APA-NYM Member Shannon Hill Shares Her Experience Prepping for the AICP Exam

Obtaining the AICP certification is a prestigious and rewarding accomplishment, but preparing for the exam can seem a 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 her reflections on how planning in the US differs 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 decided to study. The American Planning Association’s (APA) American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) would complement my Australian-based education and experience. It suited our family schedule well, could easily be added to my CV, and would provide background for any job in the United States.

The AICP is the APA’s professional institute and provides the only nationwide independent verification of a planner’s qualifications. Certified planners pledge to uphold high standards of practice, ethics, and professional conduct, as well as to keep their skills sharp and up-to-date by continuously pursuing advanced professional education.

I applied for and was accepted to take the AICP exam in November. With neither a background in American planning, politics, law, or governmental system, nor workmates around who had taken the exam before and could share a recommended reading list, I was unsure of how I would do. I smashed it and managed a 67 out of 75 (89%)!

Now that I have received my certification from the APA, I can reflect upon what I learned and share 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 geared to those with managerial level experience. The exam contains 170 questions, of which 150 are graded. These questions are weighted differently based on difficulty. To pass the exam, candidates must receive a score of 55 or higher or answer approximately 75% of the questions correctly. The exam must be completed in three and a half hours under strict 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, I thought that the exam would be easy apart from its law component. Digging deeper into each of the exam’s subject areas, however, I realized that I had a lot of studying to do. Planners in the US are routinely involved in the budgetary process, statistical research, surveying methods, fiscal impact assessments, and a broader range of community engagement and spatial planning than I was accustomed to.

Fortunately, multiple ( and often free) resources were available to help me prepare. These included policy guides, Planning Advisory Service reports, memos from the APA, exam lessons and online resources from individual APA State Chapters, and the generous interlibrary loan service of the New York Public Library. The depth of information available through 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

Preparing for the exam was indeed a rigorous process. I had the benefit of having a good amount of time to devote to studying that I did not need to fit in around a work schedule. However, I was starting from further back than most in my AICP exam cohort who were more familiar with American planning principles.

My key takeaways are:

  1. Communities get involved in amazing ways. I read countless examples of community led planning which were fascinating and inspiring. I suspect that this is a key cultural difference between the US and Australia, where the latter tends to be more apathetic. It may also spring from historical social and environmental injustices that have occurred in America. People have risen up in the US and taken charge, supported by different streams of planning theory (i.e. Advocacy Planning, Equity Planning). Today, they are supported by their representatives as well as planners. While I’m not suggesting planning is perfect in the US, I think that planning generally derives a lot more from community driven processes than in Australia.
  2. The planner’s role is much more than just preparing a strategic plan or approving a planning permit. In the US, the planner is an advocate for the public interest, the net benefit, and the greater good. Planners are the mediators and the facilitators, using their broad skill-set to bring together community members to listen, learn, and act.
  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, form-based codes are very prescriptive to ensure the appropriate built form outcomes. This is similar to an urban design framework, but taking the prescriptions to the next level. The predictability of these codes can be beneficial for the developer as well as the community alike and worth considering in key sites and locations.
  4. Floor Area Ratio (FAR) can create mutually favorable results. FAR appears to have considerable merit in setting the maximum densities allowable on a site but within a framework designed and developed by the owner/developer. The ability to ‘trade’ for higher building heights and density in exchange for affordable housing, greater protection of amenity and light, and provision of new public spaces appears to create mutual benefits.
  5. Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) can support the interests of multiple groups. TDR can transfer development rights away from an area needing protection (e.g. historic area) to an area promoting increased densities (i.e. downtown). TDR appears to allow a preferred planning policy to be achieved while reducing the impact upon an individual’s property rights and land value.
  6. Laws are framed around the protection of private property rights. In this ‘bundle of sticks’ concept, each stick represents a right. If you take away a right through a zoning amendment— either without just compensation or if it is not for a superior governmental right/use —you may be liable for a ‘taking’. This is a foreign concept in Australia, but a vital one in the US where the Constitution and legal precedents set the scene.
  7. The US planner can freely access an impressive array of resources and statistics to research just about any project imaginable. Data can be used to explore, produce and justify policies at a level I haven’t seen in Australia. Often, this data is locally sourced by working with local community groups and advocates.
  8. Planners often manage a project through implementation. The role of planners in the US includes budget setting, in conjunction with the rolling Capital Improvement Plan and yearly Capital Improvement Budget. Whilst I wasn’t particularly keen on learning different budgeting methods, it is refreshing that planners see a project through to implementation, rather than handing it over to someone else (normally an engineer) or putting it on a bookshelf. The community often drives the implementation with the planner as the facilitator.
  9. The gamut of spatial planning in the US is impressive. The levels of planning, including multi-state or multi-jurisdictional, are alive and well, as are its applications. These range from tackling catchment, coastal, hazard mitigation and environmental-based issues.
  10. The US has a rich planning history. I had little understanding of garden suburbs, new towns, and garden cities in America and certainly little historical context for them. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Radburn, New Jersey and Forest Hills, Queens, as well as 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.

Finally, I developed a love of American planning textbooks, as well as planning and design books in general. These are plentiful and I’m stocking up.

Final thoughts

I’m very pleased with my achievement. I see my AICP certification as much more than just filling a gap in my CV. Studying for and completing my exam will shape my future career upon returning to Australia. It has influenced my thinking, particularly regarding community-driven planning — an area where I think Australians tend to be much more top-down than bottom-up. The experience 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 is an area that I’m interested in exploring further.

Most importantly, studying for the AICP restored my faith in the importance of a planner’s particular ability to achieve outcomes. Being a planner requires more than a computer drawn plan. The American planner’s role appears to be taken much more seriously than what I had encountered in Australia. It is respected and used in a variety of ways that would not be considered back home. The acts of planning, policy development, and ultimately implementation are considered a specialized role that can only be undertaken with the appropriate education and experience. This has elevated and given importance to my profession, whereas my previous experiences in Australia had made my job seem unnecessary, undervalued, and replicable by a surveyor, architect, or engineer.

In conclusion, I will share my favorite passage from the green planning bible, ‘The Practice of Local Government Planning,’ which sums up planning in one 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.