Early in my career as an Urban Planner, I attended networking events excited to shake hands and proclaim "I’m an urban planner!” After a consistent series of confused looks, I quickly realized that Urban Planning was not as common a profession as I had thought. Now ten years into the profession, with a strong professional network built, I'm still puzzled that people ask, "what is it that you do exactly?".  After fumbling through conversations trying to explain what an Urban Planner does...

"You know, that new project downtown...well, no I didn't design it...no, the city didn't build it exactly...never mind...yes, I work for the city, that's what I do. I'm a city employee..."

 ...I've come up with a more concise description. I've also come up with a pretty cool analogy. So the next time you're trying to explain to your family, friends, and non-design colleagues at the cocktail mixer what the heck you do everyday, the conversation should go a lot more smoother.

So what is it that you do exactly?

Simply put, an Urban Planner coordinates development in a city. The analogy - well, we're like Orchestra Conductors. Like Conductors, Urban Planners must understand each section's unique role (government agencies, developers, politicians, community members), anticipate the next note to be played (demographic and development trends), and guide the orchestra through a harmonious performance (development review and regulations).  We are the guy, or gal, standing at the unique vantage point overseeing the orchestra, and waving the baton in odd motions. From the audience's point of view, it seems like random uncoordinated movements (“why the heck did they approve that?!”). But to the orchestra and audience members who are really paying attention, it’s a well-coordinated series of movements and decisions. Guidance, that if followed, will lead to harmonious development, I mean, sound - that everyone will enjoy.

 Don't be concerned. It all makes sense.

con·duc·tor  [kuhn-duhk-ter]  


1. A person who conducts; a leader, guide, director, or manager.

2. A person who directs an orchestra or chorus, communicating to the performers by

motions of a baton, his or her interpretation of the music.


Examples I would use...
Like an orchestra, city development is a series of notes, played by different sections in harmony.  If one section is flat, the whole composition or development suffers.  

Photo: Southeast Nashville Community Center, Library, and Predators Ice Hockey Team Practice facility under construction.

Nashville Planners worked with public agencies to make sure that a quarter mile off-site sidewalk  was included in the plans for the new facility.  Without it, pedestrians would have a difficult time walking to the new complex from surrounding neighborhoods. Without the sidewalk, the development would have fallen flat. With it, the development is harmonious, providing safe pedestrian access to the new development.

The Conductor studies the composition well ahead of time and understands each section's part of the composition. Planners, like Conductors, must understand all components of development review. From the street and transportation components, to storm water, and other public utilities. To guide development, planners must understand how these elements work together.  

Photo: 23rd and Elliston

The project, 23rd and Elliston in Mid-town Nashville, required coordination of street components including a bike lane, wide sidewalk, and building setback. The result is a street that is safe and fun to walk along.

The Conductor uses the baton to guide how fast or slow, loud or soft, the orchestra plays. Planners use demographic and development trends to determine how rapid cities may change.  For example, change can be the result of the number of people moving into or out of a city. Change can also occur based on the type and amount of new housing units needed, the frequency of transportation routes, or the number and location of schools. Planners use trends to predict changes and to recommend ways that a city should adapt.

Photo: The Gulch

Places like The Gulch in Downtown Nashville, respond to market trends with a mixture of retail uses and various housing types. Millennials and Baby Boomers are buying in walkable places and that have a diverse range of housing.

Oh I get it!!

I hope this helps you explain to others what an Urban Planner does. I also hope it explains the important role that Urban Planners play in the development of cities. If they're still not convinced - hit 'em with this:

Imagine showing up to the symphony, only to hear an unorganized musical performance. With no leader in sight, every section is doing their own thing. Playing notes that sound right only to their section.

Now picture a street with no sidewalks or sidewalks that are too narrow. Or an abandoned commercial strip that needs new businesses, or obsolete housing. Well, that's the result of uncoordinated and uninspired development. Without a conductor-leader, development in a city falls flat.

Now you've won them over.

So I encourage every Urban Planner to channel their inner Conductor...

...because without us, it's all just notes on a piece of paper.


Authortifinie capehart
CategoriesThe Planner
2 CommentsPost a comment