Reflections from APA-NYM Member Shannon Hill on Studying for American Institute of Certified Planners Exam

Obtaining the AICP certification is a prestigious and rewarding accomplishment. Preparing for the exam can a seem daunting task. In this article, originally published in the March issue of the Australian Planning News, APA-NYM member Shannon Hill discusses her experience studying for the AICP exam and the various resources she found useful to learn American planning laws and methodologies that differ vastly from the Australian system.

What I learnt studying for the American Institute of Certified Planners exam

We moved from Melbourne to New York in Spring 2015 for my husband’s two year work contract. Rather than work I studied. It suited our family schedule well, could easily be added to my CV and would provide a better background for any job here.

The American Planning Association’s (APA) American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) certification appealed and would complement my own Australian based education and experience. The AICP is the APA’s professional institute and provides the only nationwide, independent verification of planners’ qualifications. Certified planners pledge to uphold high standards of practice, ethics, and professional conduct, and to keep their skills sharp and up-to-date by continuously pursuing advanced professional education.

I applied to the APA to be accepted to take the AICP exam and was fortunately accepted in mid 2016 with an exam date schedule in November. With no background in American planning, politics, law or governmental system, or workmates around me who had done this before and could lend me the tomes on the recommending reading list, I was unsure of how I’d go, but managed a 67 out of 75. 89%. I smashed it.

I have now received my certification from the APA and can reflect upon what I learnt and my key takeaways as a planner.

What’s involved in the AICP exam?

The AICP exam is a comprehensive test that certifies a candidate’s knowledge and skills in planning and is particularly focussed at those with managerial level experience. The exam contains 170 questions, of which 150 are graded, and all are weighted differently based on difficulty. To pass the exam, candidates must receive a score of 55 or higher, or approximately 75% of the questions correct. You have 3.5 hours to complete the exam under strict exam conditions.

The exam covers a variety of subject areas including:

  • History, Theory and Law (15%)
  • Plan Making and Implementation (30%)
  • Functional Areas of Practice (25%)
  • Spatial Areas of Practice (15%)
  • Public Participation and Social Justice (10%)
  • AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (5%)

Having been a practicing planner for more than 15 years, at first I thought this would be easy, perhaps with the exception of law. Digging deeper into each of the subject areas revealed, however, I had a lot of studying to do. Planners in the US are routinely involved in budget processes, statistical research, various survey methods, fiscal impact assessments, and a much broader range of community dialogue and spatial planning areas than I was accustomed to.

Fortunately multiple — and often free — resources were available to help me prepare, including policy guides and Planning Advisory Service reports and memos from the APA, exam lessons and online resources from individual APA State Chapters, and the generous inter-library loan service of the New York Public Library. The depth of information available at the APA is particularly impressive and illustrates their commitment to informing public and governmental debate on key planning issues. Without these resources I would never have passed the exam.

Key takeaways

This was indeed a rigorous exam and learning process. I had the benefit of a good amount of study time, not needing to fit study in around work, but then I was starting from a long way back.

My key takeaways are:

