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What is Urban Planning?

Amy Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Urban planning is a branch of architecture that focuses on organizing metropolitan areas. Made up of several different fields, from engineering to social science, this practice was developed to correct problems caused by cities expanding spontaneously, without planning. At its core, city planning aims to provide a safe, organized, and enjoyable home and work life for residents of both new and established towns. Today, some of the largest concerns of urban planning are building locations, zoning, transportation, and how a town or city looks. Planners also try to eliminate run down areas and prevent their development, as well preserve the natural environment of the area.

Becoming an Urban Planner

While there are many professionals who specialize in either fixing issues in existing developments or designing new ones, urban planning is usually executed by a group of individuals with specific skills and backgrounds. Education systems all over the world offer courses specifically for certification in this field, however, and typically give students a background in the cultural, economic, legal, and other elements that go into the development of cities. Outside of this specific certification, architects and those in various divisions of engineering work in this field, as do those with business knowledge, social scientists, and environmentalists. In addition to this, people with degrees in botany and landscape design are also highly valued.

How the Field Developed

Like most disciplines, urban planning developed to solve a problem. Prior to the mid-19th century, metropolitan areas were created as existing towns spread out; London, Paris, and Tokyo started out as small towns and simply kept getting bigger as more people moved to them. The addresses and streets in the older sections of these cities can be confusing, even to natives, because they were established with little thought as to how the area might change and grow in the future. While people have always engaged in some type of town or city organization, whether settling near a body of water or on higher ground for self-defense, the late 19th century is when modern urban planning began to develop.

The lack of organization in housing areas, industrial sections, and the placement of hospitals and schools often created problems for the safety and health of residents in older cities. Architects and engineers, in partnership with their local government, began planning ways to solve these problems in existing urban areas, and to prevent them from developing in new areas. While finding solutions for existing situations in cities is often more complicated than planning a new city or urban area from scratch, both are equally important parts of the field.

Building Locations and Zoning

The location of buildings, coupled with designating certain areas of a city for specific purposes (i.e., residential zones, commercial areas, and industrial sections), is extremely important in urban planning. For example, the majority of parents do not want their children's playground right next to a water treatment plant, and having a hospital in a central location can literally save lives. In order for law enforcement personnel to be effective, they need to be able to get anywhere in the city within minutes. This means stations need to be both centrally located and scattered throughout the area, and that roads should be designed to make getting anywhere fast as easy as possible. Good urban planning takes all of these and many more factors into consideration when choosing the locations for buildings, and sets up appropriate zones accordingly.


Ensuring there are enough roads and highways, as well as easy-to-access public transportation, is also a priority in this field. Anticipating growth and traffic needs for a big city is important, and urban planners often consider how future growth will affect traffic flow. With this information, they often try to eliminate potential trouble spots before they become a problem. With new cities or expansions, planning for public transportation, whether under or above ground, is also important, especially as major metropolitan areas move more towards more environmentally friendly practices.

Appearance and Environmental Aspects

Urban planning is a branch of architecture and, as such, form and function are just as important in a city as they are when designing a new building. Outside of ensuring the health and safety of residents, urban planning also takes into account what the city looks like, from specific building designs to incorporating landscaping and green spaces into the area.

In many places, planners consider how to make expansion sustainable as well as practical. Developers may consider air quality and noise pollution when planning roads, and aim to create smaller housing developments to limit the impact residents have on their immediate environment. Newly planned cities often take the incorporation of green spaces and the use of environmentally friendly power sources and transportation seriously. Developers can keep this in mind when planning the expansion of existing cities as well.

A Note on Slums

Much of urban planning is based on a combined knowledge of architecture, economics, human relations, and engineering. For this reason, there are numerous theories on the development of slums and the occurrence of urban decay. Slums, defined as overcrowded, run down sections of a city occupied by people in the lowest socioeconomic bracket, are often at the forefront of the field.

Urban planners and other city officials often work to eliminate or improve existing slums and to ensure that new ones do not develop. This is a challenge, however, as many different social, political, and economic factors are involved not only in the development of such areas, but in their continued existence. As of 2012, the United Nations estimates that over one billion people live in these types of conditions.

A number of different measures have been tried to eliminate or improve areas of substandard housing. One method is to clear out the entire run down section of a city, demolishing the existing housing and replacing it with government or privately funded modern housing. Although this has been done in many parts of the world, some countries have issues with "squatter rights," which means law enforcement cannot force inhabitants of the slums to move out so that they can clear the area. In addition to this solution, urban planners often work to locate schools, hospitals, and other socially beneficial and job-producing establishments near the slums in order to improve the economic climate of the area.

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Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick , Former Writer
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at Historical Index. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.

Discussion Comments

By anon220744 — On Oct 09, 2011

Slums are a product of a mixture and interplay of so many forces and factors.

Rural urban migration is one of them. The search for jobs and reportedly better living conditions, and most of these migrants cannot afford decent housing and yet have to be within reach of the city and search for what to keep them up.

Poor planning on behalf of urban managers. Development of urban areas growing at a rate that urban managers can't envision and/or are incapacitated to handle due to many factors.

By anon126379 — On Nov 12, 2010

@ post #4: good transportation designs make the flow smooth and attract more cars, which become a cause of environmental degradation.

in this regard, urban planners can take an initiative by encouraging sustainable modes of transport like giving priority to public cars over private car ownership. In other words adopting the "stick and carrot approach".

By anon109091 — On Sep 05, 2010

By providing good transport designs, it will help communities to have access to the main of transportation as well as marketing their local products. And yet, on the other hand it can cause environment pollution. How will an urban planner make a decision to prevent this problem?

By anon95474 — On Jul 12, 2010

I'm still new in urban planning. Can someone help me to give a little more definition about urban planning? And what is the relationsip between urban planning and the environment?

By Babalaas — On Jun 15, 2010

@ GlassAxe - Slums are often the product of cities growing beyond their resources or resources leaving a city. Good urban planning can prevent slums from forming in some cases, but sometimes slums can only be eliminated after they are established.

Buenos Aires is trying to create sustainable growth in the city while simultaneously moving people out of the slums. Urban Planners in northern Buenos Aires, Argentina were able to build 173 low income homes, and the required basic infrastructure, in an area that was previously a field. The homesteads were sold to families with small children on flexible payment plans. The project brought sewer, water delivery, electrical, and road service to an area that was undeveloped. Biodiversity loss was minimal by using an existing field as the urban site.

By bringing water services to the area, the urban planners were able to prevent some of the toxic runoff that would have inevitably occurred if the water system remained unchanged. By moving people out of the slums, the project also took some of the strain off of the areas other resources and created a sustainable addition to the city. The project also reduced the number of brownfields (basically vacant eyesores) in Buenos Aires.

By GlassAxe — On Jun 15, 2010

What causes slums in large urban areas? So many of the world's largest cities have slums, and I am wondering what factors create them. Is there anything that urban planners do to prevent slums from sprouting in cities, or are they just destined to be? It seems like slums are a product of socioeconomic, and geographical forces, but I am sure that there are other forces at play.

Amy Pollick

Amy Pollick

Former Writer

Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at Historical Index...
Learn more
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