The best Government Job Source

Community Planners

Significant Points
  • 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.
Nature of the Work

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. They help local officials alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems by recommending locations for roads, schools, and other infrastructure and suggesting zoning regulations for private property—work that requires forecasting the future needs of the population. Because local governments employ the majority of urban and regional planners, they often are referred to as community or city planners.

Planners promote the best use of a community's land and resources for residential, commercial, institutional, and recreational purposes. They address environmental, economic, and social health issues of a community as it grows and changes. They may formulate plans relating to the construction of new school buildings, public housing, or other kinds of infrastructure. Planners also may help to make decisions about developing resources and protecting ecologically sensitive regions. Some planners are involved in environmental issues including pollution control, wetland preservation, forest conservation, and the location of new landfills. Planners also may help to draft legislation on environmental, social, and economic issues, such as planning a new park, sheltering the homeless, or making the region more attractive to businesses.

Before preparing plans for community development, planners study and report on the current use of land for residential, business, and community purposes. Their reports include information on the location and capacity of streets, highways, airports, water and sewer lines, schools, libraries, and cultural and recreational sites. They also provide data on the types of industries in the community, the characteristics of the population, and employment and economic trends. Using this information, along with input from citizens, planners try to optimize land use for buildings and other public facilities. Planners prepare reports showing how their programs can be carried out and what they will cost.

Planners examine proposed community facilities, such as schools, to ensure that these facilities will meet the needs of a growing or changing population. They keep abreast of economic and legal issues related to zoning codes, building codes, and environmental regulations. Planners also deal with land-use issues created by population movements. For example, as suburban growth and economic development create more jobs outside cities, the need for public transportation that gets workers to those jobs increases. In response, planners develop and model possible transportation systems and explain them to planning boards and the general public.

Planners use computers to record and analyze information and to prepare reports and recommendations for government executives, developers and builders. Computer databases, spreadsheets, and analytical techniques are used to project program costs and forecast future trends in employment, housing, transportation, or population. Widespread use of computerized geographic information systems (GIS) enable planners to map land areas, to overlay maps with geographic variables such as population density, and to combine or manipulate geographic information to produce alternative plans for land use or development.

Urban and regional planners often work with land developers, civic leaders, and public officials and may function as mediators in community disputes, presenting alternatives that are acceptable to opposing parties. Planners may prepare material for community relations programs, speak at civic meetings, and appear before legislative committees to explain and defend their proposals.

Most urban and regional planners focus on one or more areas of specialization, such as transportation planning, urban design, community development and redevelopment, and land-use or code enforcement. While planners may specialize in these, and other, areas, they are also required to keep the bigger picture in mind and do what's best for the community as a whole.

Work environment. Urban and regional planners often travel to sites intended for development or regulation to inspect the features of the land. Those involved in site development inspections may spend most of their time in the field. Although most planners have a scheduled 40-hour workweek, they frequently attend evening or weekend meetings or public hearings with citizens' groups. Planners may experience the pressure of deadlines and tight work schedules, as well as political pressure generated by interest groups affected by proposals related to urban development and land use.

Community Planner, GS-0020-05

This is an entrance or training level. Characteristic is the performance or a variety of tasks selected to provide: (1) Experience and training in the application of basic techniques used in the planning profession, and growth in professional knowledge, skill, and ability; (2) an introduction to the employing agencies' policies, programs, and procedures; and (3) an opportunity for management to discover the trainees' aptitudes, interests, and potential for advancement to more responsible assignments. Typically, assignments consist of well-defined tasks such as gathering and analyzing facts which are pertinent to the solution of a planning problem which may be part of a larger study.

Employees at this level develop and apply:

  • A basic knowledge of planning in such related fields as geography, economics, political science, engineering, architecture, sociology, and public administration;
  • The ability to understand the interrelationship of task assignments, agency policies, and the planning process;
  • The ability to recognize or accept the viewpoints of others;
  • The ability to exercise tact and patience in dealing with problems and viewpoints; and
  • The ability to draft descriptive factual background memoranda or summaries.

Responsibility

Supervision of the work is direct. Specific details of procedures and techniques to be followed in doing the work are given by the supervisor and are supplemented by readily accessible written instruction guides. Questions are discussed and resolved as they arise. Personal work contacts are limited. Usually the contacts are confined to obtaining information during fact gathering assignments.

