Calling all planners!
January 4, 2013 2:09 PM   Subscribe

Should I go into Urban Planning?

I'm in my mid-twenties, with a BA in Music and an MA in Anthropology. The MA was meant to be a PhD but I grew dissatisfied with my program fairly quickly and left after completing my master's. In the two years since, I've done two different AmeriCorps programs (one VISTA, one conservation corps) in an attempt to reconfigure my life plan. I struggled with finding a direction during this time.

I finally realized that my interest in both research and in social justice pointed somewhere in the direction of urban planning. I have a strong interest in community and economic development. More recently I got the opportunity to work with New York's Office of Emergency Management following Hurricane Sandy, which I loved. My current desire is to work for a community development non profit though I'm also pretty happy to let the wind take me where it wants.

However, I am wary of the fact that urban planning seems to be "trending" right now, a bit like library science was about five years ago (yeah, I almost went that route, too). So, here are my actual questions:

Current planners, where do you think the field is going in terms of hiring and job availability?

Will this be a wise investment in my education/career? Or will I end up in debt and still not very employable?

Finally, how do I best plan ahead in grad school to make myself employable if I do get my MUP, especially given my desire to do anti-poverty and community development work?

Any and all advice you can give would be very welcome and I'm happy to answer any clarifying questions if necessary.
posted by Polyhymnia to Work & Money (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of going back to school right away, look into working for FEMA or a State Agency where you'll be in the Urban Planning melieu, without committing to more school or debt.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:26 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Funny, I was just talking about this with my husband yesterday, who's in a related field. He says that it's tough to get a job as an urban planner because there aren't very many positions. I don't think that's a reflection of the economy, just a fact of life for the field.
posted by trillian at 2:28 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Finally, how do I best plan ahead in grad school to make myself employable if I do get my MUP, especially given my desire to do anti-poverty and community development work?

network network network network

*deep breath*

network network network
posted by desjardins at 2:28 PM on January 4, 2013

It's pretty tough to get a job in planning per se without a Masters degree in either the public or private sectors. The degree is really versitile, however! If you go that route, check out this book to be sure that your program of choice comports with your interests; they differ vis-a-vis emphasis on design, equity, economic development, etc.

Do you want to stay in NYC?
posted by carmicha at 2:37 PM on January 4, 2013

My uncle is one and he has had a tough time finding a job in the last few years. The last job he had (before he got laid off from that) required him to live away from his family on weekdays for over a year. It doesn't seem to be in too much demand, as trillian said.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:47 PM on January 4, 2013

My current desire is to work for a community development non profit though I'm also pretty happy to let the wind take me where it wants.

Do you need a masters for that?

I'm sorry if this sounds harsh - and if you have the means to pay for another degree, go ahead - but you already have one advanced degree that you're not using. You've been working for Americorps, which is great but is not much like having a real job in a lot of ways. Take a break from school, figure out what's feasible and will make you more or less happy, work-wise, and then go back to school if necessary.

Unless you're leaving out a lot of information, you don't have much work experience. Working in a field is a lot different than studying it.

I have a friend who just graduated from a well-regarded program in Urban Planning and she's having a hard time finding a job, and I gather from talking to her grad school friends that's not unusual. That doesn't mean that it's a bad idea to pursue a degree in urban planning, but in your case, I'd hold off.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 3:06 PM on January 4, 2013

My current desire is to work for a community development non profit

I know a bunch of people who went straight into this kind of work after graduating MIT's MCP program which in some (many?) cases was funded through an RA fellowship.

However, what's stopping you from working for a community development non profit right now?
posted by deanc at 3:19 PM on January 4, 2013

I'm a planner, and my sense is that the job market varies a lot by location. There are a million planners in the Portland area, and lots of them are interested in social justice issues-- I imagine that this is true in the New York area too. I know that the most consistent question I hear from people in the program is "how can I get a job when I graduate?" but, on the other hand, most of the people I know from school are employed in a field that uses their degree.

So... it depends, and it probably will depend a lot on how the Federal budget issues pan out in the long run. Many HUD and DOT funded programs like CDBG that supported planning in local jurisdictions and community development orgs have been cut in the last few budget rounds, and it doesn't look like that will turn around radically in the immediate future. But! The Partnership for Sustainable Communities and other Federal initiatives that were started in Obama's first term support the kind of interdisciplinary planning work that includes social justice. They're competitive funding streams, not entitlements, but they do fund planning and development work and many large CDCs and other agencies are working on projects supported by these initiatives.

