Playing SimCity, becoming an urban planner

Building a city on a computer screen led to a future career for some SimCity players:

Thirty years ago, Maxis released “SimCity” for Mac and Amiga. It was succeeded by “SimCity 2000” in 1993, “SimCity 3000” in 1999, “SimCity 4” in 2003, a version for the Nintendo DS in 2007, “SimCity: BuildIt” in 2013 and an app launched in 2014…

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

“I used to draw maps of cities for fun. I had no idea it was an actual career,” said Nicole Payne, now a program official for the National Assn. of City Transportation Officials in New York City. When she was 10, a librarian saw her drawings and told her there was a video game she should try…

In more than a dozen interviews for this article, people who went from “SimCity” enthusiasts to professional planners talked about what they liked about the game: The way you can visualize how a single change affects a whole city. The ability to see how transit, livability and the economy are all connected. The fact that no one likes to live near a landfill.

This could be my story too: I enjoyed drawing cities as a kid, reading about cities, and visiting Chicago. I discovered SimCity during elementary school, playing for the first time on a green monochrome monitor. It opened up new possibilities, particularly as the game evolved. I spent endless hours creating cities and, like some of the people interviewed in this story, trying to make them pristine as well as based around different principles. We played Simcity as enrichment time in middle school and I probably trailed off in playing by early high school when I was more taken by Civilization II and franchise mode of sports games. All of that SimCity playing did push me to think about urban planning and serving in local government.

At the same time, as this article notes, SimCity likely shaped how I thought cities worked. SimCity is not neutral in its planning philosophy. At the least, it presented the idea that a planner from above could shape everything, even down to the terrain. The speed at which it could happen was also impressive: a mouse click could add residences or take them away while the game speed could be paused or sped to impressive speeds (usually to add money to the coffers if one was not playing with the cheat codes). Cities and communities do not work this way; even powerful leaders usually need at least a team of elites to get things done and significant urban projects often take a long time.

The urban theory behind SimCity

In constructing the game SimCity, Will Wright worked with the ideas of James Forrester:

Looking to understand how real cities worked, Wright came across a 1969 book by Jay Forrester called Urban Dynamics. Forrester was an electrical engineer who had launched a second career as an expert on computer simulation; Urban Dynamics deployed his simulation methodology to offer a controversial theory of how cities grew and declined. Wright used Forrester’s theories to transform the cities he was designing in his level editor from static maps of buildings and roads into vibrant models of a growing metropolis. Eventually, Wright became convinced that his “guinea-pig city” was an entertaining, open-ended video game. Released in 1989, the game became wildly popular, selling millions of copies, winning dozens of awards, and spawning an entire franchise of successors and dozens of imitators. It was called SimCity

Largely forgotten now, Jay Forrester’s Urban Dynamics put forth the controversial claim that the overwhelming majority of American urban policy was not only misguided but that these policies aggravated the very problems that they were intended to solve. In place of Great Society-style welfare programs, Forrester argued that cities should take a less interventionist approach to the problems of urban poverty and blight, and instead encourage revitalization indirectly through incentives for businesses and for the professional class. Forrester’s message proved popular among conservative and libertarian writers, Nixon Administration officials, and other critics of the Great Society for its hands-off approach to urban policy. This outlook, supposedly backed up by computer models, remains highly influential among establishment pundits and policymakers today…

Forrester spent months tinkering with this model, tested and corrected it for errors, and ran a “hundred or more system experiments to explore the effects of various policies on the revival of a city that has aged into economic decline.” Six months after beginning the project, and over 2000 pages of teletype printouts later, Forrester declared that he had reduced the problems of the city to a series of 150 equations and 200 parameters…

Forrester thought that the basic problem of urban planning—and making social policy in general—was that “the human mind is not adapted to interpreting how social systems behave.” In a paper serialized in two early issues of Reason, the libertarian magazine founded in 1968, Forrester argued that for most of human history, people have only needed to understand basic cause-and-effect relationships, but that our social systems are governed by complex processes that unfold over long periods of time. He claimed that our “mental models,” the cognitive maps we have of the world, are ill-suited to help us navigate the web of  interrelationships that make up the structure of our society.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. How many people dream that cities could be reduced to equations and parameters? Cities are both fascinating and frustrating because they are so complex. And the quest to find overarching rules governing urban life continues – see the work of Geoffrey West as an example.
  2. Figuring out when more government intervention is helpful or not is a difficult task, particularly when it comes to complex cities. Housing is an area I have written about before: free markets do not bring about fair results and the federal government has promoted one kind of housing, single-family homes, over others for decades.
  3. This is a reminder that game users can learn about how the world works – they are not just mindless entertainment – but they also do so under the conditions or terms set up by the designer. Cities are indeed complex and SimCity presents them in one particular way. All games have a logic to them and this may or may not match reality. How much theory do we imbibe on a daily basis through different activities? At the least, we are forming our own individual theoretical explanations of how we think society operates.

