Sunday, May 7, 2017

What's Happening in the Field of Urban Planning?



The MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning is one of 72 university departments in North America that offers a professional (MCP) degree in urban and regional planning. MIT will graduate about 70 MCP degree candidates this year. All told, something close to 3,000 graduate degrees in planning will be offered in the United States and Canada this June.   

Graduates of planning schools, including MIT, can find work in the public sector, the private sector and as staff and leaders of civil society organizations both in the United States and elsewhere in the world. About 30% of the students currently enrolled at MIT are not US citizens.  The incoming MCP class includes citizens of Argentina, Switzerland, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Spain, Israel, Mexico, Singapore, Pakistan, Viet Nam, Iraq and Trinidad and Tobago.  That equals the average non-US enrollment in all the urban planning schools in North America.  The percentage of non-US citizens in MCP programs has held relatively constant for the past few years.

Planning schools offer a variety of specializations.  At MIT, there are four primary areas of
specialization:  City Design and Development, Environmental Policy and Planning; Housing and
Community Economic Development and International Development.  In addition, there are three cross-cutting areas of study: transportation systems planning, urban information systems and multi-regional systems planning.  Each planning school offers a unique curriculum, but all college and university departments that are accredited have to cover certain basic skills and give students opportunities to learn by doing, either through paid internships or required field-based projects. Each school offers whatever specializations its faculty can support. Many schools also invest heavily in maintaining their alumni network and providing job placement assistance to their students.  While 5% of each year’s MCP class at MIT continues on for further graduate study, almost all the rest find rewarding planning-related jobs within three to six months after graduation.

The average planner in America earns about $80,000 a year, but most are less concerned with the salaries they make than they are with playing an active role in helping communities solve key problems like the provision of affordable housing, enhancement of meaningful job opportunities, protection of important natural resources, managing the risks associated with climate change, improving basic urban and regional infrastructure (including better transit and mobility),  and providing greater opportunities for citizens to participate in helping their communities make decisions that affect them.  The full list of problems is much longer, especially in the developing world.

In terms of the demographic mix of students entering the MIT MCP program in 2017, about 52% are female and 48% male. This is the same gender balance we have had for a number of years. MIT is not alone in this regard. In addition, MIT enrollment the past few years has been about 45% non-white (i.e. 15% Black or African-American, 30% Asian-American, and 1% Native-American).

While planners in the past were often preoccupied with the formulation of community master plans or zoning ordinances, that is no longer true. Today’s planners are committed to taking action – helping to implement improvements in the quality of life, particularly for the most vulnerable segments of society, often through public-private partnerships of various kinds. Whether employed by neighborhood, city, metropolitan, state or national agencies, private companies or NGOs, planners are busy trying to facilitate social change.  Many MIT graduates are engaged in entrepreneurial activities – often aiming to create new companies or organizations that know how to use digital technology to disrupt traditional ways of delivering public services or managing community economic development (again, both in the US and overseas).  

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics says that there are about 35,000 practicing urban planners in the United States. Canada counts 6,500 (and currently lists urban planning as one of the top jobs in the country because of the rapid growth of cities). It’s hard to find reliable numbers for other countries.

To repeat: graduate students studying at MIT are as interested in planning in the developing world (i.e. the “global South”) as they are in working in the developed nations of the “North.” Many expect to work in both parts of the world during their professional careers.  And, if they stay mostly in the United States, they are probably going to move around quite a bit.

The DUSP faculty continues to diversify – demographically and by fields of expertise.  The most recent additions to the faculty over the past few years come from public health, law, political geography, anthropology, urban and regional economics, urban design, and infrastructure planning. The last two members of the DUSP faculty to receive tenure have been women.  We have new joint degrees with the Department of Civil Engineering and the Sloan School of Management along with continuing double degrees with Architecture, the Media Lab and Political Science. In any given semester, students can choose among field-based projects and faculty led studios and practicums in Malaysia, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Israel, Singapore, Brazil, Philippines, China, Mozambique, Haiti, Kenya and a wide range of projects in various parts of the United States.

The Department of Urban Studies and Planning is in a leadership role on the MIT campus, participating in the Environmental Solutions Initiative, the MIT Energy Initiative, the reformulated interdisciplinary transportation degree program, undergraduate teacher education in STEM subjects, the Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab and emerging cross-campus teaching and research programs focused on Negotiation and Leadership, Healthy Cities and Social Entrepreneurship. DUSP faculty have never been as fully engaged with colleagues in the Schools of Science, Engineering and Management as they are now.

I have been on the DUSP faculty for 47 years.  I’ve seen tremendous changes in what planning students want to learn, what they seek to accomplish in the world, what the faculty are able to teach, the kinds of action-research in which students and faculty are engaged, the shift from plan-making to collaborative problem-solving, and the way our field fits with the ever-shifting pattern of evolving disciplines.  The things that haven’t changed are our focus on improving the quality of life in places and spaces, our commitment to a range of progressive values, and our continued involvement in improving both our analytic capabilities and our understanding of the politics of social change.


I expect the number of students seeking to enroll in professional degree programs in urban planning will grow.  With more people living in cities around the world, and an increasing share of college graduates looking for meaningful work that allows them to contribute to real-life problem-solving, a career in urban planning looks increasingly attractive.