The Hierarchy of Needs 

Have you ever seen Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’? It’s from the work of noted mid-20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow, and is usually visualized by a pyramid with 5 levels, like the one here. 

It summarizes Maslow’s theory regarding the list of human needs that lead to positive mental health. Essentially, he was interested in the underpinnings of, to coin a phrase reminiscent of our own slogan, “people that work”. He saw mental health as a pyramid of sorts, where a person’s needs start at the most basic – food, water, air, shelter – then ascend to safety and security, then belonging, then self-esteem, and finally self-actualization. The more the needs at the bottom of the pyramid are fulfilled, the easier it is to fulfill the needs above them. Conversely, unfulfilled needs at one level make achieving other needs at higher levels more difficult.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

With Maslow’s work in mind, it seems as though there is an equivalent for cities, a Hierarchy of City Needs? The work we do as city planners would certainly suggest as much. Our projects take us to communities around the country, each with their own story: large cities with congestion problems and small towns with too few services; well-off communities struggling to maintain affordability and towns barely hanging on to their fragile economy; cities looking for the right place to invest a new windfall and neighborhoods looking to build their one and only healthy food source. But for all their differences, these places are united in trying to address a pressing need, and the ability to address that need always seems to be intertwined with a host of other needs and priorities. Perhaps this is due to the same phenomenon that Maslow noted, where the level of success in fulfilling one set of needs influences the ability to meet another set of needs.  

The Hierarchy of City Needs  

So here is a proposal for what constitutes a Hierarchy of City Needs. 

Physiological Needs

Basic infrastructure (land, water, sewer, power, roads, a food source) and a tax base are the most fundamental city needs. This base layer comprises the bare necessities of a viable city: is there infrastructure in place for the daily function of its citizens, and is there a pool of money for maintaining that infrastructure. While most every place meets these needs, it’s not always a given, and when they’re not met it constitutes an emergency – look no further than what’s happening in Flint, Michigan for evidence of that.  

Safety and Security

Police and fire services are the most obvious component of this tier, but perception of safety also fits, which is just as often a matter of design as it is law enforcement. Additionally, either jobs or reliable access to jobs falls here, as financial security is a powerful driver of location decisions. Food security may be another topic that belongs here. Overall, both the Safety &Security and Physiological Needs levels should be thought of as necessary but not sufficient conditions of any city that works – without this solid foundation, the rest of your work to address a city’s needs will suffer. 

Love and Belonging

This is the level where a sense of community and connectivity are critical. Connectivity in this context is partly about having access to local and regional services, but it is also about a community’s social, community, and economic institutions – the organizations both formal and informal that connect, nurture, and invest in a city’s residents. Every planner knows that even the best plans fail without the leadership and hard work of local champions from the kinds of institutions mentioned here. As is often heard around planning circles, “Partnerships are key”, and this is where those partnerships play that key role. A city can reach its goals without a connected community, but it’s much more likely that it will fail. 

Hierarchy of City Needs


A city’s self-esteem is often reflected in its sense of place and in the level of investment in itself. Parks and open space, schools, public landmarks, private attractions, all are examples of ways in which cities show themselves to the world. Often, the things that create sense of place require significant investments of both time and money by public and private sector entities. And the success of these investments just as often lies in how those investments are cared for by the citizenry, meaning that without the ‘love and belonging’ tier in place, these investments can’t work – at least, not in the long run. While these elements may not be critical for the day-to-day survival of a community, they are vital for community success, as they help cities grow (or manage growth), attract new revenue, and take on larger import in their region.  


This is a stage where cities can successfully address some of the more elusive but crucial goals facing cities today: issues such as how to be socially responsible, environmentally sustainable, or universally equitable. These issues are so heavily dependent on the levels below them in the hierarchy that many times projects on topics like affordability or long-term sustainability end up focusing on strategies to address issues in other levels, like partnership building, local infrastructure investment, or multimodalism. Moreover, these self-actualization efforts are often costly, particularly in the short term, requiring strong ‘Love & Belonging’ and ‘Self-Esteem’ to weather the early days of these self-actualizing programs and projects. 

So you see that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can apply to cities. Like people, cities are complex and ever-changing things that try to balance daily needs with lofty goals. Findings ways to satisfy these interrelated needs and aspirations is ultimately a major part of what planning is all about. 

Applying the Hierarchy of City Needs 

Applying the Hierarchy of City Needs is easy to do, and we’re finding more and more ways in which it is applicable to planning work. One application could be that when next you’re faced with addressing a city’s need, either as a planner, stakeholder, or decision-maker, determine where the need falls in the hierarchy and ask yourself (and others) if the levels of need below it have been satisfied to the extent required to successfully address the need at hand. Another possible application would be to use the hierarchy in a visioning or comprehensive planning process to ensure that you’re addressing all layers of city needs as you plan your community’s future 

But perhaps it’s most useful as a reminder that whatever a community’s priorities and needs are, those priorities and needs are part of a larger fabric that rely on one another to succeed, and that when woven together carefully and thoughtfully they can create cities that work. 


Author’s Note: While this blog is an original work, any quick Google search will find examples of similar thought exercises on applying Maslow’s hierarchy to planning, including here and hereBut any and all similarities in our respective posts is entirely coincidental, I assure you.