A frequent query I receive from students is whether they should focus on gaining a broad understanding of many aspects of planning and places or if they should focus on one topic in depth. This is an important question.
On one hand, planning is an integrative field. When the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning tried to articulate the "anchor points" that define planning, the first two items were a "focus on improving human settlements" and "on interconnections among distinct community facets." In order to see interconnections a planner needs to know something about a variety of issues and be at ease with different methods for understanding places. Many problems are complex and solving them requires using multiple policies and programs. This requires breadth.
However, many students look out at the work world and see specialists. An engineer may mainly focus on bridges. A real estate finance person may spend her days working on deals for high-rise office space. An affordable housing developer may be dealing with a narrow range of public programs and philanthropic funding streams. Planning students can be uneasy about their place in this world.
In 1950s, Harvey Perloff articulated the idea of planners being "generalists with a specialty" (published in Education for Planning ). As Bruce Stiftel describes in an interesting article, planning education at the time planning was moving away from a design focus. There seemed to be some need to articulate what it was instead. Perloff's idea has been a remarkably resilient. If you surf the web you can find it in the course catalogs of a variety of schools including MIT and Rutgers. In practical terms this means planning students typically study a common core and then add one or two areas of concentration. This is not without controversy. In 1996 John Friedman, in a thoughtful paper, proposed lengthening the typical two-year urban planning program to allow more specialization. However, the training time period has not expanded.
So how should planning students manage this situation? Is there a need to worry about a lack of specialized skills in a two-year curriculum? In general, I think no. I say this for several reasons.
If a two-year graduate degree (or even a four-year undergraduate degree) constituted the entire education of a planner then there would be some cause for concern. However, planning education extends far beyond the initial degree.
The full listing of the anchor points is in in an article by Dowell Myers.