  1. Communities get involved in amazing ways. I read countless examples of community led planning and they were all fascinating and inspiring. I suspect this is a key cultural difference between the US and Australia (let’s be honest, we are much more apathetic), but also springs from historical social and environmental injustices that have occurred here. People have gotten up in the US and taken charge, supported by different streams of planning theory (Advocacy Planning; Equity Planning), and today, supported by their representatives and planners. I’m not suggesting planning is perfect here, far from it, but I do think in general they derive a lot more from community driven processes than Australia;
  2. The planners’ role is so much more than just preparing a strategic plan or approving a planning permit. Here the planner is the advocate for the public interest, the net benefit and the greater good. They are the mediator and the facilitator bringing together all parts of the community to listen, learn and act. And they use their broad skill set to make it happen;
  3. Form-based codes are all the rage, but can be intensive, time consuming and cumbersome for the non-planner. Driven by transit-oriented development principles, they are very prescriptive to ensure appropriate built form outcomes — similar to an urban design framework but taking the prescriptions to the next level. Being prescriptive, they are also predictable which can be beneficial for developer and community alike, and worth considering in key sites and locations.
  4. Floor Area Ratio (FAR) appears to have considerable merit in setting the ultimate densities allowable on a site, but within the framework designed and developed by the owner/developer. The ability to ‘trade’ for higher building heights and density in exchange for, for example, affordable housing, greater protection of amenity and light, and provision of new public spaces appears to have potentially mutual benefits.
  5. Transfer of development rights (TDR) provides an ability to transfer development rights away from an area needing protection (e.g. historic area) to an area promoting increased densities (e.g. downtown). It would appear to allow a preferred planning policy to be achieved without impacting, or reducing the impact, upon an individual’s property rights and land value.
  6. Laws are framed around the protection of private property rights, the ‘bundle of sticks’ concept where each stick represents a right. Take away a right through a zoning amendment, for example, either without just compensation or if it is not for a superior governmental right/use, and you may be liable for a ‘taking’. This is a foreign concept in Australia but a vital one here where the Constitution and law precedent set the scene;
  7. As a result of a much greater population, the US planner can freely access an impressive array of resources and statistics for any research project imaginable, using the data to explore, produce and justify policies at a level I haven’t seen occur at home. Often this is locally sourced by working with local community groups and advocates.
  8. Planners often manage a project through to implementation, including budget setting in conjunction with the rolling Capital Improvement Plan and yearly Capital Improvement Budget. Whilst I wasn’t that keen on having to learn about different budgeting methods it is refreshing for the planner to see a project through to implementation and not handing it over to someone else (normally an engineer) or just put on the bookshelf. The community often drives the implementation with the planner the facilitator.
  9. The range of levels of spatial planning is impressive with multi-state or multi-jurisdictional planning alive and well here, tackling catchment, coastal, hazard mitigation and environmental based issues in particular.
  10. Appreciating the history of planning in America. I had little understanding of garden suburbs, new towns, and garden cities in America and certainly little historical context for them, and thoroughly enjoyed learning about Radburn, New Jersey, Forest Hills, Queens and other places developed purely on planning theory. Many of these places are now highly valued real estate, and often provide an interesting counterpoint to the development now surrounding them.

The love of American planning textbooks and planning and design books in general. They are plentiful and I’m stocking up.

Final thoughts

I’m very pleased with my achievement and see it as much more now than just filling a gap in my CV.

I know studying for and completing my exam will shape my future career and thinking upon returning to Australia, particularly regarding community-driven planning, an area where I think we tend to be much more top-down than bottom-up. It has also given me a much greater appreciation of American life and history than I otherwise would have, and demonstrated to me how planning can shape our communities and fix our mistakes. The role of ‘big data’ in shaping our policies is also intriguing and an area I’d be interested in exploring further.

Importantly, studying for the AICP restored my faith in the importance of a planners’ particular skill set and ability to achieve outcomes that require more than a computer drawn plan. Here the planners’ role seemed to be taken much more seriously than I had encountered in Australia and is respected and used in a variety of ways that would not be considered back home. The act of planning, policy development and ultimate implementation is seen as a specialised role that can only be undertaken with the appropriate education and experience. It made my job seem important, whereas some experiences in Australia made my job seem unnecessary, unvalued and apparently able to be done by a surveyor, or architect, or engineer.

And so, to conclude, my favourite passage from the green planning bible ‘The Practice of Local Government Planning’ that sums up planning in a paragraph:

What society needs in planning, and elsewhere, is not more specialists; it needs skilled generalists. Planners must be able to grasp many viewpoints and ways of understanding the world, and knit them together. This does not require being an expert in every field; that would be impossible. But it does require the ability to understand the fundamental issues in a variety of fields, and the relationships between them. Planners must be able to speak the language of architects, bankers, engineers, public servants, politicians, and citizens. They must be fluent in the language of finance, market analysis, politics, design and more. They must be able to divine what is feasible and what is not. They must be effective communicators – able to write clearly, speak effectively, and convey ideas through images. Finally, planners must be diplomats, able to forge compromises among disparate groups. Drawing on all these skills, a planner must be able to create a compelling vision that is driven by the community.