Planners are No Long Generalists with a Specialty

May 23, 2018

Planners are No Long Generalists with a Specialty

There’s recent discussion in urban planning journals about the way professional city planners should be educated today.  Almost fifty years ago, Professor Harvey Perloff at UCLA suggested that the way to think about educating urban planners was in terms of training “generalists with a specialty.” He thought all planners should have basic professional skills and theoretical knowledge coupled with more detailed techniques and understandings related to an area of application or specialization, like housing or urban design. When Perloff (who I knew) was thinking about it, the general or shared portion of the curriculum probably equaled about 8 – 10 of the 14 semester long courses students were expected to complete in a two-year curriculum (plus a master’s thesis). So general knowledge constituted 70% of the degree.  The general portion of the curriculum has continued to shrink over the past 50 years. Now it is probably no more than 25% - 30% of the curriculum, and students can choose multiple ways of covering some general requirements by taking different versions of methods or applied social science courses offered in other departments (or by-passing test-out exams). This allows them to satisfy their differing interests.

So, my estimate is that 70% of the curriculum is now keyed to specialized knowledge and skills while the shared portion of the curriculum today represents only 30% of the credits students are required to complete.  While this sometimes makes it difficult for students in the same cohort to understand why they are getting the same degree (since they are mostly studying such different things), it reflects the dramatic explosion of knowledge in adjacent fields that planning specialists know they need to master.  I’ve taught at MIT in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) for almost fifty years. Since the early 1980’s I’ve had responsibility for building DUSP’s Environmental Policy and Planning (EPP) specialization.  Let me offer a quick description of how both the generalized knowledge that planning students are expected to master has changed, even as it has shrunk, and how the specialized knowledge in the environmental planning specialization (and I think it is similar to other specialties like housing, community development, transportation and regional economic development) has evolved as well.

Most of today’s city planners are not preparing for life-long careers in municipal planning departments or city planning consulting firms the way their predecessors were.  Instead, they are as likely to go to work in the private sector (as a sustainability officer for a major corporation), the public sector (as staff to an elected official) or in the non-for-profit sector (heading an NGO).  And, even if they are aiming for a public sector job, it is very possible they will be working at the metropolitan, state, or national rather than the neighborhood or municipal level.   They might spend part of their time working in the US, but they are almost as likely to spend a portion of their career working in another part of the world (where the growth of cities, especially mega-cities, is relentless). Indeed, a very large portion of the graduate students currently studying in the 60+ urban planning schools in America are from other parts of the world, and likely to return home.  City planners are no longer restricted to gathering the information needed to turn out master plans or sector plans (like transportation investment schemes). They are more likely to be involved in formulating climate adaptation strategies, promoting new downtown arts districts or working to protect critical urban infrastructure from cyberattack. Moreover, their roles and responsibilities will shift many times during their careers as they morph from a design role, to a policy analyst’s role, to an advocacy or community organizing role, to a mediating role, or even a futurist’s role.

The kinds of practitioners that agencies and organizations want to hire must be multi-talented, tech savvy, committed to taking action in the world, capable negotiators and able to write and speak effectively in contentious public settings.  To survive in these situations, planning graduates must be clear about their ethical obligations and continuously reflective, adapting their personal theories of practice as they encounter and learn from each new situation.

The New General Curriculum

While the list of required subjects in today’s urban planning departments may look somewhat similar to the class titles of two or three decades ago, I can assure you that the content, and in many schools the pedagogy, are quite different. Today’s course about the planning profession and the basics of planning practice address a which wider range of themes than the old version of those courses. And, the ethical dilemmas (i.e. How can we promote economic growth while maintaining the most important cultural elements of long-standing communities? How can we ensure more efficient transportation and energy production while moving people to healthier lifestyles and a fairer allocation of public resources?) are front and center. The need for collaboration in all kinds of decision-making is highlighted (linked to much less reliance on expert decision-making). This demands a new repertoire of skills and techniques; incorporating knowledge from the social sciences and the natural sciences,but requiring a meta-analysis of whose knowledge this is and how it ought to be shared. The challenges and opportunities posed by social media pose choices that planners never had to make; now they have to learn how to make sure that scientific and technical input are not pushed to the side in the face of efforts to empower more people to participate or buried beneath the partisan debates that dominate our political world.  MIT requires every student to take classes in the history of the planning profession, methods of economic analysis; and tools of data management, data mapping and statistical analysis, but it is increasingly difficult to argue that there is only one way of presenting this material. Students can learn the basics of microeconomic analysis by focusing on land market, housing prices, natural resource management, or energy policy, in the United States or in any other country.  They need to learn research methods to write a thesis, but these methods might diverge depending on whether they are going to study the way mangrove forests were being managed in Malaysia or the effectiveness of a particular community development strategy in Detroit.  So, not only does the content of the general portion of the curriculum keep changing, but the best way of learning that content might depend on the substantive or specialized interest of each student.

