how sim city greenwashes parking

 Here's a shot of an edge city from the new SimCity. Notice what's missing?

2 WATC close up
  (Source: BLDGBLOG)

From Geoff Manaugh's interview of the new SimCity's designer, Stone Librande:

Geoff Manaugh: While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?

Librande: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots. 

Manaugh: You would be making SimParkingLot, rather than SimCity.

Librande: [laughs] Exactly. So what we do in the game is that we just imagine they are underground. We do have parking lots in the game, and we do try to scale them—so, if you have a little grocery store, we’ll put six or seven parking spots on the side, and, if you have a big convention center or a big pro stadium, they’ll have what seem like really big lots—but they’re nowhere near what a real grocery store or pro stadium would have. We had to do the best we could do and still make the game look attractive. 

In other words:  SimCity deliberately misleads players about parking because if they showed parking in its true dimensions, it might make dysfunctional land use patterns look (and act) dysfunctional.  

And we can't have that.  

Sim City contains other examples where the real math underlying how cities work is distorted to appeal to supposedly prevailing prejudices, but few are as egregious as this one.  Practically any working urban planner will tell you that managing parking, without a SimCity tooth fairy that builds it for free underground, is a dominant factor in urban form and perhaps the biggest single obstacle to denser and more sustainable forms of development.  Change that assumption, as SimCity does, and you're working in fairyland.

And it's refreshing to hear the designer confess that the distortion is intentional — a lie rather than a confusion.  

Game makers can say it's only a game, just as movies that glorify violence are only movies.  But like movies, seemingly realistic and immersive simulation games teach people to misunderstand how the world works in a way that makes them less effective in dealing with the world.  Of course, SimCity has been doing this  – with an explicitly anti-urban bias that belies its name — since the beginning.

16 Responses to how sim city greenwashes parking

  1. Morganwick May 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Apparently they didn’t make any measurements of actual real-world cities, otherwise they might have found a saner model for them to present in the game and might have changed people’s views on cities and suburbia, including their own.

  2. Daniel Howard May 9, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    I for one wouldn’t mind the opportunity to play a city simulator game with accurately-scaled parking. 🙂

  3. EN57 May 9, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    It’s a game, ….game! …(sigh) ….GAME!
    Actual, real-life city planners muck around with this to ESCAPE from reality.
    Yes it is a fairyland. Don’t know where the idea came from that this is, or should be, an educational tool; or that it has political significance (“greenwash”?). Unsure where you’re coming from on this, Jarrett.

  4. Dave May 10, 2013 at 12:11 am #

    EN57, games, like movies, TV or other interactions, shape and influence our thinking.
    In this case, it distorts the effects of car-based urbanisation and makes players think automobile based transport is far more benign than the reality. Yes, it’s a game – but it’s a simulation game, not a purely fictional one, and will be seen as ‘educational’ as well as fun or a diversion.
    I think it’s pretty clear where Jarrett is coming from.

  5. Eric Orozco May 10, 2013 at 5:54 am #

    Yep. No one told me going into urban design that half my life was going to be designing parking lots. This is why transit oriented development (where the parking mins are typically flipped to parking maximums) is a GREAT – if not our only – opportunity to design affordable housing development urbanistically.
    This land use factor is the primary barrier to building densely. As soon as you require a parking structure to pull your development off, you’ve just killed any element of affordability (you definitely tank it putting it underground). So you always need to then subsidize the project somehow if you want urbanism. Then when you find, say, tax credits for the project, it doesn’t help when you’re sacked with the state requirement to provide 1.5 parking spaces per dwelling unit. The net effect is that you simply can’t build above 14 dwelling units per gross acre, at least for affordable housing. Above that you have to heavily subsidize parking.
    What I would like to see is an analysis mapping areas in the city where transit service is of sufficient quality to argue for lifting or dramatically loosening parking minimums. What you would have then is a map of the city where you can nurture urbanism and encourage affordable housing development.

