3 Skills You Need to Succeed as an Environmental Planner

Angela Calderaro, CDFW, scans the treeline during a yellow-billed cuckoo workshop in Reno, Nevada. (Photo Credit: Lily Douglas,
Angela Calderaro, CDFW, scans the treeline during a yellow-billed cuckoo workshop in Reno, Nevada. (Photo Credit: Lily Douglas, CDFW)

If you’re thinking about getting a job in the environmental planning field, there’s good news. Sacramento is one of the top 10 metropolitan areas in the nation for hiring in this occupation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With most state agencies headquartered in the capital, and dozens of consulting firms operating in the greater Sacramento region, environmental planners have a variety of employment opportunities in both the public and private sectors.

What does an environmental planner do? A lot, actually.

In a nutshell, they analyze building projects — in housing and transportation, for example — for their potential impact on the environment. Then they seek ways to mitigate those impacts, while following state and federal environmental regulations and procedures. The role of an environmental planner will vary depending on experience and education, but those working in the field tend to either become project managers, technical specialists (such as plant biologists, water quality experts or cultural historians), or something in between.

If you’re deciding on a major, and are interested in a career in environmental planning, majoring in an environmental science or other science-related subject doesn’t hurt — and can be a requirement for certain positions. But it’s not mandatory. More important than the degree you hold is having the right skill set to not only land a job in environmental planning, but also to excel.

Here are three skills every environmental planner needs to be successful, according to four UC Davis graduates who work in the field.

1. Writing

Andrew Fulks, Putah Creek Manager with Resource Management and Planning at UC Davis, shows the restoration being done at Russell Ranch. (Rachel Van Blankenship/UC Davis
Andrew Fulks, Putah Creek Manager with Resource Management and Planning at UC Davis, shows the restoration being done at Russell Ranch. (Rachel Van Blankenship/UC Davis)

Want to learn more?

Consider UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education’s Land Use and Environmental Planning Certificate Program.

  • Taught by experts who work in the industry, these Sacramento-based courses give students practical skills and information that can be applied in their job the next day
  • Students have unique networking opportunities as they learn from and with fellow planning professionals.

Environmental planners spend a lot of time at the keyboard documenting their findings, writing up analyses and communicating with coworkers and clients. Knowing how to write well is essential for anyone in this occupation.

“Being a good, thorough, accurate and consistent writer is quite important,” said Jessica Mitchell (B.S., Environmental Science, 2005), an associate environmental planner for Ascent Environmental. “I provide technical analyses for a variety of topics and resources, and preparing analysis that is clear, grammatically correct and logical is key.”

But knowing how to write a good report is only half of the equation, according to Michelle Tovar (B.S., Animal Sciences, 2004), a principal biologist for Stantec Consulting Services, Inc. As the head of all biological services for a region spanning from Alaska to Fresno, Tovar believes in the importance of knowing how to write professionally in a variety of formats when you don’t always get to interact with colleagues and clients face-to-face.

If you’re in college or a recent graduate, you’re probably no stranger to writing reports, but attaining a professional tone and quality to your prose takes persistence. “Practice on a variety of documents,” suggested Tovar. “Technical papers, email etiquette, grants, résumés and blogs. Anything that will get you variable [writing] experience.”

You can also get training on how to write effective environmental documents through professional associations like the American Planning Association (APA) or through one-day training courses offered through UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education.

2. Regulatory knowledge

An environmental planner conducts water sampling.
“An environmental planner conducts water sampling."  (Todd Gordon)

CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), CWA (Clean Water Act).

These are just a few examples of an entire alphabet soup of regulations and guidelines environmental planners need to know in order to be successful in this industry.

“I first had to learn the technical aspects of land use and environmental planning – the history, the theory, the practical application,” said Brian Grattidge (B.A., International Relations, 1989), a senior specialist who manages projects, including regulatory compliance, for the consulting firm Dudek. “Then I had to learn a lot of regulatory code – particularly as an environmental planner in California.”

Mitchell also agreed that knowing environmental code is key to her job. “Knowledge of CEQA, NEPA and TRPA [Tahoe Regional Planning Agency] regulations to the level where I can cite specific sections of the regulations is important,” she said.

And if knowing governmental regulations is important in the private sector, it’s even more so when working for a public agency that enforces the rules. This was the case for Angela Calderaro (B.S., Environmental Biology and Management, 2005), a former senior environmental specialist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. (She now works for the California Department of State Parks.)

“I reviewed, analyzed and investigated environmental crimes involving Fish and Game Code,” Calderaro said. And as such, the top skill she identified for succeeding in her field is “knowing the ins and outs of environmental laws and regulations.”

If you took courses related to environmental planning in college, then you probably have some familiarity with relevant regulations. But for those who wish to succeed in this profession, the education is ongoing.

“I relied heavily on UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education and courses sponsored by professional organizations to supplement my on-the-job training,” said Grattidge. “I was also lucky to work for some amazing planners early in my career. Mentoring is a concept that the planning profession still embraces.”

3. Negotiation and conflict resolution

Angela Calderaro smiles and holds a falcon.
Angela Calderaro, CDFW, holds an American Kestrel while conducting a nest box survey in Merced County. (Photo Credit: Tanya Sheya, CDFW)

Development of interpersonal skills is a life-long pursuit, and one that is crucial in any professional setting. For environmental planners it is especially important given the amount of collaboration and negotiation required in their field.

This was a reality that Tovar discovered as she progressed in her career.

“I was not prepared for how much relationship building and negotiation I would be doing,” she said.  “If I had the time, I would have taken courses that aided in debate and conflict resolution. I really think these are valuable tools.” 

Calderaro also found having good interpersonal skills, specifically negotiation, to be key — not only in day-to-day tasks, but also in professional advancement.

“This is a mixture of hard and soft skills, including being able to read people,” she said. “Almost everything is negotiable. There are many tactics that can be employed and it’s important to understand them for career upward mobility and to get the job done.”

Classes are available that can teach you essential skills for negotiation, facilitating group discussion and conflict resolution. But there are also plenty of lessons life will throw at you — both inside and outside of your job — that will help you become a better problem-solver and negotiator.

“Pay attention the next time you try and resolve a conflict with a friend or family member,” Tovar said. “Sometimes [you have to] stop talking and let the other person communicate. Letting someone say what they need to, without interruption, may get you what you need in the end. But don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she added. “Always ask for clarification if you need it. If you walk away with questions, you are only doing yourself a disservice.”

With a number of career-relevant majors to choose from, UC Davis is a great choice for anyone looking to work in environmental planning.

“I really do feel that my education at UC Davis, and the specific types of classes I took in my major, prepared me as well as possible for a career in environmental planning,” said Mitchell. But, no matter where or what you study, the important thing is to show the aptitude to learn and grow in your profession.

“I know it’s a cliché, but at UC Davis I learned how to learn,” said Grattidge. “I am certainly not doing what I thought I would be doing when I got that shiny degree. However, I had the training to think critically and learn the specifics of my career.”

Phil Wade is a senior editor for UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education’s Planning and Sustainability Program. Prior to joining UC Davis, he worked for over a decade in the environmental planning industry.

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