This brings me to the changing nature and expansion of the specialized portions of urban planning degree programs in the United States.

The Evolving Specialized Curriculum

The Environmental Policy and Planning specialization at MIT allows students to focus on transboundary water management, renewable energy and energy efficiency, environmental justice, forest management, food systems, post-disaster relief and reconstruction, coastal zone management, ecosystem services, climate change (mitigation and adaptation), healthy communities, mass transit systems, and monitoring efforts aimed at promoting sustainability and resilience. With a relatively small full-time EPP faculty of five or six (some of whom are shared with other specializations), we have to depend on the availability of coursework in the other two dozen departments at MIT and through cross-registration at Harvard.  We expect students to take only half of their course work each semester in our department. We insist that they have a primary thesis advisor from DUSP, but we encourage them to add a reader or additional advisor from another department or from the world of practice.  Almost all students are working 10 -15 hours throughout the two years on a research or community-based project as a way of financing their tuition. They look for projects that allow them to apply what they are learning in class.  In addition to a thesis we require students to take a Practicum – a semester-long problem-focused course with a client. (In the old days these were called Studios and they usually resulted in a design of some sort. Now they are as likely to produce policy advice to the mayor of Mexico City on ways of improving the efficiency and fairness of mass transit operations in that city. Note though, that most Practicums are offered through a specialization.)

In EPP we offer four or five sets of two or three subjects dealing with different natural resource management or environmental problems (i.e., climate change, water management, energy systems, healthy communities, environmental justice).  These are enough to prepare our students so they can participate in classes at the Harvard School of Public Health, MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences, the Sloan School of Management, the Department of Chemical Engineering, or work at one of the many interdisciplinary labs or research projects around the campus. If there is a gap in what’s covered around the campus, we will add a temporary instructor in a field like plant ecology or energy efficiency.

Almost all of the DUSP faculty teach comparatively.  We have to, since a significant share of our graduate students are not American.  While I don’t think there is a “one world” approach to teaching planning that applies equally well everywhere, I do think that an explicitly comparative approach to teaching environmental planning will prepare students (as long as they also develop cross-cultural communication skills and a sense of cross-cultural awareness) to work outside their home country. Also, within their specialties they are learning how the same challenges are being dealt with differently in different countries.

Each of the four main specializations in DUSP (i.e., EPP, Housing and Community Economic Development, City Design and Development and International Development) offers an introductory graduate course.  Mine is the Introduction to Environmental Policy and Planning.  You can see the curriculum at MIT Open CourseWare (  You can also read all the materials students are assigned, see the exams and the best student responses, and even videos the best short oral presentations in responses to simulated practice scenarios.  These are included in our E-book called Environmental Problem-Solving published by Anthem Press and written with two of my doctoral students and a faculty colleague (Bruno Verdini, Jessica Gordon, and Yasmin Zaerpoor).  The four segments of the course deal with the dynamics of environmental policy-making, environmental ethics, methods of environmental analysis and forecasting and collaborative problem-solving.  Segments from all the assigned readings are included in the book with permission.  While this is an introduction to one of the specializations in the Department, it covers a version of some of the general problems and themes that all planners need to know about.  It illustrates how material that was once covered in a unified fashion in the general curriculum (that all students had to take) is now covered in an expanding specialization so that students can learn about general planning practice requirements while establishing their identity as a specialist in environmental planning. (MIT even offers a Certificate in Environmental Planning so that students who receive a general MCP degree can convince potential employers that they really are environmental specialists.)

We are still trying to figure out how to support additional specializations (i.e. urban science, smart cities, and cybersecurity; arts, new media and technology-assisted communication; and neuroscience, behavioral economics, entrepreneurship and social innovation). We are also continuing to experiment with new pedagogical forms (i.e. blended courses that combine elaborately designed online elements with face-to-face elements; role play simulations, and real-time video feedback on practice simulations).


It is no longer relevant to think of planning education as training generalists with a specialty; rather, we are now training specialists with heightened applied social science, action science and reflective practice capabilities who are ready to work anywhere in the world.  And, while faculty are still judged (in terms of promotion) on the theoretical/research they publish, they are required to teach analytical methods, applied social science, and planning history in ways that heighten the usefulness of theory for practice. In addition, our faculty includes Professors of Practice and Lecturers who complement the members of our tenured faculty who come out of traditional disciplinary fields.  There is no conflict in our Department between theory and practice.