Teaching kids about Chicago’s Deep Tunnel project

Kids should know about one of the largest civil engineering projects in the world: the Deep Tunnel project in and around Chicago.


This is from the Riverworks exhibit at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. While some of the pieces of the exhibit failed to work the day we visited, I think I could see the purpose of the The Deep Tunnel exhibit: the floodwaters would be diverted away from the city.

The concept may appear simple and explainable to kids but the execution in real life is not. The exhibit suggests the flooding the past is now alleviated by Deep Tunnel. Yet, the problems are likely to go on in a region that continues to expand and change. Remediating water and flooding issues is a very difficult task compared to altering development at the beginning.

It is interesting to think how else this engineering feat could be presented to children. I could imagine a scaled model that kids could walk through to help give them a sense of the size of the sewers needed as well as the size of some of the water reservoirs. Deep Tunnel is not intended for minor amounts of water; this is supposed to help protect millions of people on a fairly regular basis. Communicating the sheer size could fascinate kids. Or, perhaps some sort of computer game where kids play the role of an engineer or expert as they make choices about where to divert water. Come to think of it, where is this version of Simcity or Roller Coaster Tycoon – “Infrastructure Builder” or “Sewer Wars” or something catchier.

Argument: regionalism = “play[ing] Sim City with residents’ lives”

One critic charges new regional plans in Minneapolis-St. Paul threatens a democratic way of life:

Here in the Twin Cities, a handful of unelected bureaucrats are gearing up to impose their vision of the ideal society on the nearly three million residents of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region. According to the urban planners on the city’s Metropolitan Council, far too many people live in single family homes, have neighbors with similar incomes and skin color, and contribute to climate change by driving to work. They intend to change all that with a 30-year master plan called “Thrive MSP 2040.”…

While minority residents have been streaming into the Twin Cities’ suburbs for the past 15 years, the Met Council wants to make sure there is a proper race-and-income mix in each. Thus it recently mapped every census tract in the 2,800 square-mile, seven-county region by race, ethnicity and income. The purpose was to identify “racially concentrated areas of poverty” and “high opportunity clusters.” The next step is for the council to lay out what the region’s 186 municipalities must do to disperse poverty throughout the metro area…

The Thrive plan’s most radical element may be to evaluate all future development policies through the “lens” of climate change. Over time, this could give the council a license to dramatically remake the entire metro area…

Once implementation begins, however, Twin Cities residents will likely realize that Thrive MSP 2040’s centralized decision-making and Orwellian appeals to “equity” and “sustainability” are a serious threat to their democratic traditions of individual liberty and self-government. Let’s hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.

This is an argument several conservatives (another example here involving the UN) have made in recent years: the government wants to use urban planning as a means to control people’s lives, forcing them to live in denser areas with people they would not choose to live near. It violates property rights, individual liberty, local government, etc.

Here is an issue with these arguments: they tend to ignore the real issues present in metropolitan areas that involve both cities and suburbs. Adopting a free-market approach to planning, growth, and mobility leads to the outcomes we have today: ongoing residential segregation (both by race and class, affecting everything from school districts to health outcomes to location mismatches between employees and jobs), a lack of affordable housing, local governments that are numerous (and possibly inefficient), often can’t agree with each other and thereby hold up helpful projects or promote unhelpful competition (like a race for the bottom in tax breaks), transportation options that are expensive (whether maintaining a car or trying to make mass transit work in the suburbs), and a general defensive crouch of not wanting to deal with any problems outside of one’s immediate community. All of this reinforces existing inequalities in society: those with resources can afford nicer communities while those with less live in places where it is more difficult to move up.

Is there some middle ground here? To be honest, government is already heavily involved in local and regional decisions and conservatives probably like some of this (such as zoning). And some of the regional options allow for higher levels of efficiency by leveraging certain resources in effective ways. Maybe the real issue is that few residents of urban areas – whether conservative or liberal – want to live near public housing or affordable housing and/or want to retain the right to use their money to move to a more advantageous location should something not work out (like the neighbors).

As a final note, earlier versions of SimCity didn’t allow much control over the lives of individual residents. Similarly, the game was geared toward more urban environments as sprawling communities were more costly and didn’t provide the kind of density that would lead to better things.

SimCity set path for games about systems, not about characters

In contrast to video games about characters, SimCity made the gameplay about the complex system at work in cities:

Such was the payload of SimCity: not a game about people, even though its residents, the Sims, would later get their own spin-off. Nor is it a game about particular cities, for it is difficult to recreate one with the game’s brittle, indirect tools. Rather, SimCity is a game about urban societies, about the relationship between land value, pollution, industry, taxation, growth, and other factors. It’s not really a simulation, despite its name, nor is it an educational game. Nobody would want a SimCity expert running their town’s urban planning office. But the game got us all to think about the relationships that make a city run, succeed, and decay, and in so doing to rise above our individual interests, even if only for a moment…

The best games model the systems in our world—or the ones of imagination—by means of systems running in software. Just as photography offers a way of seeing aspects of the world we often look past, game design becomes an exercise in operating that world, of manipulating the weird mechanisms that turn its gears when we’re not looking. The amplifying effect of natural disaster and global unrest on oil futures. The relationship between serving size consistency and profitability in an ice cream parlor. The relative unlikelihood of global influenza pandemic absent a perfect storm of rapid, transcontinental transmission.