As other folks have said, you may be able to get a job with a CDC without additional training, which might be worth considering unless additional schooling will not cause you financial burdens. Do bear in mind that social justice and working with impoverished communities can be personally rewarding, but is almost never well-paid work. I work in community development and affordable housing. I love my job, and I'm not poor (anymore) but I'll never rake in a huge salary for it. Which is fine, but go into it with your eyes open.

Also note that CDC and economic development work may not necessarily be focused on research work. If you're wanting to develop policy recommendations, research best practices, that sort of thing, you might actually want to look into advocacy and policy development agencies, like the Center for Neighborhood Technologies. CDCs and economic development agency work may require some detailed knowledge about financing and the nuts-and-bolts of development work (like "does including ground-floor retail trigger labor laws that increase our development cost and therefore require that we find $XXX,XXX in additional financing dollars or raise our lease rates?"-level stuff) which is why I don't do development work.
posted by Kpele at 3:50 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just an anecdotal story: After about 10 years as a journalist, I did a masters degree program in planning a couple years ago and now work as a planner for my city. The program I went through had two ill-defined tracks: physical planning (which is what I did and primarily involves land use, zoning, transportation, etc.) and community development. A lot of students came in with humanities undergraduate degrees and little professional experience and had a hard time figuring out what they were doing or what to focus on.

I've talked to lots of planners who went through similar programs at other universities and get the impression that mine wasn't the only one that was struggling to define itself, attract competent instructors, etc.

Several of the community development-track students in my cohort drifted away toward other social justice-oriented programs at the university and some that I still keep in touch with are working, mostly part-time, in nonprofits. All report that they could have very easily performed their jobs without having gone through the planning program or taken classes, but that the networking opportunities were helpful.

The job market in my area for all planners is tepid. Out of my total cohort of about 30, only a handful -- maybe 6 -- now have full-time jobs related to urban planning or community development.

I came into this field with an interest in urbanism, design, etc., and the work has turned out to be satisfying. Moreover, the social justice component of my masters program really gave me some valuable new perspectives that I use every day. However, the work that I and most of my planning colleagues do primarily results in changes or improvements to built environments, such as better roads, parks and housing, improved transit or increased walkability, which can indirectly affect peoples' lives and health but may not meet your goals of economic development or anti-poverty, etc. There is a lot of community involvement, but in this line of work it seems like most of this engages neighborhood association types, who tend to be privileged property owners.

You're welcome to mefi-mail me with specific questions.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 4:09 PM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was a Planner with a State Agency for about six years before I got laid off in October. Its an interesting line of work, I really liked what I did, showing local governments and the small businesses that inhabited them how it could all work together. That part was great.

However, there is a LOT of turnover, a lot of politics, and a lot of just bullshit. In my state anyway, the planning staff of all my local governments were routinely laid off as soon as the official, mandated plan was approved by the State (me). That was hard. Then most of us were laid off.

Previous to this, I worked at a Preservation organization, focusing on education and community development. I got paid next to nothing, but again, it was very satisfying work.

Its weird to say, but if you don't necessarily need to work to live, meaning you can live on 30k and be ok if you get laid off till you find something else across the state for about the same salary, its a really interesting, fulfilling career. Until you get a foothold and really really work yourself up the ladder and get a good reputation, you aren't going to make a ton of money. I firmly believe you can though in the long run, but you have to play the game. Are you up for that? If so, go for it!
posted by stormygrey at 4:44 PM on January 4, 2013

I just graduated with my masters in urban planning and I second the ill defined program experience - i think this mostly comes from the field being so large in scope.

However, since you already have one MA AND some experience in the a part of the field you are interested in, I would go the networking route. The only reason I have my current planning job is because I did a fair amount of networking.

In the future, if you continue in the field of planning, it's good to know that you can take the AICP exam (making you a certified planning as long as you do continuing educations + pay dues) with four years experience in the field. And since the field is defined loosely, i bet your disaster management experience would already count.
posted by nanhey at 4:46 PM on January 4, 2013

I think you'd be better off getting a Geography MA/MS with a focus in urban planning. You'd get a much broader (and more employable) degree. Geography programs are usually broken down into (a) GIS, (b) urban planning/geo, (c) Socio-geo, and (d) physical.

