How to become an urban planning consultant

by Anonymous

How does one go about becoming an urban planning consultant? Are there any educational or licensing requirements?

Editors' Reply:
We have experience with this particular question! Glad you asked. Our answer will be opinionated of course, since we've lived through it.

Certainly being an urban planner requires specialized education. We suppose it's possible for some people who have political science, public policy, or urban studies degrees to work themselves into being urban planners by being around the profession in a junior level position.

We all four think that someone without the educational background in urban planning as such never will attain the same level of sophistication and expertise in their practice as the person who has been formally educated in planning.

While there are undergraduate programs at some universities throughout the U.S., it's also possible and even customary to enter the urban planning profession at the graduate student level. But at least an undergraduate planning degree should be a requirement for becoming an urban planning consultant.

The reason is that while policy-oriented folks and architects, for instance, can mimic those with a planning education well after they gain a certain amount of experience with a particular community, consulting requires being able to analyze a situation and determine what is needed rather quickly.

That's why we think that an urban planning consultant virtually always should have an urban planning degree, not urban design, urban policy, anthropology, and so forth.

Next you asked if there are licensing requirements. That depends on the nation or state where you wish to practice or to base your business.

Generally there are no particular educational or professional licensing requirements, but there probably will be ordinary business license requirements, as well as sometimes fictitious name registration or incorporation, if you're going to the sole proprietor as an urban planning consultant.

If you're going to work for an established firm, of course business licenses and such will be their responsibility.

The U.S. does have the American Planning Association, a professional association, and then the American Institute of Certified Planners, which maintains a certification program for planners.

If practicing in the U.S., obtaining the AICP designation, as the certification is called, certainly is desirable. Standards are fairly low, so if you know enough to be a city planning consultant, you can meet the education and experience requirements fairly easily and then pass a brief written exam. Oh, and pay dues.

Some states have a certification process of some type also, but these generally don't preclude starting in the consulting business.

Various specialties of urban planners might have licensing or certification requirements. We think of economic development through the programs of the International Economic Development Council.

The American Planning Association also has just launched specialty certification programs in transportation planning and environmental planning.

If you want to see things from the client's perspective, we hope someone soon will tell their war stories on our page about city planning consultants.

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Getting Started
by: Anonymous

I am an entry level planner and found this article very helpful.

My question which I was hoping someone could answer is how a consultant bids on projects, etc. As someone without a lot of experience I am trying to find a way to get started. A consultant at my office is billing $88 per hour on a parks plan.

Editors' Reply: Your question is a bit confusing. If you already are working for a consulting firm, the firm will have its own way of soliciting business from project sponsors, commonly counties, cities, other governmental entities, or neighborhood associations.

If you are planner in the public sector right now, the confusing thing is how someone in "your office" could be earning money as a consultant. Usually public sector employees are barred from seeking this type of outside employment. So if you work now for a government or other public sector organization, be sure you are following the personnel policy.

Now that we have that clear, let's assume that you were an unemployed entry level planner and you wished to become a consultant. To bid on projects, you would need to let potential project sponsors, usually governments or neighborhood associations, know that you are interested.

Networking at conferences, presentations, and meetings relevant to urban planning would be very helpful.

Write up a sharp, focused resume emphasizing the types of planning assignments in which you would feel perfectly competent.

Then when you become aware of a specific opportunity, often advertised as a Request for Proposals (RFP) or in some places a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), respond quickly with language that is tailored to the specific request. Make your reply as professional looking as you can muster, and feel free to call the contact person if it is someone you don't know.

In many cases you'll have to estimate how many hours the work will take so that you can arrive at a total proposed fee. In some states that is considered inappropriate if you are seeking public sector work, so learn common practice in your area.

If it's not legal and appropriate to quote a price, then you are judged on your qualifications and experience. The rationale for the qualifications approach, as opposed to a "bid," to use your word, is that it is wise to discourage competition on the basis of cost and that it's best to select consultants on the basis of how well they could do the job.

Your particular environment may be highly competitive or not, but if you're in an urban area where consultants are plentiful, don't be discouraged if you don't find work immediately. You may find a rural or small town environment to be an easier place to earn that first assignment.

Our advice is to find an experienced consultant that you like, ideally one who has a different specialty than yours. Ask them many more detailed questions about how it all works in your area.

We hope these comments get you started.

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