Any Idiot Can Plan?

“Any idiot can plan!”  That is the response I have heard some critics and cynics give when asked what AICP stands for.  For those of you who are curious, if you do a search for “AICP” on Google, the first item listed is the “Association of Independent Commercial Producers”.  This is perhaps appropriate given that very few people outside the planning profession actually know what AICP means.  But as all planners should know, AICP refers to the American Institute of Certified Planners, which is the American Planning Association (APA)’s professional institute charged with the certification of professional planners, ethics, professional development, planning education, and the standards of planning practice.

I have been a certified planner for over ten years now.  I love planning and get upset when people disrespect or belittle our profession.  Those who claim that “Any idiot can plan” are simply ignorant and do not know what they are talking about.  Certified planners are knowledgeable professionals, and carry a high mark of distinction because we are required to meet rigorous standards, maintain our expertise through continuing education, and serve community interests.  In order for a planner to become certified, s/he needs to do much more than just pass a 150-question multiple-choice exam.  Even before taking the exam, candidates must meet specified education and employment eligibility requirements.  For example, an applicant may only apply to take the exam if s/he has obtained a graduate degree in planning from a program accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board and have two years of professional planning experience.  AICP has established four planning criteria that together define professional planning experience:

  1. Apply a planning process appropriate to the situation;
  2. Employ an appropriately comprehensive point of view;
  3. Involve a professional level of responsibility and resourcefulness; and
  4. Influence public decision making in the public interest.

Applicants must explain in detail how their experience meets the above criteria as part of their application to take the AICP exam.  These criteria may seem vague or general, but detailed explanation for each criterion is provided at

Planners are well-educated.  In a survey of over 10,000 planners conducted earlier this year, APA reported that the largest proportion (46%) have a master’s degree in urban planning and 21% have a master’s in other disciplines such as public administration, business administration, and geography.  About 10% listed a bachelor’s degree in planning as their highest level of education, while 18% have a bachelor’s in geography or some other major.  Approximately 2% of planners hold a doctorate as our highest degree; 1% has a law degree.  Of the responding planners, 60% are certified as either AICP (59%) or FAICP (1%).  This link contains a comprehensive view of survey results.

Certified planners must also maintain our expertise through continuing education.  Initiated nearly five years ago in January 2008, the AICP’s Certification Maintenance (CM) program requires certified planners to participate in mandatory continuing education to maintain our certification.  While some of my colleagues opposed this requirement initially, I was and continue to be a strong proponent because it helps us planners to continually gain the knowledge and skills we need to remain current in the practice of planning.  It gives me the perfect justification for the training requests I submit at work: “I need to attend this conference or training to keep my certification.”  The CM program also strengthens our position as a profession and gives us greater credibility because architects, engineers, landscape architects, and lawyers all have continuing education requirements.

In terms of specifics, AICP members must earn a total of 32 CM credits (1 hour = 1 CM credit) within a two-year reporting period.  A minimum of 1.5 credits must be on the topic of ethics, and another 1.5 credits must be on the topic of current planning law.  While 32 hours may sound like a lot, it actually is not.  One can earn that many CM credits just by attending a single APA state or national conference.  Credits may also be earned in a variety of ways.  For example, in addition to attending conferences and trainings, I have also been able to accumulate credits by authoring an article in a scholarly journal and guest lecturing on planning topics at local universities.  AICP members who do not meet CM requirements within four years lose their certification and are obliged to seek recertification in order to regain their credential.

Certified planners are held to a higher standard.  Specifically, we subscribe to AICP’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which specifies the ethical conduct required of certified planners and informs the public of the principles to which we are committed.  The Code clearly states that our primary obligation is to serve the public interest.  Examples of principles to which we aspire include:

  • We shall give people the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the development of plans and programs that may affect them. Participation should be broad enough to include those who lack formal organization or influence.
  • We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration.  We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.

The Code also offers help for planners as we negotiate the challenging ethical and moral dilemmas we sometimes face on the job.

It is obvious that not any idiot can plan.  As I have shared above, planners are educated, and required to maintain our expertise through continuing education and adhere to high standards of ethics and professional conduct.  For those who are thinking about taking the AICP exam, I highly encourage you to do so.  While a multiple-choice exam is a less than ideal way to evaluate a planner’s knowledge and abilities, it is part of the system currently in place and not an unusual method to gain professional certification in general.  To fully prepare for the exam, I suggest taking a preparation course because the exam covers such a wide range of topics, including: planning history, theory and law; plan making and implementation; functional areas of practice; spatial areas of practice; public participation and social justice; and the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.

One example is Planetizen’s self-paced online course which provides step-by-step and interactive instruction that leads one through specific methodologies, lessons, exercises and hundreds of sample questions.  The course includes over 12 hours of video and four full length practice exams.  One can also find additional practice exams and questions.  Other resources available include:

Best wishes for those taking the AICP exam this month and in May 2013!


Graphic credit:

AICP logo from

Profile photo of Clement Lau About Clement Lau

Clement Lau, AICP, has 15 years of professional experience in urban and regional planning. Currently, Dr. Lau is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He enjoys writing about a variety of planning issues and is on the author panel for UrbDeZine. He also has published articles in the California Planning & Development Report, Public Works Management & Policy, and Progressive Planning. Dr. Lau previously worked for Los Angeles County's Department of Regional Planning and the consulting firm of Cotton/Bridges/Associates in Pasadena. He has guest lectured on public policy and urban planning topics at the University of Southern California and California State University, Northridge. He holds a doctorate and master's in urban planning from USC, and bachelor's in economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


  1. avatar paulmcneil says:

    A profession that does not regulate itself will never raise the bar on itself.  Teachers and professors are the worst offenders.  Thanks for posting, Clement.