What’s Driving Growth in Urban Planning Degrees?

Written by Andrew Killian

Published on April 04, 2016

Richard Florida, urban studies theorist and author of best-selling The Rise of the Creative Class, was giving a commencement speech in 2014 at his alma mater, Rutgers, for the Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy. In his speech he issued the following challenge to the graduates: "Fixing the existing cities of the world and building new ones in the developing world is the grandest of all the grand challenges that are before us in the next century."1
Florida is not alone in seeing the tremendous challenges and opportunities offered by American cities. More and more students have been pursuing degrees in urban planning, with 49% growth in degrees awarded over the past decade, according to the US Department of Education.2
This steady growth in the supply of urban planning degrees is puzzling at first, because there may not immediately be jobs in urban planning for all these graduates. Young workers – urban planners included -- often face hurdles finding jobs within government,3 and government recruiting efforts have not yet recovered after the Great Recession of 2007.4 Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for Urban and Regional Planners call for modest 6% growth in employment between now and 2024,5 seemingly not enough to explain the steady 50% growth in urban planning graduates.
So what’s behind the growth in urban planning graduates, if not a pull from the labor market? Data USA’s profile of urban planning degrees offers some hints. Consider Data USA’s map of growth in number of urban planning degrees by county.
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The red counties are ones with the most rapid growth in number of 'Architecture and Related Services' degrees granted – the group that includes urban planning. Among the top entries on the list are several surprising cities: Miami, Florida; Detroit, Michigan; and Huntsville, Alabama. These three cities point toward two factors which may be drawing more and more students to urban planning: the threat of global warming and the increase in enthusiasm for urban renewal.
Miami’s citizens have good reason to fear the potential effects of global warming. Since 1996, sea levels in coastal Florida have risen 3.7 inches,6 making flooding a habitual headache for residents of many Miami neighborhoods. And the concern is not restricted to Miami.7 Three quarters of global major cities now identify climate change as a critical priority, according to a recent MIT survey, and intend to make climate change a mainstream part of city planning.8 It’s likely that current urban planning students share concern for climate change; a 2015 survey showed that large majorities of urban planning students embrace social activism.9 And this increased interest in urban planning degrees isn’t only limited to Miami. In fact, based on the Data USA map there are 5 coastal counties in California, 2 in New York and one in Maine that have seen increases in urban planning degrees, comprising 722 total degrees awarded.
Concern among urban planners for social justice may also provide a clue to what’s happening in Detroit and Huntsville. Here, the increasing strength of urban renewal – with its associated powerful metaphors of rebirth in moribund rustbelt cities -- may be one of the factors enticing students to pursue degrees in urban planning. Huntsville recently created its first-ever citywide master plan,10 suggesting a new interest in smart growth. Innovative approaches to urban renewal such as 'land banking' (giving cities the power to acquire tax delinquent properties directly) and 'adaptive reuse' (finding beneficial new uses for abandoned buildings) are gathering steam in neighboring Birmingham Alabama11 and in Detroit.12
Richard Florida concluded his commencement remarks with a warning: "We will be spending trillions of dollar on city building, and it is absolutely critical that we get it right."1 Critical, indeed. Luckily, there seems to be no shortage of committed new urban planners to help influence future urban development in the right ways.
  1. Quote from Richard Florida’s Huffington Post article on his commencement speech
  2. Source: National Center for Education Statistics, table 323.10, Masters Degrees, Architecture and Related Services.
  3. Mike Maciag. (2013). 'Millennials Face Hurdles Breaking into Public Sector.' Governing. October 2013.
  4. Peter Viechnicki. (2015). 'Understanding Millennials in Government: Debunking Myths about our Youngest Public Servants.' Deloitte University Press.
  5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook.
  6. Data from http://www.wired.com/2015/02/rising-sea-levels-already-making-miamis-floods-worse/
  7. Luisa Zottis. (2014). 'Planning for climate change and the urban future.' The City Fix.
  8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'MIT News: Global Survey: Climate changes now a mainstream part of city planning.'
  9. Kirk Harris. (2015). 'Understanding the Disposition of Urban Planning Students Toward Social Justice and Equity Themes.' Sage Publications.
  10. Christine Killimayer. (2015). 'Huntsville City planners reveal data collected as part of “The Big Picture” plan.' WHNT.com.
  11. Jared Downing. (2015). 'Birmingham struggles to cure 50 years of urban decay.' AL.com.
  12. Archana Pyati. (2014). 'The Quickening of a Reborn Detroit?' Urbanland.
Andrew Killian

Andrew is a Business Analyst in Deloitte Consulting’s Strategy and Operations division with a strong interest in urbanization. He is in the General Management service line, and although he serves across multiple clients and industries, his project roles are often focused around analytical pieces of work.