Architecture to Urban Planning? Any experience?


Hi there,

Does anyone have experience transferring from architecture (after working for some time) into urban planning?

A bit about my situation:

I'm a licensed architect working with a firm that does strictly high-end single-family residential. I've been in this sector for about 5 years since obtaining an MArch. I initially became interested in architecture through my undergraduate Urban Studies degree. Turns out, architectural practice has not brought me close to any of the social dimensions of architecture and the piece-within-a-whole-vision that so interests me in buildings. How they shape culture, society, etc. 

I've got an offer to start with LA Planning as a planning assistant for $72.5k (as opposed to my current $86k). I'm less scared about the money/lifestyle change and mostly terrified of "throwing away" all the time I've put into architecture - even if it doesn't bring me joy. I'm also really concerned that I'll get to planning and just be totally bored with the work. It should be said I don't love design anyhow, or have any strong opinions on aesthetics (I know, weird path). Another complicating factor is that I'm project managing my first building and will hopefully be able to see a project go into construction within ~1.5-2 years if I stick around. 

Any recommendations? Truly lost right now, but in order to take the planning position - which are hard to come by - I would have to decide rather soon.

Feb 18, 24 2:02 am

Uncanny! I (also an Urban Studies undergrad) am trying to move the opposite way, finished MArch 5 yrs ago, worked as a planner in a large US city, now looking for my first proper arch firm job to get some construction experience.

Lots to like about local government, in my view. Excellent life-work balance; big emphasis on long-term thinking and place-based knowledge; opportunities to influence the quality of buildings, streets and neighborhoods (and serve folks who aren't clients or users of capital-A architecture).

Where I worked, there were tons of architects around. Many were there for job security and work-life reasons, some because they were drawn to the type of work. Most seemed pretty content, if a little bored at times. The work was not very design-oriented, usually more analytical. We almost never worked on specific buildings, at least not in any depth, mostly policy questions related to buildings in the aggregate (think "building stock"). Drawing was not valued much, if we drew it was to illustrate or add eye candy to a report or presentation. Mapping and data visualization were very in-demand.

You might consider your timing and how this might go over a 3-5 year period. Something I didn't expect but heard over and over was how much the atmosphere in a public agency can fluctuate with election cycles. Much more likely to be interesting if a mayor or council supports your area of work.

I would think if you have some solid architecture experience already, whatever you decide won't be so conclusive in the long run. If you go for it, you'll be a good candidate for another architecture job later, especially if you're working in the same city still and can bring that place-based knowledge with you. Otherwise, you're almost certain to have other opportunities to work in government again over your career. Good luck with the decision!

Feb 18, 24 4:00 pm  · 
1  · 

Hi - thank you for the thoughtful response! Your point on this not being a complete divergence from buildings in general is very well taken. I'd be curious to hear more about your motivation to hop into an architecture firm. Feel free to email if you'd like. Thanks again!

Feb 18, 24 5:24 pm  · 

Hello, I'm transitioning myself to urban planning after decades doing architecture. Mostly doing single family residences with a few multi-residential projects in the So Cal area. I got into urban planning because I believed that cities dominated by urban sprawl are transitioning away from a car centric environment into a different urban typologies with public transportation infrastructure and housing into the mix.

I think urban planning is the design of cities through policies set by government but there should be an emphasis on urban design and architecture rather than the zoning code giving developers an idea what a property could be developed. 

It looks like you are heading to the right path. I would stay since you are starting to take responsibilities on a project as Project Architect. Hopefully, you would do multi-residential or mix-use projects because those are most challenging in getting planning entitlements, plan check approval and there are a lot of collaboration with different heads. You will start to build relationships with consultants, engineers, plan checkers and clients.

In practicing Architecture, you'll develop skills like construction, government approval process, landscaping, real estate, roof design and details. It will take you in a better path than you imagine since you have a professional background of different aspects in architecture. You broaden your portfolio/ resume/ experience.

I got into urban planning by volunteering into neighborhood council planning and land use committee a decade ago which gave me an opportunity to deal and understand the different projects, agendas and policies that effects the future of the neighborhood, especially when there are public transportation projects like light rail and adding bike lanes on streets.

I left the firm I was working because I wasn't felling good about doing work on single family estates that wasn't sustainable towards the environment.

I applied for planning assistant for LA planning last year, gotten an interview and found I'm eligible to be hired but there is a hiring freezebecause of the city's financial situation. 

There is a lot to be said about our current situation in developing a new way of moving cities into a sustainable manner. I'm coming from a older generation than you and I hope you can develop leadership skills in moving the pendulum for a better future.

Feb 19, 24 12:44 am  · 
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Thanks ! I appreciate the perspective. The thing holding me back from moving to planning is honestly A) the money and B) ditching enriching experiences over the next two years that might most look like the "practice of architecture" in its most normative sense.. I'm suspicious of this thought though - there have been many growth opportunities. I'm often caught in a "it will be better when I get to 'x'" mindset.

Feb 20, 24 12:43 am  · 

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