The Geography of Planning Work

There’s no shortage of lists and rankings of “best places” out there: the best cities for millennials, the best neighborhoods to raise kids, the best places to retire, the world’s most livable cities, and on and on. Since CityLab is a publication devoted to cities and urbanism—one that is written by and for people you could call urbanists—I thought it would be fun to develop a metric for the best places for urbanists.

The first thing I did was use U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data to identify “urbanist” occupations. Here’s the initial list that jumped out:

  • Urban planners
  • Architects
  • Landscape architects
  • Civil engineers
  • Cartographers

But after talking with a series of experts in the field and some of my CityLab colleagues, I decided to focus on urban planners. As the economist Jed Kolko, an expert in occupational and urban data, put it to me: “I’d use only urban planners, since lots of those other occupations are widely found outside of urban settings: landscape architects in suburbs and wherever land is cheaper and consumed more; civil engineers building large-scale infrastructure, like highways; cartographers surveying land for agriculture, military, and other non-urban purposes; and so on.”

Data on urban planners certainly don’t capture all urbanists. But think of them as an indicator species of places that have more jobs for and are more oriented to the city-minded.

The research team at Emsi gave me and my research team detailed occupational data on urban planners for the 100 largest U.S. metro areas, which we arrayed across a few key indicators: metros with the highest concentrations of urban planners; metros where urban planners make the highest salaries; and metros where urban planning jobs have seen the most growth. My CityLab colleague David Montgomery mapped the data.

The map below shows the concentration of urban planners in these 100 largest metros. It is based on their location quotient, or “LQ,” essentially a ratio that compares a metro’s share of urban planners to the national average. An LQ of exactly 1 means that a metro’s share is in line with the national share; an LQ of more than 1 means it is higher; and an LQ lower than 1 means that it is lower.

On the map, blue metros are below average for urban-planner share; tan metros have up to two times the national average, and rust metros have more than two times the national average. Most of the 100 metros suffer from below-average concentrations of planners. In fact, there are just a few rust-colored spots on the map.

(David H. Montgomery/CityLab)
As the table below shows, there are just seven metros with an LQ of 2 or higher, and only 18 metros with an LQ of more than 1.5, meaning they have at least 50 percent more urban planners than the national average. One thing that jumps out: There are a lot of state capitals on the list. That makes sense, because state governments tend to be large employers of urban planners.

Metro

Location quotient

Sacramento-Roseville-Folsom, CA

2.8

Urban Honolulu, HI

2.8

San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA

2.4

Bakersfield, CA

2.3

Durham-Chapel Hill, NC

2.2

Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA

2.1

Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown, TX

2.0

Albuquerque, NM

1.9

North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL

1.8

San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, CA

1.8

Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA

1.8

Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA

1.7

Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI

1.7

Boise City, ID

1.6

Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA

1.6

Fresno, CA

1.5

Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV

1.5

Raleigh-Cary, NC

1.5

Sacramento and Honolulu come first and second, with LQs of 2.8, or nearly three times the national average of planners. Four other metros have an LQ of more than 2, or double the national average: San Francisco, Bakersfield, Durham–Chapel Hill, and Seattle. And 12 additional metros have LQs that are between 1.5 and 2.0: Austin, Albuquerque, San Diego, North Port–Sarasota, Portland, Oxnard, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Boise City, Riverside, Fresno, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh.

On the flip side, some of the metros with the lowest location quotients (of less than .60) for urban planners include: St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, New York (perhaps surprisingly), Atlanta, and Cleveland.

(David H. Montgomery/CityLab)
Next, look at where urban planners earn the most, based on their 2018 median annual earnings. On this map, the darker the blue, the higher the salary. The table below lists the 17 metros where urban planners take home more than $80,000 a year. Urban planners make more than six figures in two California metros: San Jose and Bakersfield. They make just about $100,000 in nearby San Francisco, and a bit over $90,000 in Riverside, California—but also in Knoxville, Tennessee. They take home between $85,000 and $90,000 in seven additional metros, including L.A., Portland, Seattle, and Las Vegas.

Conversely, some of the metros with the lowest annual planner earnings, below $65,000, include: Louisville, Memphis, Austin, Atlanta, and Houston.

Note: We also looked at the data controlling for housing costs, and the list does not change very much. That’s because the pay of professionals such as urban planners tends to reflect, or build in, housing costs. It’s low-wage service workers who are hardest hit by living in expensive cities.

Metro

Median annual earnings

San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

$110,389

Bakersfield, CA

$104,562

San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA

$99,789

Knoxville, TN

$90,849

Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA

$90,381

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA

$89,305

Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV

$88,943

Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA

$88,153

Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA

$88,005

San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, CA

$87,610

Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA

$86,826

Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV

$85,010

Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT

$84,748

New Haven-Milford, CT

$84,205

Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA

$82,363

Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH

$82,294

Sacramento-Roseville-Folsom, CA

$81,123

But where are jobs growing the fastest? The next map shows the rate of growth in urban planning jobs since 2014. Orange and rust indicate the metros where planning jobs have grown the fastest; pink shows slow growth, and shades of blue show where planning jobs have declined since 2014.

(David H. Montgomery/CityLab)
The table below highlights the 17 metros where urban planning jobs have grown by 15 percent or more since 2014.

Metro

Change 2014–2019

Stockton, CA

30.1%

McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX

29.8%

Provo-Orem, UT

22.6%

Fresno, CA

22.3%

Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA

20.6%

Durham-Chapel Hill, NC

20.5%

San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

20.4%

Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC

20.4%

Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA

19.1%

Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA

18.0%

North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL

17.8%

Bakersfield, CA

17.2%

Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA

17.2%

Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL

17.2%

Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL

17.1%

El Paso, TX

15.4%

Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL

15.1%

Stockton, California, and McAllen, Texas, top this list, with roughly 30 percent growth. There are six metros with growth rates in the low 20s: Provo, Utah; Fresno; Riverside; Durham–Chapel Hill; San Jose; and Charlotte. And there nine more metros with growth rates between 15 and 20 percent, including Seattle and Spokane, Washington; Portland; Bakersfield, California; El Paso; and Sarasota, Orlando, Cape Coral, and Lakeland in Florida.

Some of the metros with the least growth in urban planning jobs are Detroit (the one metro that has seen an actual decline), New Orleans, Chicago, Milwaukee, Memphis, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and perhaps unexpectedly, San Jose.

If you’re an urban planner, or hope to pursue a career in planning, you can find high concentrations of planning jobs in state capitals like Sacramento and Austin, as well as in the nation’s capital. Well-paying jobs are in established tech hubs—the Bay Area, D.C., and Boston—but also in the lower-cost metros of Knoxville, Las Vegas, and Des Moines. And the fastest job growth is in less obvious, smaller cities in the South and West, such as Stockton and Fresno, California; McAllen and El Paso, Texas; and Sarasota, Cape Coral, and Lakeland, Florida.

In short, urbanism and the profession of urban planning are more spread out and less geographically spiky than one might assume.