Planners Per Population

Dear Management Doctor:

In these days of reductions and planning departments being hit particularly hard, it sure would be great to see what the number of professional planners per population is in the large cities. I know that here in Las Vegas I am now down to the staffing level of the mid-90's.

Margo Wheeler
Las Vegas

Dear Margo:

I'd like to ask our emailers to send me their numbers and will share them with you and others. However, a word of caution.

We don't normally collect these numbers or even use them in our planning department analysis work. There are simply too many variables and the numbers can be misleading. Many elected officials and even City Managers like these numbers - when they serve their purposes. The same is likely true for Planning Directors.

We have now completed work for some 160 planning departments in 29 states plus the Cayman Islands, Calgary, Canada, and Washington D.C. The staffing needs for each one has been quite different. This is based on local ordinances and customs (i.e. how much analysis is desired or needed), the volume of permit activity, and the need and desire for long range planning. In heavy regulatory and planning states like California, the ratio is likely to be much higher than many other states. When I do my two-day management class I generally ask how many planners are in the department, just to know how to best relate to the class. Before the recent recession I had a student from Beverly Hills (population 34,000). The class gasped when told they had a staff of 30.

We try to use a more analytical approach to setting staffing size. First, we look at the volume of development applications and estimate the staff needed to process those applications. Second, we look at the long range planning program or other similar non-applicant driven functions. What are the needs here and is the community willing to provide staff or consultants to fulfill the needs?

Okay emailers, let's see what you can provide us. If the numbers help you, use them. If not, make certain the City Manager doesn't see them.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

It's a pretty good urban myth, but to my knowledge the City of Beverly Hills has never had 30 planners on staff. A management study of the department completed in 2008 did indicate that the 12 planners on staff was at the high end for similarly sized cities in California (34,000), but it was never the 30 planners supposedly claimed by someone. That said, during the last development period, additional contract workers (2-3) were hired for a period of time, but now we are in the same budget situation as many other California cities.

Susan Healy Keene
City of Beverly Hills, CA

When I was in school ten years ago and trying to predict which suburbs would have job vacancies in the near future via newly created positions, I noticed that suburbs had a general ratio of one planner per 10,000 population. But of course, just because a city had three planners and 40,000 people, it didn't lead to a new job opening when I needed one.

I agree that there are too many variables to quantify a planner-to-population ratio. I work in a rural-developing county. The planning portion of our department serves an estimated population of 34,000. We have (1) Planning & Zoning Administrator, (1) Assistant Zoning Administrator, (1) Planner, (1) Zoning Specialist/Weed Inspector, and (1) Planning Assistant. Although there is only one titled "planner" the other positions include job duties that are similar in character to a "planner" although the job title may be under a different name. In a suburb I previously worked in, the Assistant Planner did zoning enforcement. At the County I work in now, it's either the Zoning Specialist or the Environmental Specialist depending if the violation is regarding land use vs. junk.

Jon Sevald

Thank you for everyone that responded and thanks to Susan for cleaning up the rumor mill. The data is interesting, but I still feel that using population for comparisons is meaningless unless you have a detailed comparison and know the programs, i.e. apples to apples. If one had to generalize, the mean of the 26 planning departments is one planner per 10,119 population. If this helps you politically - use it. If not, make certain no one sees it.

The Management Doctor

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