And system dynamics are not just a feature of non-fictional games or serious games. The most popular abstract games seem to have much in common with titles like SimCity than they do with Super Mario. Tetris is a game about manipulating the mathematical abstractions of four orthogonally connected squares, known as tetrominoes, when subjected to gravity and time. Words With Friends is a game about arranging letters into valid words, given one’s own knowledge merged with the availability and willingness of one’s stable of friends. A game, it turns out, is a lens onto the sublime in the ordinary. An emulsion that captured behavior rather than light…

There’s another way to think about games. What if games’ role in representation and identity lies not in offering familiar characters for us to embody, but in helping wrest us from the temptation of personal identification entirely? What if the real fight against monocultural bias and blinkeredness does not involve the accelerated indulgence of identification, but the abdication of our own selfish, individual desires in the interest of participating in systems larger than ourselves? What if the thing games most have to show us is the higher-order domains to which we might belong, including families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, social systems, and even formal structures and patterns? What if replacing militarized male brutes with everyone’s favorite alternative identity just results in Balkanization rather than inclusion?

Fascinating argument. Could video games truly be a tool that help players move beyond individualism? At the same time, even a game about systems still can provide an individualized experience: SimCity players could spend hours by themselves crafting a city in their own image (and the game even provided some space for this with honorary statues and the like). Such games could be social – you could have various players interacting with each other either as leaders of different cities or even as leaders within the same city – but they generally were not.

This doesn’t have to stay at the level of argument. Why not run some tests or experiments to see how players of character-driven versus system-driven games compare on certain outcomes?

“Using a Real Life SimCity to Design a Massive Development”

As a massive SimCity fan, I find this use of predictive urban models intriguing:

596 acres, 50,000 residents, $4 billion dollars and even a 1,500-boat marina: Everything about the proposed Chicago Lakeside Development, developer Dan McCaffery’s massive micro-city being built at the former site of the U.S. Steel Southworks Plant, is on a different scale. It follows that the design process for this mixed-use project requires a different set of tools, in this case, LakeSim, an advanced computer modeling program. Developed as part of a collaboration between the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and McCaffery Interests, this program functions like a customized SimCity, analyzing and simulating weather, traffic patterns and energy usage to help architects and designers plan for a site that may eventually contain more than 500 buildings.

“A lot of the Big Data approaches tend to be statistical in nature, looking at past data,” says Argonne scientist Jonathan Ozik. “We’re modeling a complex system of interactive components, running the data forward, so what we end up having is your SimCity analogy, energy systems interacting, vehicles and people moving. What we’re doing here is using a complex systems approach to tackle the problem.”…

The challenge for planners is predicting how so many different systems and variables will interact. LakeSim gives them a framework to analyze these systems over long timelines and run millions of scenarios much quicker than past models — hours as opposed to days — asking “hundreds of questions at once,” according to Ozik. The program is a step forward from similar modeling software, especially valuable at a site that in most respects is being built from scratch.

This seems quite useful at this point but it will be necessary to look at this down the road once the site is developed. How much time did the model save? How accurate was the model? Did relying on such a model lead to negative outcomes? If this is a predictive model, it may be only as good as the outcome.

Interesting to note that the commenters at the bottom are wondering where all the people to live in this development are going to come from. I assume that demand is appropriately accounted for in the model?

Google wants to build cities and airports?

Google has its hands in many things but now it is planning to build cities?

Google’s seemingly limitless ambition has seen the company take on drones, self-driving cars and even the problem of aging, but the company’s founders have even grander plans – to build cities and airports.

A report from The Information (paywall) says the co-founder Larry Page has set up a ‘company within a company’ dubbed ‘Google 2.0’ that will look at the tech giant’s long-term future – presumably for when advertising revenue from search traffic (inevitably) dries up.

This could even include building “a model airport and city.” Page has argued that although rival billionaire Elon Musk might be in favour of a ‘hyperloop’ (a train concept that could travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes), the problem with long-range transport is not that planes are slow, but that airports are inefficient.

It might sound far-fetched, but Google’s executives are already building their own private air terminal at San Jose International Airport for $82 million to handle the eight private jets owned by Page and fellow co-founders Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt.

It would be fascinating to know how exactly Google would go about planning and building a city. What urban planning techniques would they adopt? Is building a city primarily a way to get more people to see their ads and use their products? At this point, if you Google “what is the best way to build a city,” the top search results focus on SimCity.

I’m sure this doesn’t ease the minds of those worried about the reach of tech companies – they don’t only want your devices and money, they think they have answers for everything…