Seven Reasons Why Planners Should Learn to Code

12 April 2017

Programming was not taught in my town planning degree but would have been a pretty useful tool in many of my subsequent planning jobs, so I did a master's degree and learnt how. Here are seven reasons I can think of for why more town planners should learn to code.

1. It's easy

Computer code is just a series of written commands that a computer can interpret to perform various tasks, as an alternative to clicking buttons in an existing piece of software. The commands and syntax required for each programming language are well documented and freely accessible. A lot of useful programming uses simple 'if (a value is true) then (do something)' logic that requires no more than school-age mathematics to understand.

2. Programmers and town planners have a similar approach to problem solving

Planners are skilled in navigating regulatory and administrative frameworks, whether checking the legislated timeframes required for community consultation on a new plan or if their client’s development project meets stated density thresholds. This kind of 'true/false' problem solving process is like the programmers' job of breaking down a task down into coded commands for a computer to follow.

3. Computer code can automate many planning tasks currently performed manually

Given that navigating regulatory and administrative requirements involves a similar process to writing computer code, computer code can be written to perform many of these tasks automatically. For example, planners could use their time much more efficiently if site-relevant information was compiled automatically for a given location, cutting out the need for manual data entry. This task is technically easy but requires a change to long held systems. It is better for planners to be involved in designing the systems than to be caught off-guard by inevitable change.

4. Town planners (like the rest of the world) increasingly rely on computers to do their job

Town planners increasingly rely on computers and digital systems to do their jobs. These systems not only assist with simple administrative tasks, but are being used to build ever more intricate and realistic models of cities, and forecasts for their development. Planners should be involved in building these models, and make sure they can use them whilst recognizing where they don’t reflect the real world.

5. Flexibility in performing analytical tasks for policy development

The ability to code will always provide more flexibility than even the most advanced piece of software. Programming skills would allow planners to perform their own big-data analysis, construct digital city models and make forecasts for policy development, rather than relying solely on pre-made tools developed outside the profession.

6. Rise of digital communication

Similar to providing flexibility to undertake analysis for policy development, the ability to write code for your own website grants complete control of layout, and interactive maps and graphics. This is a valuable and relevant skill for the communication of plans and policies as traditional paper reports become obsolete.

7. Better outcomes for smart cities

Planners have a lot to offer, with skills in balancing multidisciplinary and community perspectives to provide a rounded view on smart city development. More planners with a basic understanding of programming will only improve communication with the IT industry and contribute to better outcomes in practice.

Can you think of any more reasons?

I recently heard from a friend working in Development Assessment at the Singapore Government that he is being given courses in GIS and how to program in R. Have you heard of any other planning organizations or departments making similar attempts to upskill their staff in programming?

Let me know by Twitter @ClaireCities!

Website currently under development, more features to be added over time