Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Urban Planning?

3 minute read

Urban planning is the most common term used in the contemporary United States to describe the professional and academic field of planning, but understanding the implications of the term requires a discussion about the history of the word urban and the changing politics of planning.

The term urban planning is frequently used as a shorthand to describe the broader professional field of planning, which includes many non-urban disciplines. While planning is a specific professional practice and academic study—you can get a graduate degree in planning, get hired to a job as a planner, and get professionally certified as a planner—there is no authoritative definition of what makes an "urban" planner compared to any other kind of professional planner. 

Master's programs in planning tend to offer degrees in urban planning, regional planning, city planning, or community planning. While urban planning is very common among the names of the nation's graduate planning programs and the most media friendly of these terms, regional and community planning have more solid and publicly accepted definitions among the many disciplines of planning.

What all of these forms of planning do share, however, is a fundamental focus on the future. Planners participate in the whole process of defining a vision for the future—from gathering public feedback, to synthesizing that information into an actionable legal document (e.g., a comprehensive plan), to developing and monitoring the implementation tools (e.g., zoning codes) necessary to achieve the vision established by the plan. A broad definition of the term urban planning, therefore, can be as simple as deciding on an urban vision for the future of a community.

Not All Planning

In the past, like in the heyday of Robert Moses and the big, sweeping urban renewal programs of the mid-20th century, city planning was the more common term used to describe the professional field. In either case, by confining the practice of planning to either the "urban" or the "city," overuse of these terms erases the work of many planners working in communities of all sizes and shapes around the United States. For many planners around the country, rural concerns like stormwater and sewage permits, for instance, are the tools of their trade.

Accepting that the term "urban planning" is an inaccurate and potentially misleading shorthand for a much broader profession, there are reasons for the term's popularity, starting with the (highly contested) media narrative about the renewed popularity of urban lifestyles in the United States. The modifier "urban" is sticking to planning in this historical moment because in recent decades, the urban cores of many metropolitan areas have regained both residential and office populations and planners have been working to revitalize urban areas.

The use of the word urban to describe planning also might refer to the ongoing efforts to retrofit suburban areas with urban amenities, like walkability and more dense residential neighborhoods, which has produced controversy like the politics of Agenda 21 and, more recently, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and the 15-Minute City.

As cultural preferences shifted, the connotation of the word urban has reversed. As white flight drove big chunks of the population away from urban centers in the 20th century, the word urban became code for poverty and crime, and was frequently used with racist undertones. Now, as more planners work to make urban environments more livable and suburban environments more urban as a response to higher demand for urban lifestyles, the word has a far more positive connotation. As wealthier communities change their opinions of the urban, marginalized communities at risk of displacement by renewed investment in urban areas have rejected the term urban as a signifier of cultural erasure and the disempowerment of existing communities.

None of these explanations for the popularity of the term "urban planning" are universally accepted, so the key message here is that despite its popularity in public discussions and in the names of academic planning programs around the country, urban planning is far from an official designation.

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