Planning Magazine

Future-Proof Your Urban Planning Career with These 6 Important Skills

Critical thinking, empathetic listening, and cultural competency will help you upskill in an ever-changing world.

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The right skills can unlock doors to future success. Illustrations by Denis Novikov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few workers have been untouched by the upheavals of the 2020s; planners are no exception. Maybe you work in a major city struggling with affordable housing coupled with revenue losses from lagging commercial activity — or in a smaller city jolted by pandemic-era growth. Formerly sleepy community meetings might include some anxious people unfamiliar with, or skeptical of, planning. Maybe the population you're serving has changed in ways that make your prior approach less useful or appropriate. The breakneck pace of technological advancement is also reshaping our communities and the profession in ways we never imagined.

Perhaps you see new opportunities to advance your career and want to make sure you're positioned to seize them. To best serve our communities — and to remain relevant — we planners must keep our skills sharp and, when needed, embrace new ones.

It's never too late to learn new things — whether technical aptitudes or people skills — or to find novel ways to think about or apply your experiences. The American Planning Association (APA) launched its Upskilling Initiative to explore opportunities for planners to add new competencies and adapt with an ever-changing world. "We want to equip planners with the right skill sets to excel in dynamic environments," says Sagar Shah, PhD, AICP, APA's manager of research and strategic initiatives.

One of the ways APA focuses on skills is through identifying the trends that impact the planning profession and our communities. "And, we're not just looking at planning-related topics," says Petra Hurtado, PhD, APA's director of research and foresight. “We're also looking at trends outside the profession that are likely to affect planners' work and what kinds of specific skills they need to meet those challenges." The Upskilling Initiative currently focuses on more than a dozen areas, with forthcoming training and other resources for each skill.

Here are some of the skills APA has identified as relevant to planners looking to future-proof their skill sets. Matching skills with challenges and opportunities in the planning profession will help you align with trends and increase your openness to new ideas and creative growth.

Agile thinking helps you quickly respond to new situations.

Agile thinking helps you quickly respond to new situations.


The ability to quickly pivot or adapt

Hurtado notes that the ability to quickly adapt to change is primarily related to process, and that typically rigid planning processes have not traditionally accommodated agility. "Many of the ad-hoc planning solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., pop-up bike lanes, shared streets, or on-street dining) were made possible by emergency orders and not by the usual planning procedures," she observes in a blog post. "Experimentation, prototyping, pilots, and feedback loops are important elements of agile processes and have multiple benefits."

Communities in the midst of change can become partners in the process, suggesting ideas and helping to evaluate how experiments are working on the ground. Responding quickly to unanticipated events by adjusting a plan or modifying a policy can save local governments money and reduce their exposure to risk.

Understanding complex dynamics is essential to good planning.

Understanding complex dynamics is essential to good planning.


The ability to understand relationships among the components of a system and how systems are interconnected within the context of larger systems

Systems thinking has roots in mathematics and engineering, but it's well-suited to other contexts, including biology and planning. Like biological communities, cities are complex organisms affected by numerous external and internal forces. Understanding these dynamics is essential to good planning, especially in times of change and uncertainty.

Some planners and their colleagues in other fields are using systems planning, but there's room for growth. The U.S. Agency for International Development's Building Healthy Cities project, working with local officials, planners, and residents, used a dynamic systems map to identify patterns, problems, and improvements. Engineering firms are using it to map relationships among infrastructure systems, seeking opportunities for synergy, cost savings, and sustainability. But this skill can also be used in narrower technical contexts to harness emerging technology such as AI while focusing human expertise to ensure quality, as one of my former colleagues, Ronald Ying, PE, who analyzes air quality and noise impacts for infrastructure projects, has done.

Authentic connections can foster true inclusivity and understanding.

Authentic connections can foster true inclusivity and understanding.


The ability to engage knowledgeably with people across cultures

Regions, communities, and even neighborhoods are never monolithic. Engaging comfortably with people from different cultures and working together to envision paths and scenarios for the future set the stage for mutual understanding and consideration of many points of view. Sometimes the first step is communicating in the right language. But translation is more than just words. "When we're involved in translation work, it's not just word-for-word, it's also cultural," says Evelyn Mayo, AICP, the planning director of Texas-based RAYO Planning, whose work centers on cultural competency. "Make sure it's in a context that resonates with people." That might mean finding a way to educate residents about regulatory barriers that might make opening a grocery store, adding more housing, or building some other amenity difficult. Authentic connections that foster true inclusivity, she says, require understanding people's actual experiences and cultures, not just the languages they speak.

Thinking through information can lead to realistic and empathetic approaches.

Thinking through information can lead to realistic and empathetic approaches.


The ability to analyze, reason, solve problems, plan, organize, and make sound decisions

The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the "intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action."

While critical thinking might seem most closely associated with the 20th-century rational planning model we learned about in our planning history courses, thinking critically and empathetically are not mutually exclusive. Critical thinking can be used collaboratively to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, and likely outcomes of potential plan elements or policy changes. Policy and data analyses are obvious use cases for critical thinking, but it's possible to incorporate lived experience into work, even with large datasets. Stakeholders are best served when decisions are made on the most reliable evidence with an eye to realistic outcomes. Critical thinking plays a significant role in finding solutions to challenges.

Being media-savvy can ensure your messages are relayed with accuracy.

Being media-savvy can ensure your messages are relayed with accuracy.


The ability to engage constructively with media, including social media, as both a consumer and a subject

As housing issues, such as gentrification and displacement, for example, become more prevalent in public conversations, it may be unsettling to see how planning policies and activities are portrayed in news outlets and social media. Simplistic or inaccurate information might even be attributed to the planning department or to you specifically — especially if your job involves working with reporters, or if planning decisions in your community, such as contentious developments or new bike lanes, are frequently in the news. The availability of digital information, and the speed at which we receive it, has touched every profession, including urban planning. That said, it's important to fine-tune the ability to engage constructively with media, including social media, to ensure your messages are relayed with accuracy. And, as tempting as it might be, planners can't evade the impact of social media by simply saying, "I don't use social media." Community members are actively engaged on these platforms, so planners can't just opt out.

Changing your mindset can help address new challenges and expand opportunities.

Changing your mindset can help address new challenges and expand opportunities.


The ability to change one's mindset to learn and use different methods to analyze and address challenges

Growing your mindset to learn and use new and different methods to analyze and address challenges is directly related to successful communication. Sometimes a major constructive change starts with unlearning things that once served you well. The previous mental model you and your colleagues used might no longer be relevant or effective. Just as changing your mindset can be useful in charting your career path, cultivating a growth mindset, and consciously evaluating the efficacy of your default approach, it can help you find or create a new model that can better achieve your goals. It's not about forgetting; it's about using new information to evolve ways of thinking.

Adding these skills to your professional and personal toolbox will help you grow and prepare you for challenges. And the end results are abounding: expansion of opportunities, more room for growth, alignment with broad, external trends, and a mindset to welcome change in an ever-changing world.

Linda McIntyre, AICP, is a professional planner and a regular contributor to Planning.