Community Planner, GS-0020-07

Community Planners GS-7, work on a variety of assignments of limited scope and complexity which are selected to contribute to the continuing professional development of the employee. They usually perform operations which are phases of broader assignments for which planners of a higher level have responsibility. Planners GS-7 must be familiar with and use a number of standard planning principles, methods, and practices in order to correlate data, and follow an operation through a series of related detailed steps or processes in fact gathering or analysis. (By comparison, GS-5 planners receive assignments that are well defined and usually involve a limited number of steps.)

The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Surveys an area and gathers information on the people living there (income, employment, how many in each residence and their relationship);
  • Organizes and prepares information and statistical data in factual reports; and
  • Prepares visual aids (charts, maps, etc.), to use in presenting information to a community.

In addition to the knowledge and ability applied at the GS-5 level, Community Planners GS-7 apply:

  • The ability to recognize significant and controlling aspects of their assignment and bring to their supervisor's attention the inadequacy of standard practices in a particular situation;
  • The ability to search agency files and the technical literature for material having a bearing on a specific problem; and
  • General knowledge of agency goals, policies, and programs.

Responsibility

Supervisors provide detailed instructions on new assignments and review the work in progress, furnishing additional instructions as the work proceeds. On aspects of the work which constitute recurring assignments, constant review of work operations is not necessary, and the work is performed independently. Supervisors make occasional spot checks to evaluate progress and compliance with instructions. Work is reviewed upon completion. (By comparison, the work of Planners GS-5 is closely supervised and subject to review in progress.)

Community Planner, GS-0020-09

Community Planners GS-9 work on varied assignments of moderate difficulty and complexity. Assignments typically do not involve major deviations from established planning procedures, or consideration of complex technical planning questions. The work is similar to that previously done in the organization. Required data may involve physical, social, or economic factors, and can be obtained by the use of established methods and techniques. By contrast to positions at GS-7, the GS-9 level community planners may select, adapt, or refine data related to these factors, to fit the data to the objectives of projects. Planners GS-9 must be able to relate projects to their agencies' policies, programs, and operating procedures.

The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Conducts studies of the physical, social, and/or economic factors which are characteristic of a small community or a project area in a community; and
  • Prepares summaries, narrative statements, and analyses of the pertinent technical facts reported in project studies. Develops tentative plans for a small project area in a community, showing land proposed for housing, business, industry, schools, recreation, streets, utilities, work areas, and open spaces.

In addition to the knowledge and ability required at the GS-7 level, Community Planners GS-9 apply:

  • Substantive knowledge of the employing agency's programs, policies, and goals;
  • Knowledge of channels to use in obtaining or disseminating information;
  • The ability to develop a plan and work schedule for a planning project; and
  • The ability to evaluate planning projects for technical validity, and prepare analytical reports.

Responsibility

Supervisors outline the scope and objective of assignments and the general course of action required. Supervisors discuss various considerations, the basic sources of data to be used, and alternative methods.

GS-9 planners develop the specific plan of procedure using standard methods and techniques. However, they are expected to recognize and bring to the supervisor's attention difficulties encountered or findings which warrant the supervisor's attention. The supervision is somewhat diminished by comparison with the GS-7 level. The work is observed for progress, and reviewed for adequacy, adherence to instructions, and to ensure that it is complete and correct in the course of action taken. Contacts with other people are usually to obtain or furnish information that is factual and noncontroversial.

Community Planner, GS-0020-11

Community Planners GS-11 are assigned a variety of professional community planning problems, and perform a wide range of standard professional duties. They plan, coordinate, or monitor complete planning projects or studies, or carry out operating assignments, which involve planning problems that are conventional in nature, but of considerable scope. (By comparison, GS-9 planners have assignments with fewer variables and screened to eliminate complex technical planning questions.) Community Planners GS-11 exercise initiative and resourcefulness in obtaining and analyzing information related to problems or projects, and in planning the presentation of findings supporting their recommendations or conclusions in narrative and graphic form.

The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Studies the financial, economic, and social implications and impact on a community of an expanded mortgage lending program for mobile homes or modular houses as a temporary substitute for housing in an expanding community or in an urban redevelopment area;
  • Conducts a study pertaining to the development of a specific project involving such considerations as open spaces, public utilities, and off-street parking facilities, and develops specific regulatory controls for the project on such matters as height, bulk, density, and location of buildings.

