Urban planning jobs: What you need to know

By Antoine Remise 16 September 2009

This 2008 urban rehabilitation project in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, illustrates the need for smart urban planning. Photo by: David Coutelle/EuropeAid

Finding a good position as an urban planner in the developing world has become quite tricky. At least, it is not as easy as it used to be.

Half a century ago, an architecture degree may have landed you a job in urban management, according to Alain Bertaud, an urban planner with 30 years’ international experience.

“Today, it is not possible anymore,” he remarked.

Urban planning is a versatile and open discipline dealing with numerous issues including housing, transport, access to services, land development, and the environment. To be successful in this area, the key is to be an expert in one of those urban issues.

“I think planners have to be more specialized in their own field and know precisely where they want to work, what they want to achieve, and who they want to work with,” said Cecilia Martínez Leal, head of U.N.-Habitat’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Developing countries rely more and more on their own skilled and expert planners to organize their cities. Universities in India and China now provide excellent professionals, making it difficult for foreigners to stand out.

For municipalities in the developing world, contracting a foreigner is more expensive than hiring local staff. As such, foreign planners must bring with them skills and experience that cannot be found locally in order for cities and municipalities to justify the high cost of hiring them.

Avenues of opportunity

Private consultancy firms are the main avenue for jobs internationally. These consultancies are normally hired by countries or municipalities that have received loans from donor agencies such as the U.K. Department for International Development or World Bank to perform various functions. These include designing master plans, supporting project management, and carrying out environmental impact assessments.

Consulting companies such as Halcrow, Arup and Groupe Huit could be looking to hire urban planners with specific expertise. This is essential for them to win contracts.

Municipalities also recruit individual planners directly for short consulting missions, particularly to address issues related to master plans, regulations, land prices, property taxes, or investment in infrastructure.

“For example, in Cairo, there are tons of new cities that have been created and that are little densified and where informal housing spread up,” Bertaud explained. “The municipalities want to know what can be their options in terms of land investment and regulations.”

Ideal qualities

Planners must have the knowledge of the different planning traditions as rules and practices vary by country and region. They must be able to understand and work under different systems.

Municipalities appreciate greatly when planners can provide them with a range of solutions under the American, English and French models.

“What [municipalities] fear most when they recruit a foreigner is that he knows only one system; it bothers them a lot,” Bertaud said. “They would rather have someone who already has a vision of the different ways to deal with urban planning issues around the world.”

Urban planners should also embody a balance of competency and understanding of the land sector.

On the one hand, there are urban economists who understand land market issues well but do not possess relevant operational skills and cannot read urban master plans. On the other hand, some urban planners can draw many zoning plans but do not understand their financial implications.

“If somebody manages to do both, he would have more chances to be contracted,” said Marie Pierre Bourzai, an urban planner working at Agence Française de Développement, or French Development Agency.

International experience is likewise essential for anybody looking to work as an urban planner. Aid agencies and municipalities look positively particularly on those who had exposure in a developing country. Thus, volunteering with nongovernmental groups overseas is probably a necessary step to take. Slum Dwellers International is one such organization.

In NGOs, planners will take part in smaller-scale projects. Their roles will also be less technical. Work themes are more oriented toward social and institutional issues, and planners will work with grass-roots organizations and local community representatives.

Areas of demands

According to Bourzai, urban mobility and transport are becoming major issues as cities are under threat of a looming energy crisis. Housing concerns abound.

“Skills related to this sector can be extremely interesting,” she said.

Key skills include the ability to make master plans and integrate economic and financial aspects into city planning, understand land markets and land use demands, and improve a city’s economic productivity through planning.

“I see a lot a of demands concerning land tenure issues related to planning,” Bertaud said.

Climate change is emerging as a main challenge for cities, as they struggle to reorganize and become more sustainable.

“We like to think that cities in fact are part of the solutions,” Martínez Leal explained. “So we need people to understand how to improve cities - how to control the growth of cities.”

Read more urban planning career advice:

Read more career advice articles.

Agence Française de Développement

About the author

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Antoine Remise

Antoine joined Devex as a fellow and now serves as our international development correspondent based in Paris. He holds a bachelor's in political science from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques of Lille and a master's in development administration and planning from the University College in London. Antoine has conducted researche for development projects in Chile, Senegal and Uganda, notably on education, health, local saving systems and housing issues. He is fluent in French, English and Spanish."


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