What the @!?**#! Is An Urban Planner?

The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center
A model showcase at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center – Shanghai, China
Source: Michael Jentsch (Flickr)

I get this question a lot (without the cursing but the facial expressions convey the blue language).  A few months ago, a Primerica “salesman” approached me in the produce section of my neighborhood Safeway attempting to get me to sign up for his MLM scheme and he asked what I did for a living (wow how brazen to ask someone you don’t know this question!).  I told him, I am an urban planner.  Primerica man’s eyes glazed over and we stood in a 5 second uncomfortable silence.  He finally decided to ask what is an urban planner.  My stock answer for the everyday man or woman is this  — “I help design cities.”  Four words.  Sometimes I swap the word ‘cities’ with ‘neighborhoods’ or ‘towns.’ He went on to ask did I make good money in my profession.  Errr, well enough to not have to go around soliciting people in a grocery store to get them to waste their time and resources on a scheme.

It’s a bit more complicated than that definition but it works when I get the glazed over look.  But if you are curious to know what an urban planner, here is the definition courtesy of Wikipedia:

An urban planner is a professional who works in the field of urban planning for the purpose of optimizing the effectiveness of a community’s land use and infrastructure. They formulate plans for the development and management of urban and suburban areas, typically analyzing land use compatibility as well as economic, environmental and social trends. In developing their plan for a community (whether commercial, residential, agricultural, natural or recreational), urban planners must also consider a wide array of issues such as sustainability, air pollution, traffic congestion, crime, land values, legislation and zoning codes.

In other words urban planners design cities (and towns, and the suburbs).   Sometimes the job is routine like many others but most of the time is great in a frustrating complex way. The sheer amount of meetings with community residents, developers, architects, engineers, politicians and bureaucrats would probably drive most people batty.  You have to master the art of negotiation having to deal with all of these groups. One thing I really do like about the profession is that I get to set policy in what is good for a community.    At this moment, I am working on two plans that will guide the growth of  two communities for the next 15 to 20 years. Power trip anyone? Ha!

In my profession the use of the word ‘urban’ is sometimes controversial because not all work in urban areas – yep someone out there is planning rural areas and farmland folks.  Some have taken to saying they are ‘planners’ but I have learned this causes so much more confusion than is necessary.  I tried it once at an event and everyone thought I was a party planner.  Seriously.  So no thank you, tacking the word urban on the title at least gets people’s minds working and wanting to know more.

In conclusion, I help design cities and I am proud to say so.

By the way, the photo above is great! Shanghai is teaching its people about the benefits of urban planning.  Where is the U.S. is this happening?  If you know of any, please send the details my way.

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