Knowledge and abilities used at this level are the same as those for the GS-9 level, with the following additions:

  • Ability to relate the effect of community planning decisions on the mission and goals of the agency;
  • Ability to arrange and conduct conferences; and
  • Knowledge of conference techniques.

Responsibility

The object and scope of assignments are specified, but the GS-11 community planners are responsible for the development of plans, the assembly and analysis of data, and the preparation of appropriate reports. As trained and experienced professionals, GS-11 planners make commitments regarding conventional aspects of their assignments that are covered by precedent, professional practice, or policy. They represent the agency before public bodies on issues of fact. (By comparison, GS-9 planners infrequently make unreviewed decisions on such matters.)

GS-11 planners arrange and conduct conferences with community groups, other public agencies, property owners, and others concerned with the projects or problems of the planners.

Supervisors review the work mainly for the soundness of results obtained. Novel problems or matters involving serious consequences which may arise are referred to higher grade planners.

Community Planner, GS-0020-12

Community Planners GS-12 have projects and problems of such size that the projects must be divided into subsections or components so that others can carry portions to completion. Specialized skill and perspective are required to see the total problem and coordinate the work. Assignments typically require interpretation or extension of policy guides, substantial modification of techniques and procedures, or the development of innovative approaches to solve specific problems in a specialized area of planning. (By contrast, at the GS-11 level planning problems are conventional in nature.)

The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Develops or reviews information and plans, and makes recommendations on complex planning problems related to a variety of land uses involving conflicting factors, economic growth, and the social and cultural welfare of communities;
  • Plans and produces comprehensive planning studies to be used as the basis for administrative or budget planning;
  • Reviews and evaluated work performed under a grant or a contract for accuracy, adequacy, completeness, and conformity with grant or contract requirements, and, as necessary, makes suggestions designed to improve the product.

In addition to the knowledge and skills required at the GS-11 level, Community Planners GS-12 must have a significant background of practical experience as well as a thorough grasp of theory to identify and define the nature and scope of obscure problems. Typically, GS-12 planners must have highly developed specialized skills, knowledge, and extensive experience in a specific area of planning.

Responsibility

The general objectives of assignments are given; areas of special interest to others are highlighted and relative priorities of projects are fixed at the time assignments are made. Community Planners GS-12 are responsible for subsequent planning and execution of the work. They report progress to their supervisors in occasional conferences, and receive guidance on unusual technical problems. Completed work is reviewed for adequacy (overall concepts rather than details) and conformance with agency policy. Particularly controversial problems which have a significant impact on public jurisdictions or private interest groups, or on important agency approved planning policy, are reviewed by supervisors or at higher organizational levels. (At the GS-11 level the nature of the assignments would usually preclude such controversial problems.)

On a continuing basis, GS-12 planners regularly represent their organization in discussions with citizen groups and professionals (engineers, architects, lawyers, etc.) directly concerned with community planning problems, and local officials. These discussions are needed to obtain their cooperation and participation in planning problems, processes, or programs; to explain agency programs or to aid them in applying planning concepts.

Community Planner, GS-0020-13

Community Planners GS-13 are assigned planning projects that require an extensive knowledge of the laws and regulations administered by their agency, community management, social needs, land requirements, community power structures, precedent cases, and court decisions. In addition, to make operating decisions or to provide advice and assistance, they must have a thorough understanding of agency policies and priorities, and the provisions and intent of new programs that are in the process of being defined.

Characteristically, assignments involve problems lacking in precedents, applicable technical guides, or standards and elements such as the following:

  • Have a broad impact on planning programs in a metropolitan area, a State, or an agency; or
  • Involve the development of regulations for new program areas, or of legislative programs.
  • (By comparison, at GS-12, assignments primarily involve ongoing programs.)

The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Develops regulations, position papers, and instructions related to community planning aspects of agency programs;
  • Reviews the agency field office programs in community planning for technical and program management effectiveness; makes reports and offers suggestions for improvement based on findings; or
  • Provides technical advice and coordinates planning or related problems or projects with representatives of other agencies, local or State officials, or with colleagues in other area offices.