I think you'd probably fall in the B & C roles. Hunter / CUNY Grad Center have great programs and are quite cheap for NY residents.

Don't get caught in the "grad school will make me more employable" trap, though.
posted by NYC-BB at 5:16 PM on January 4, 2013

I started in a Master's in Urban and Regional Planning program and ended up in the clergy. Be careful.
posted by 4ster at 6:12 PM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks for so many responses! I'll do my best to answer any questions and clear some things up.

First of all, the observation that I have very little work experience is absolutely true, and something that I'm aware of. I am currently applying for jobs in my field of interest and graduate school is part of that range of options. However, I have had no bites. Zilch. Nada. For the most part I haven't even received rejections. The jobs that are considered entry level in what I am interested in generally require certain skills that I currently don't have, namely GIS, SAS, or SPSS. Part of my considering urban planning involves filling that skills gap. Also, the program that I am planning on applying to most immediately places a large emphasis on interning while in school. One of the things that has held me back from applying to school is the desire to not come out of it nearly thirty and with absolutely no work experience. I've been trying to not bring too much personal angst to this question, but my inability to find meaningful employment is a big part of why I'm asking this question.

Secondly, money is not something that's really a driving factor for me in my career choice. I am definitely of the "make 30k doing something interesting and fulfilling" camp.

Yes, I think I would like to stay in NYC and am planning on applying to Hunter's program. However, I am not currently a NY resident.

4ster, you got a best answer because BOTH of my parents are clergy, meaning it remains an everpresent pitfall for me.
posted by Polyhymnia at 6:53 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Polyhymnia are you not a New York City resident, or not a New York State resident?

Be advised that CUNY tuition, in spite of the name, is based on state of residence, not city. So Long Island or Westchester's as good as Brooklyn. Jersey and CT however, are out of luck.
posted by TTIKTDA at 7:06 PM on January 4, 2013

I am not a resident of New York state. I was deployed here for Hurricane Sandy and have stuck around, as my family lives here and I was considering a move back anyway.
posted by Polyhymnia at 7:17 PM on January 4, 2013

My boyfriend graduated a great urban planning masters' program at a private university 2 1/2 years ago now, and is still looking for a job (and has a pile of loans). I had considered doing an MUP but his story is not encouraging.

I am getting a CUNY MPA degree while going to school part-time. (I'm hoping to take a couple classes at Hunter, schedule permitting.) Money isn't one of my primary career goals either but I definitely wouldn't be in school if I didn't have a job, and if the in-state tuition wasn't so good. I think you're right that you don't want to graduate with no work experience at the age of 30. Would it be possible to try out a degree part-time, if your heart is set on it?
posted by mlle valentine at 8:39 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have an urban planning master's degree and it breaks my heart how few jobs are out there and how competitive the market is. Only a few people out of my graduating class went on to work in planning. I've gone on to culinary school myself.
posted by mirepoix at 9:54 PM on January 4, 2013

I work for a nonprofit in the field and agree with Kpele that job availability and trends vary greatly by location. Everything I know relates to California. Here, nonprofit employment is steady, but turnover and overall employment are low enough that it's difficult for people to find their first job.

The public sector has experienced greater disruptions than the nonprofit sector. Local government layoffs have been massive, with one wave as the housing market collapsed, and another as the State of California eliminated redevelopment. Employment at agencies with federal funding seems to have remained steadier, but I do fear that more brinkmanship over the federal budget could further damage public sector budgets and sources of grant funds.

Your challenge will be to make enough connections to get that first job. In that, I don't think your lack of work experience will be the biggest challenge, because you can get much applicable experience in school or through volunteering, and because more of the openings that I see are for fairly entry-level staff. Your Americorps experience will likely really help.

The bigger challenge is that every job requires a different portfolio of skills. Do you know more about what kind of work you'd like to do related to community development and poverty reduction? Examples: writing reports (like Brookings), supervising the construction of an affordable housing development, lobbying the city council to create a local hiring and living wage ordinance, financing and supervising a micro-lending program. Each of those requires a very different package of skills. It's hard to be a generalist because there is just too much to cover.
posted by slidell at 10:20 PM on January 4, 2013

Urban planning as a general field is rather politically connected, both on the private and the public side. If you're not politically connected, you are looking at a really difficult fight over some pretty low-level jobs. A fight with kids who are younger, are willing to work longer hours, and accept lower pay. Adding New York into the mix just amplifies this issue. It's not impossible, but you really, really, really, really, really need to love urban planning to try to make a go of it.

