How we live together in cities, what kinds of infrastructure exists in our region and how our lifestyle can be combined with environmental and climate protection – these are the complex questions that urban, spatial, regional and environmental planning seeks to answer. Due to the diversity of these questions, this occupational field is certainly interdisciplinary and combines scientific, legal, architectural, technical, but also sociological topics, depending on context. Nevertheless, it is not a generalist’s field of work, but rather requires specialized expertise and experience for different positions.
As the overarching skill, spatial planning, roughly speaking, focuses on how defined geographical spaces can be utilized optimally according to specific standards. Primary tasks are the analysis of the given spatial conditions for its use, the development of planning concepts for the ideal conceptualization of this space and the preemption of goal conflicts (and possibly mediation between these), that may result from the use of the space.
If the planning is aimed at a certain region, the term used is regional planning; If it is focused on a city, then it is referred to as urban planning. If certain aspects are at the forefront of the planning, words such as traffic, environmental or landscape planning can be applied.
Regional planners, for example, take on the task of completing certain goals within a region, that are stipulated by so-called spatial development plans. These can include restorative measures (such as the repurposing of defunct open pit mines, the establishment of new industries or the planning of new construction projects. Regional planners must not only develop plans for the use of specific areas or accompany plan approval and authorization procedures, but also participate in municipal council meetings or organize informational events for the public.
Traffic planners, on the other hand, take on specific questions surrounding mobility planning – such as local and long-distance traffic, traffic paths and traffic flow.
Furthermore, environmental planning pays special attention to a sustainable regard of ecosystems. Strategies for waste disposal, ensuring the maintenance of air quality or the removal of harmful substances from areas of land or bodies of water can all be relevant. Whereas the term environmental planning is more global, landscape planners focus on the implementation of legal eco-conservation goals through landscape conservation and design. In Germany, landscape planning is regulated through the Bundesnaturschutzgesetz (BNatSchG) and is also referred to as the “expert planning of nature conservation.” Tasks include not only the demarcation of conservation zones or the scouting of new spaces for the construction of windparks, but also the creation and maintenance of recreational areas and public greens.
Positions available for sociologists in related fields such as district management or urban policy
Since scientific and spatial questions are at the forefront of spatial, regional and environmental planning, employers usually look for graduates of geographical or environmental sciences. It is crucial to not only know basic laws concerning construction, planning and spatial order, but also know how to create maps, which is why AutoCAD or ArcGIS skills are frequently required.
Sociological aspects also play a role in this type of planning – however, those with a study background in economics or sociology are more likely to find employment in urban or regional planning, since these are most likely to incorporate sociological aspects of human co-existence in their planning (see district management, for example). One example is the question of how changes in urban construction can counteract social isolation or segregation in major conurbations. Topics such as gentrification, health-conscious construction planning or the development of measures for citizen participation fall into this category. Since these are primarily questions of public policy, urban politics or research are further possible occupational contexts, besides urban and regional planning, for sociologists interested in this field.
Urban, spatial, traffic, landscape, environmental and regional planners can find positions in central planning ministries, or urban, construction, consulting or architectural offices. Surveyor’s offices or public service are also possible employers. Beyond that, academia and research can be a viable option. Anyone less interested in planning themselves, but rather advising others in their intended plans should also take a look at the work of environmental consultants.
For those without a background in geography, it is advisable to set an area of focus during their studies early on and learn about relevant processes and regulations relevant to their specific field of interest. Related Master’s degree or further training programs are also available.