GS-13 planners must demonstrate marked professional expertise and a depth of knowledge and experience in the planning program requirements, operations, and functional problems of an agency; or in specialized areas of planning, such as urban renewal housing, or transportation. In addition, they must possess, to a high degree, technical judgment, tact, imagination, and resourcefulness.

Responsibility

Work is assigned in terms indicating objectives, results expected, any major problems anticipated, and priorities. Supervisors participate in decisions involving changes in direction, or departures from established policies, and furnish advice, as requested, on policy or administrative aspects of assignments. Completed work is reviewed primarily for results achieved and conformance to policy. Community Planners GS-13 frequently meet with local and State officials to aid and encourage the adoption of sound planning principles and programs. They have a substantial and continuing responsibility for representing their organizations in negotiations with officials of organizations whose decisions and activities have important implications to the overall planning program. (By contrast, at the GS-12 level contacts involve discussions primarily to obtain cooperation and agreement on specific plans and projects.)

Community Planner, GS-0020-14

Community Planners GS-14 provide expert counsel to agency management and professional colleagues on a wide variety of planning questions or problems. These include authoritative interpretation of agency policy, regulations, and standards as applied to problems involving land use proposals or operating problems. In responding to questions, they must weigh the implications for basic agency objectives, legal requirements, and program needs, while being fully aware that the answers they propose may establish precedents with considerable future impact. The work includes important problems involving regions, States, or major municipalities. These problems are assigned to GS-14 planners to coordinate or negotiate with other Federal agencies, or with top officials of State or local government bodies. The problems at the GS-14 level involve unusually important, extensive, delicate, and controversial issues.

The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Develops standards and criteria to guide agency representatives in evaluating comprehensive plans and analytical techniques;
  • Provides leadership and advice to top planners of regions, States, and major municipalities in identifying problems, developing cooperative relationships leading to joint technical efforts in planning projects, in formulating legislation, and in resolving unusually complex or controversial issues; or
  • Prepares and reviews policy recommendations and technical proposals relative to District of Columbia and Federal interests in the development of the National Capital Region. Responsible for liaison and coordination with District of Columbia, Federal, State, local government, and regional officials and citizen groups in matters related to these interests.

In addition to the background, abilities, and personal qualities required at the GS-13 level, GS-14 planners, as experts, must have:

  • Marked ability to identify parallel areas of program concerns, interests, and goals with State and other governing bodies, and other public and private organizations;
  • The ability to present planning values, techniques, and processes in a meaningful way to professionals in many other fields; and
  • Considerable finesse and diplomacy.

Responsibility

The work is performed under broad administrative guidance, subject to general policy direction, and the established policies and procedures of the agency. At this level, incumbents carry out their work independently but may seek advice on complex policy questions. The work is evaluated in terms of the effectiveness in working with the various publics, soundness of recommendations, and achievement of solutions to significant problems.

Major work accomplishments are generally achieved through personal contacts and negotiations with top State, business community, and other groups and officials.

In such contacts, planners speak with authority in explaining agency policy, procedure, and the application of technical requirements. These contacts typically involve negotiation of delicate or controversial issues where the consequences of an inadequate presentation have serious implications for agency programs.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A master's degree from an accredited planning program provides the best training for a wide range of planning positions. Experience and acquiring certification lead to the best opportunities for advancement.

Education and training. Most entry-level jobs in Federal, State, and local governments require a master's degree from an accredited program in urban or regional planning or a related field, such as urban design, environmental planning, or geography. Students are admitted to master's degree programs in planning with a wide range of undergraduate backgrounds, such as a bachelor's degree in economics, geography, political science, or environmental design. Several schools offer a bachelor's degree in urban planning, and graduates from these programs qualify for some entry-level positions, but their advancement opportunities are often limited unless they acquire an advanced degree.

In 2009, 67 colleges and universities offered an accredited master's degree program, and 15 offered an accredited bachelor's degree program, in planning. Accreditation for these programs is from the Planning Accreditation Board, which consists of three sponsoring organizations: the American Institute of Certified Planners, the American Planning Association, and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.

Most college and university planning departments offer specialization in areas such as community development and redevelopment, land-use or code enforcement, transportation planning, environmental and natural resources planning, urban design, and economic planning and development.

