Urban planners have a lot in common with super villains. Both are goal oriented free-thinkers. Both love to share their plans, and appreciate the value of a good minion. And whether the project in question is a freeze ray or a freeway, villains and planners alike must pay close attention to detail without losing sight of the big picture, i.e. world domination. Okay, there are some subtle differences. Urban planners don't get cool spandex costumes, for one. And instead of plotting to destroy all humans, planners plot to organize human living spaces. The Joker probably wouldn't approve of that last part.
Urban planners are the puppet masters of our cities. They spend hours crunching data, consulting environmental impact studies, and questioning clients and citizens to see which layout will work for everyone. Is it a good idea to put a nuclear power plant in the middle of that neighborhood, or will it lead to a new breed of warty green children? Would the traffic from a new apartment building lower the life expectancy of little old ladies crossing the street? Will bulldozing a grassy meadow unleash a plague of deer on the local gardening society? Never fear, urban planners are paid to think this stuff through. Maybe if Pisa had hired a planner to look for building sites, it would have a straighter tower.
Being this prepared requires a pretty broad skill set. Urban planners must squeeze information from tables and statistics and boil it down into easy-to-digest report form, like a delicious, nutritious data vitamin. They must speak the mysterious language of maps, and even know how to fold one back up properly. Urban planners are also expected to be a mixture of fixer and enforcer, finding solutions to local problems and making darn sure that any repair jobs actually stick. And, most dreaded task of all, an urban planner must be able to communicate. With real human beings. (No, you can't just text them.)
You might be thinking that the job title of "urban planner" sounds like a recipe for a 9 to 5 office rat. You'd be mostly correct about the 9 to 5 part, but urban planners have to get around to earn their cheese. Maps only go so far, and occasionally, planners must brave the fresh air to scope out a location. Their adventures might introduce them to some of the local (hopefully non-rabid) wildlife, such as Homo Politicus (local lawmakers) and related species like Bob the Builder and Joe Public. A well-equipped urban planner always keeps fresh batteries in her laser pointer, because she'll be expected to present her amazing ideas to clients, be they government, residential, or commercial.
The first urban planners concerned themselves primarily with the positioning of the village mammoth carcass, but the modern definition didn't start until 1909, when planners had their first legit meeting at the National Conference on City Planning. It was sort of like Comic Con for Urban Planners. Harvard University saw the blueprints on the wall, and started providing professional training in 1923. Nowadays, all the cool colleges offer undergrad and master’s degrees in urban planning, and it's every student's dream to get accredited with a professional planning society, like the American Institute of Certified Planners, or the Green Building Certification Institute. Heck, there's probably even a singles group for urban planners. (Not that we checked, or anything.)
Why is urban planning such a hot topic? If you do it well, people could be singing your praises 200 years from now. Just ask Pierre L’Enfant, who used Washington D.C.’s natural topography to create a city layout which stands the test of time. (Well, you can’t really ask him anymore, but Thomas Jefferson thought he was a big deal.) Or, you could create a life-changing transit system like the 24 hour New York City subway, which carries millions of people each day—with or without pants.
On the flip side of that coin, there are plenty of urban cautionary tales which make perfect scary stories to tell around the campfire. Failing to provide for future population growth can lead to crowded slums like Bahay Toro in Manila, where one fire left 10,000 residents without shelter. Or, a city might have the opposite problem, like the Mongolian ghost town Ordos, which has plenty of buildings, but no actual residents. And don’t forget to take local resources into account, or you’ll give your grandkids some real headaches. Los Angeles is sunny and full of beautiful people, but it has to import up to 87% of its water. (Check out Cadillac Desert if you’re thirsty to learn more.)
Want to know if you'd cut the mustard as an urban planner? Let's see.
Are your fingers chapped from running them down long columns of numbers? Do your Lego cities have bustling economies that stomp their neighbors? Do you constantly grill your parents about building code violations?
Well, then, what are you still doing here? Go enroll in some classes! On the other hand if you think geography is the study of the seventh letter of the alphabet, or the thought of public speaking terrifies you more than death, you should find something else to plan. Weddings, perhaps. Or apocalypse preparation.