Rules of the game

SimCity, urban planning, and the sustainability ideal

I think my favorite childhood computer game — after the MS-DOS days of dinosaur building and Tetris — was SimCity. I spent hours staring down at my two-dimensional landscape, laying out residential, commercial, and industrial zones, and power lines and roadways to connect it all. I battled crime with police stations and natural disasters with exorbitant reconstruction. And while I never did scrape up the allowance money to upgrade to the three-dimensional version of the game, SimCity Classic (which you can now play for free online) kept me blissfully entertained through my middle-school years.

In the tradition of educational games, SimCity also taught me some basic lessons about city planning. Through trial and error, I picked up three critical facts: One, no one wants to live near commercial or industrial zones. Two, residential lots sell fastest when located far from the city and along bodies of water. Three, people actually hate traffic more than taxes, so make sure roads are everywhere!

I sorted through potential landscapes for island locales or plots with multiple of rivers, located my power plants far to the interior, and peppered my coastlines with residential areas. Well back from the desirable waterfront, I arrayed grids of industrial zones, clumping commerce together at the edges. Highways spanned the miles between citizens’ homes and work, and my residents constructed high-rise towers and orderly shopping malls to their hearts’ content.

At my computer screen in the late 1990s, I readily absorbed the 1960s urban planning dream: a car-happy city with futuristic towers soaring over green lawns bordered by highways. Crime was down, approval ratings were up, and all my suburban homes were full. And, because I’d spent a happy childhood in suburbia myself, rarely venturing into the city and using a car for even the most mundane of errands, it never occurred to me that another layout might be more ideal.

Yet decades earlier — in fact, almost 30 years before SimCity transformed computer gaming — a New York City woman named Jane Jacobs had already transformed the fundamental design concepts that SimCity and my suburban upbringing trained me to espouse.

Ever heard of Jane Jacobs? If you have, you probably know she revolutionized urban planning through grass-roots citizens’ initiatives and her writing (see “The Death and life of Great American Cities,” for example). If you haven’t, then you’re just about where I was four years ago, on an urban ecology field trip in college, walking down an eerily still suburban street on a Monday afternoon.

Jane Jacobs was, first, a keen observer. She watched the city streets around her and noted what made the most vibrant communities function: mixture. Imagine a busy city street. Along the sidewalk, coffee shops and delicatessens serve as meeting places for neighbors and passersby while also bringing commerce into the area. Families populate upstairs apartments, and children play in nearby local parks. Short blocks and narrow streets promote walking, not cars. People exchange smiles and greetings on the streets when walking to work or running errands. The community is self-policing: Heads always poke out windows at the sound of a commotion because people know and care about their neighbors. And, with diverse uses ­— commercial and residential — someone is always “home”.

Contrast that with SimCity suburbia. If not for the meticulous landscaping, walking through a modern-day suburb would be like walking through a ghost town. These are the bedrooms of America: stately McMansions occupied by power couples and a child or two, miles from multi-story office buildings, day-care centers, and retirement homes. The fabric of society is fragmented into scraps of far-flung infrastructure, and our sense of community is fractured with it. In our marriage to cars and, ostensibly, freedom, we’ve fled our cities and built huge highways where our homes once were.

Yet thanks to the efforts of Jacobs (who forty years ago battled to stop New York from turning into a Los Angeles-esque maze of traffic and exit ramps) and others, we still have cities like our own Boston, where your legs and public transportation can get you everywhere you want to go.

Of course, city living isn’t for everyone. Personally, I need to escape to the outdoors every few months or risk my sanity in the concrete jungle. But when I come back to within walking distance of a grocery store and live music, I gladly hang up my car keys and revel in the press of humanity around me.

Fortuitously, it turns out that thriving city communities are also good for the environment. Short blocks and short walks mean less vehicular temptation and less CO2 (and other pollutant) emissions from burning fossil fuels. (Plus, city dwellers lead more active lifestyles, and thus tend to be slimmer and healthier.) And, while there is an energy cost to transporting goods into cities, it isn’t followed by intensive sub-distribution in suburbia.

Cities generally promote high-density living, which means each person requires less infrastructure and less energy to maintain it (imagine the electric bill for cooling a five-bedroom colossus compared to a small but elegant city apartment). Additionally, because the same number of people live on less land, more open space is left over for agriculture, recreation, and conservation.

To top it off, the mixed-use approach Jane Jacobs espoused to promote strong community ties parallels the multi-use “green” buildings that city planners now advocate. Different users take advantage of the space at different times, smoothing a building’s energy draw over the course of a day and making efficient use of available infrastructure. It’s a level of elegant heterogeneity impossible in SimCity.

Of course, in spite of its shortcomings, SimCity remains a compelling and sometimes useful game. Many of the city management issues it addresses — crime, pollution, tax rates — are reasonable simulations and useful teaching tools. Newer editions, I’m told, also allow for green approaches and incorporate the subtlety of Jane Jacobs’ commentary on healthy city communities.

Still, it’s worth keeping tabs on what our upbringing teaches us — both the direct and obvious things, and the subtle, underlying assumptions about life in the suburbs and winning strategies. It’s the basic, unexamined details that we must re-evaluate if we intend to make societal progress towards sustainability. Because that goal is no game.

Holly Moeller is a graduate student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Biological Oceanography. She welcomes reader feedback at hollyvm@mit.edu. “Seeing Green” runs on alternate Tuesdays.