The person upthread who mentioned Geography is spot on. Take some urban planning courses for fun, but Geography is a much more wide-open field. 8 years ago, I would totally jump into a field that was funded directly or indirectly by the feds. Now, not so much.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 7:32 AM on January 5, 2013

Perhaps try Stanfords D.School before jumping into another 2 year program ... It might shake up how you think you about the problems you want to work on and problem solving in general?
posted by specialk420 at 7:33 AM on January 5, 2013

I love my work, which has encompassed positions with two major cities, an independent agency and decades in consulting, but it can also be extremely frustrating. Slidell's advice above is excellent vis-a-vis articulating the overlap between your interests and skills and pursuing appropriate opportunities accordingly. BTW, pretty much all the MURP programs require/emphasize internships and studios. Among the challenges facing all planners these days...
  • A major frustration in all aspects of the field (current planning, future planning, zoning, economic development, etc.) is how many (often bad) decisions are made by elected officials who work from a short-term perspective and override planners' recommendations, introduce consistencies, etc. ... IMHO that's how it's political, more than in the hiring process.
  • When times get tough, planners also compete with architects, landscape architects and geographers for jobs, as well as the occasional applicant who attended an MBA program with a strong real estate component or earned an MRE.
  • At CDCs, the competition can also include folks who studied sociology and went through MSW programs.
  • The places experiencing the most growth are often the same places that view planning as an unacceptable or suspect impingement on property rights, e.g., southern red states.
  • Elected officials who are interested in appearing to hold the line on employment by not increasing jobs or replacing the departed create situations where planning departments hire consultants and independent contractors in lieu of filling needed positions.
  • Although the Sustainable Communities and related programs mentioned above are bright spots, funding remains scarce and competitive and seldom funds paid positions. CDCs are having to fight harder for locally-controlled CDBG monies and state funds, lending requirements have tightened up (plus interest rates and allowable fees are down) and Congress still needs to reauthorize the New Markets Tax Credit program.
  • Burnout in the field is rampant. There is nothing sadder than a bitter and/or jaded planner.

So. Can you volunteer for a neighborhood not-for-profit, a CDC or LISC? Have you considered working for a foundation or institute addressing pertinent matters, which might expose you to a wider array of approaches and organizations? Would you entertain attending grad school part time? Can you go to the APA conference (this year the national conference is in April in Chicago) where you can take a two day intensive GIS course offered by ESRI and network? There's an NY conference too. Good luck; despite all of these cautions, it's an incredibly rewarding profession.
posted by carmicha at 5:58 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Since carmicha mentions conferences, I'll add the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in early February. This year it is in Kansas City. There is an equitable development pre-conference workshop. Good luck!
posted by slidell at 12:11 AM on January 6, 2013

The conference recommendations are stellar. Thank you! To answer a few more questions:
Slidell, I am very much in the report writing camp. One of the things that got me started on this path was reading a job posting at the Urban Institute, realizing that it exactly described what I want to do, but that I was lacking some of the necessary skills. My sense is that to fill that gap I need to really focus on getting solid training in qualitative and quantitative analysis skills.

I am beginning to explore the idea of going to school part time while I work in something related. It's helpful to have that pointed out as an option.
posted by Polyhymnia at 12:44 PM on January 6, 2013

Well, if you're in the report-writing camp, then consulting might be a good fit for you. When I suspect job candidates are imagining consultants as glamorous jetsetters dispensing opinions to thunderous applause, I always try to find out whether they enjoyed writing papers in college/ grad school... because that's what it's about: original research, analysis and reportage, mostly following an established framework, but frequently not.

FWIW, consulting firms often don't want to hire people with previous municipal experience unless they are very early or very late in their careers, and the latter only if they've developed big, marketable reputations. Consulting is completely different, especially with regards to the time=money equation, and the demands of billable time can be a shock to former public sector folks. As a practical matter, mid-career public sector people don't pencil out vis-a-vis the salaries they require (and can get in the public sector) vs the billing rates they can support. There are operating ratios that govern how many young'uns can be supported by those who have the capacity to win work; winning work is a skill that public sector people haven't had an opportunity to development.

Bottom line, you might be able to get an entry level job in a consulting firm with your experience, especially if you tweak it to demonstrate skill at managing your time.
posted by carmicha at 4:04 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

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