic. You may find yourself working in a role that allows you to demonstrate the technical proficiency and vision to be an urban planner. If this is the case, your employer might support you in your path to qualification as a planner. You might start as a support staff member and marry the practical on the job learning with distance learning around the work. 

Volunteering is also a great way to learn from practical experience. If you are unsure if you want to commit to a three-year specific degree, getting some experience with your local council or other planning organisation could help shape your career path.

The soft skills you will need
There are specific technical skills of the town planning you will need to master, for instance; understanding how to use CAD (computer-aided design) package. However, much of what you will need to learn are softer skills. These are those qualities that will help you master the profession. 
For instance, you will need to be an outstanding communicator. Your vision for an urban space is worth nothing if you cannot communicate this to other people. Consequently, you need strong literacy and oracy skills. If the plan you are proposing is tricky, you will need to be skilled with the language used to persuade people to go with your ideas. Maths is obviously an essential technical subject for the urban planner, but do not underestimate the importance of those English skills.

You also need to be a strong team player and excellent at building rapport. You will always be one cog in a machine of development. If you cannot work with the other cogs, it does not matter how clever your solution. Getting work experience will help you develop these people skills.
You will need to be organised and demonstrate excellent time management. You will work to some tight deadlines, and any delay on your part could have a significant impact on a project. Consequently, you will need to learn to prioritise your workload, managing a huge caseload.

Potential career path in urban planning
You could begin your career as a planning technician. This is an entry-level position and does not require urban planning qualifications. However, you will need to be adept with computer software.

You could start as a planner if you have all the qualifications. You might be employed first as an assistant planner.

You would then move up through levels of seniority. You would become a Senior Planner and have some responsibility for supervising other professionals.

Your path in urban planning will then progress through management positions. However, you will also become versed in urban issues and could have more interest in policymaking.

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