Highly recommended also are courses in related disciplines, such as architecture, law, earth sciences, demography, geography, economics, finance, health administration, and management. Because familiarity with computer models and statistical techniques is important, courses in statistics, computer science, and GIS also are recommended or required.

Graduate students spend considerable time in seminars, workshops, and laboratory courses, learning to analyze and solve planning problems. They are often required to work in a planning office part time or during the summer. Local government planning offices frequently offer students internships, providing experience that proves invaluable in obtaining a full-time planning position after graduation.

Licensure. As of 2009, New Jersey was the only State that required planners to be licensed, although Michigan required registration to use the title "community planner." Licensure in New Jersey is based on two examinations—one testing general knowledge of planning and another testing specific New Jersey planning laws. Registration as a community planner in Michigan is based on professional experience and national and State examinations.

Other qualifications. Planners must be able to think in terms of spatial relationships and visualize the effects of their plans and designs. They should be flexible and be able to reconcile different viewpoints and make constructive policy recommendations. The ability to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, is necessary for anyone interested in this field.

Certification and advancement. The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), a professional institute within the American Planning Association, grants certification to individuals who have the appropriate combination of education and professional experience and pass an examination. Professional development activities are required to maintain certification, which can be very helpful for promotion.

After a few years of experience, planners may advance to assignments requiring a high degree of independent judgment, such as designing the physical layout of a large development or recommending policy and budget options. Some public sector planners are promoted to community planning director and spend a great deal of time meeting with officials, speaking to civic groups, and supervising a staff. Further advancement occurs through a transfer to a larger jurisdiction with more complex problems and greater responsibilities or into related occupations, such as director of community or economic development.

Employment

Urban and regional planners held about 38,400 jobs in 2008. About 66 percent were employed by local governments. Companies involved with architectural, engineering, and related services, as well as management, scientific, and technical consulting services, employ an increasing proportion of planners in the private sector.

Job Outlook

Faster than average employment growth is projected for urban and regional planners. Most new jobs will be in affluent, rapidly expanding 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.

Employment change. Employment of urban and regional planners is expected to grow 19 percent from 2008 to 2018, faster than the average for all occupations. Employment growth will be driven by the need for State and local governments to provide public services such as regulation of commercial development, the environment, transportation, housing, and land use and development for an expanding population. Nongovernmental initiatives dealing with historic preservation and redevelopment will also create employment growth.

The fastest job growth for urban and regional planners will occur in the private sector, primarily in the professional, scientific, and technical services industries. Specifically, planners will be employed by architecture and engineering firms to assist private developers and builders with broader issues, such as those related to storm water management, permits, and environmental regulation, to more specific ones, such as helping to design security measures for a building that are effective but also subtle and able to blend in with the surrounding area.

Many additional jobs for urban and regional planners will be in local government, as planners will be needed to address an array of problems associated with population growth, especially in affluent, rapidly expanding communities. For example, new housing developments require roads, sewer systems, fire stations, schools, libraries, and recreation facilities that must be planned for within budgetary constraints.

Job prospects. Besides opportunities from employment growth, job openings will arise from the need to replace experienced planners who transfer to other occupations, retire, or leave the labor force for other reasons. Graduates with a master's degree from an accredited program should have much better job opportunities than those with only a bachelor's degree. Additionally, AICP certified planners should have the best opportunities for advancement. Computers and software—especially GIS software—are increasingly being used in planning; therefore, candidates with strong computer skills and GIS experience will have an advantage in the job market.

Earnings

Median annual wages of urban and regional planners were $59,810 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $47,050 and $75,630. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,960, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $91,520. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of urban and regional planners in May 2008 were:

Federal government $72,104
Architectural, engineering, and related services 63,770
Scientific research and development services 60,750
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 59,160
Local government 58,260
Colleges, universities, and professional schools 57,520


Sources of Additional Information

Information on careers, salaries, and certification in urban and regional planning is available from:

  • American Planning Association, 1776 Massachusetts Ave. NW., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036. Internet: http://www.planning.org

Information on accredited urban and regional planning programs is available from:

  • Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, 6311 Mallard Trace, Tallahassee, FL 32312. Internet: http://www.acsp.org

Information on obtaining Community Planner positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.

Sources:

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
  • Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.

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