  6. Murph May 10, 2013 at 6:24 am #

    @EN57 — It may be a “game”, but the very name of the game poses it as a “simulation”, thus ostensibly being linked as closely as reasonable to real life analogues. Look to the field of flight simulator computer games, which, although “games”, have spent decades honing the verisimilitude of the experience.
    The interview linked — as with nearly all press on the new SimCity — emphasizes the amount of real-world research the designer put into it: a library of urban planning texts, documentaries on urbanization, poring over google maps and bing to understand the “real life” patterns.
    If you present a *simulation* and gush over the amount of research put in to reflecting the real world subject matter, can you really turn around and brush off all criticism as, “But, hey, it’s just a ‘game’, man.”

  7. Roger May 10, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    The best walkable city simulator remains Caesar III. Streets are definitely pedestrian-friendly, and the insulae do not even have chariot parking minimums.

  8. EN57 May 10, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    It is just a game.
    But it says “sim” on the box…
    I guess there might be some city planning departments somewhere out there, using this to model outcomes for their real-life cities, also making contingencies for UFO or Godzilla attacks.
    Like the sound of Ceasar III – might be fun.

  9. Cascadian May 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    I guess developing two different city models would be too much overhead, but otherwise I would suggest them adding a realism mode as an option in offline mode (obviously you couldn’t use different models on the shared servers). Or maybe open up the APIs so that third-parties could build a mod.
    I would love to have a realistic simulator built by a top-tier game company.

  10. Jonah May 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    And flight simulator doesn’t require you to spend years getting a pilot’s license. Such lies!

  11. Miles Bader May 11, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

    Actually the first thing I noticed about that screen shot was the enormous roads… It looks pretty much like the mega-depressing silicon-valley model of development. From what I’ve read in various reviews, the new simcity actually enforces this too, linking road-size to development.
    And that’s without parking lots…
    Did the developers do that intentionally, or are they simply so entrenched in the suburban-American mindset that nothing else occurred to them? TT

  12. Tsuyoshi May 11, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    I remember going through incredible contortions trying to build a city in Sim City 2000 with no cars. Although such carless cities exist in the real world, your zoned/electrified/watered land will stay undeveloped unless it’s near a road in that stupid game.
    And it’s really hard to provide surface rail when the train station has to be so big, it crowds out the roads that are required for development.
    It should be called Sim Suburb.

  13. Steve May 11, 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    A video game isn’t 100% realistic when compared to the real world? Light your torches, I’m gonna burn this mother down and pee-pee on the ashes.

  14. Joe Busman May 16, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    On a positive note, many SimCity players may be young and interested in city planning or become city planning, and if they are used to beautiful cities without large parking lots and garages, then they would be inclined to design cities that match their expectations and minimize parking lots and garages. Also, this is a game and it’s designed to be pleasing, so it goes to show you that a pleasing city lacks parking lots and garages, just as a pleasing avatar lacks facial defects and scars. The virtual world points to what people want not what people must endure in their daily real lives. So it’s a good thing that a beautiful SimCity magically makes ugly parking lots disappear just as avatar programs magically makes physical shortcomings disappear in people.

  15. Wontonotnow October 11, 2014 at 7:33 am #

    Omitting parking points out an issue. Underground is probably prohibitively expensive. In general if you ask a citizen of the urban world what pisses them off the most, it might be traffic, or parking, or similar where someone is essentially transporting themselves from one location to another and needs a spot to park. The answer is public transport. Park outside the vicinity then take a tram/subway etc to get to the destination. This answer pisses people off because they want to drive with their own car, find the closest spot to the front door then drive away. As far as I know there is no urban solution to this without infuriating traffic and a bunch of cranky people. Park&ride might be a solution they have to put up with. SimCity could add a variable in the game showing lack of parking as an issue needing to be addressed, but we here in RL haven’t figured that one out yet ourselves yet.

  16. Tim February 12, 2016 at 11:31 am #

    Honestly, Cities: Skyline is a better building sim anyways. No online server based mode.