Planning is a world-wide effort to systematically plan for the future in a way that will mean better lives and a better planet for our children and grandchildren. As we become increasingly aware that we must aggressively undo social injustice and environmental degradation and create a world that is fair, green, and prosperous, planners have taken on the very difficult task of balancing economic growth with social justice and environmental sustainability.
Why become a planner? The American Planning Association has a sampling of professional planners from across the country tell why they chose the field. Planners share interests in social justice, affordable housing, sustainable cities, mobility and traffic congestion, climate and the environment, community development and economic development, to name a few.
The history of planning in the U.S. started as an attempt to solve public health problems such as the cholera epidemics that engulfed many American cities in the late 1800s. Planners worked on providing city infrastructure (providing water, sewers and roads, and attempting to ease the overcrowding that bedeviled many American cities during this period). Over time, this evolved into a broader effort to regulate how, where and when building could occur, to make cities more pleasant and efficient places to live and work. Managing development is a major function of planning to this day (and is referred to as "land-use planning").
In the second half of the twentieth century, suburbs grew ever faster while most central cities shrank. Planners became concerned with the environmental and economic consequences of development. Reducing urban sprawl through growth controls, changing transportation and development patterns to reduce air and water pollution, and revitalizing distressed regions and inner-city neighborhoods, became priorities. Ensuring democratic citizen participation was essential if major policy changes were to succeed.
In the 1960s and since, planners became increasingly involved in social justice issues including attempting to address the social injustices that have been put into place by planning itself through such mid-20th century programs as public housing and urban renewal. More recently, attention has been paid to the impacts of zoning and redlining on reinforcing patterns of racial segregation. Planners search for alternatives to sprawled and segregated development that separate people, especially people of color, from educational and economic opportunity.
Well into the 21st century, planners are addressing the challenges of racism and growing economic inequality while also taking on the challenge of climate change. Planners are working to increase social and economic opportunity while looking to remake communities into resilient places that both reduce the amount of greenhouse gas generation and that are better adapted to the impacts of climate change that are already underway, such as sea-level rise and increased flooding.
Consequently, planners (and others) have now begun to think about the long-term environmental, economic sustainability, and equity components of our development patterns. Designing "green" infrastructure, finding alternatives to new highway construction, ensuring everyone has access to affordable housing in livable neighborhoods, promoting economic development that benefits the many, and stimulating the redevelopment of abandoned, contaminated "brownfields," are just a few examples of the sustainable alternatives planners work for.
To get a better sense of what planners do, go to the official American Planning Association (APA) web site. For more information on what planners in your state are doing, go to the state chapter links. APA also runs divisions devoted to specific sets of issues. For instance, the New Urbanism Division provides a home and resources for those interested in creating New Urbanist communities (new communities that have the look and feel of traditional American neighborhoods).
The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning also provides information on planning schools, careers in planning and jobs.