Cities by Design

Urban planners shape where people live, work, and play.
By Nathalie Alonso
A smiling woman poses with her arms crossed.
Katherine Perez is an urban planner in Los Angeles, California. In her profession, “You're never dealing with the same thing, because conditions are always changing,” she says. “And the issues are always kind of shifting. So you have to be nimble.”

No two cities are alike. While they may feature the same elements—buildings and houses, roads and highways, parks and shopping centers—every city is arranged differently. Geography, climate, and culture are just a few of the factors that influence how a city is laid out. People who design cities are called urban planners. It's their job to make sure everything fits together and meets the needs of the people who live there.

Katherine Perez has been an urban planner in Los Angeles for 30 years. She came to “love cities” precisely because each is unique. “There are different issues, conditions that affect each of these communities,” she told Your Hot Job. “And I found that to be super interesting.” 

Perez runs the Los Angeles, California, office of Arup. With offices in more than 30 countries, the firm helps cities all over the world design, plan, and build anything and everything from sports arenas to bridges to tunnels to museums. Perez has seen her field change a lot since she studied urban planning in graduate school in the 1990s. At Arup, for example, some of the projects she oversees in Southern California involve decarbonization, which means generating electricity while reducing the amount of harmful greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. That wasn't something urban planners focused on when she started in the field.

“You’re never dealing with the same thing, because conditions are always changing. And the issues are always kind of shifting. So you have to be nimble,” says Perez, who also teaches at the University of Southern California. 

Today, urban planners also use cutting-edge tools, like virtual reality, to design cities and visualize how a new building or public space might look. But Perez says one thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of working with city residents of all backgrounds to make sure the community has a say in how the city is designed. That’s why she believes urban planners must be good listeners who can “help people see how they can take that big idea and make it real.”

Urban planners sometimes specialize in a certain aspect of city life, like housing or transportation. They can work for private companies, as Perez does; for nonprofit organizations; or for local or state governments. For instance, before she joined Arup, Perez was the deputy mayor of the City of Pasadena and the transportation manager for the City of South Pasadena. Planners who work in private firms often juggle multiple projects at the same time, in multiple cities, while those who work for a city, state, or county focus on that particular place and get to know it in-depth. “Learning the DNA of a city, street by street, is a huge skill,” Perez says.

For Perez, the most rewarding part of being an urban planner is helping improve lives with the projects she works on. “When I see a community embrace something different and something that they thought was out of their reach—they got the new park, they got a brand-new library, they got to see regeneration and redevelopment of a dead space in their community—and they did it together with people who had the skills to help them, that is the most exciting part,” she says.