planning games: “in praise of the urban sandbox”

Game from ferozco article Games may soon be the best way to build understanding of city planning and transport.  So argues an excellent article in Planning magazine by Jeff Ferzoco of New York's Regional Plan Association (my links):

At a recent talk at the American Museum of Natural History, Jane McGonigal, the Institute for the Future's director of Game Research and Design, noted that research from universities and the U.S. Army Mental Health Assessment Team show that the benefits of gaming lessen at about 21 hours in a week. … Her point is that gaming has major benefits — stress relief, strategic thinking, goal attainment — if kept within the 21-hour limit.

She isn't the only one to see the implications. The Serious Games Initiative, founded in 2002 at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., aims to "help usher in a new series of policy education, exploration, and management tools utilizing state of the artcomputer game designs, technologies, and development skills." One of its initiatives, Games for Change, runs an annual festival highlighting games — both electronic and physical — that encourage social change. Throughout the year, the initiative provides support for and development of new titles and helps potential developers navigate game making from concept to distribution. 

There is already a lot of interest in how we can use games for teaching. Those who design virtualworlds put a lot of emphasis on crafting the experience — and allowing others to change it…

In my work as a graphic designer for Regional Plan Association in New York City, I constantly think through concepts, illustrations, and designs. Ideas don't just come from thin air, and everything I experience influences what I make. Looking back, I can clearly identify instances when city-building games influenced my design work.  For instance, axonometric views: giant human hands placing houses on a row. These can be directly traced to a weekend I spent redesigning the suburbs of one of my virtual towns.  And I'm not alone. Many of the people around me have taken their design problems to these samearenas and come out with a slightly wider and more empathetic perspective.

Playing a simulation game is a bit like gardening. Just as air, soil, and water interact with seeds to bring a plant to life, simulated … cities can blossom and wilt, depending on your actions. You have to tend to the needs of the citizens, joining job centers and adding transit and roads to bring circulation to a dying center.  It's instant, satisfying, and educational. In fact, it's why I work where I do in planning. I could say that my career began the moment I opened up SimCity for the first time.

Or if that's too many words, see Jane McGonigal's enjoyable video.  Her basic thesis: "If we want to save the world, we need to spend more time playing computer games."

fictional city seeks reality check

Newport for blog
Did you draw maps of fictional cities when you were 8 years old?  If so, you and I are part of a near-invisible, uncounted minority. 

If that's you, I dare you not to be interested in this!  Even if you just enjoy maps of other cities, here's a chance to study a city you've never seen before.

For the transit planning course that I'm developing, I've created a fictional city that's designed to present a range of major transit issues, while also being an interesting place.  I considered using a real city, but in my experience, planning for a real city slides too quickly to details that obscure the big picture of how a good network works. 

My introduction to the fictional city is here:  Download Game Newport intro (.doc)

A rich set of map layers, created in Excel, is here:   Download Game data backsave  (.xls)

Both documents are covered by the assertion of copyright that covers all of this blog's material. 

I'd love feedback, especially about these questions:

  • Is the city realistic?  Does it contravene what you perceive to be "facts" of geology, hydrology, urban economics, bird psychology, or post-1800 urban history?
  • Have I omitted information that seems relevant to the basic task of designing a transit network?  Note that I'm not asking "have I omitted anything that might be interesting?"  The austere novelist and dominatrix who sells rare Asian herbs out of her Craftsman basement at 3315 W 43rd St while also being the invisible brains behind a top eco-fashion label is extremely interesting, but I only had a day to put this together.

Have fun!  The premiere of the transit planning course is in Surrey, British Columbia near Vancouver on June 9-10.  Last I checked there were a few places left.  Details here.


  • Please do not try to comment based only on the illustration above.  I'm getting many comments that indicate you've only looked at that image.  You would need to download the files and look at the whole thing.
  • Apologies to those who had trouble with the .docx and .xlsx versions; these old formats should be more widely compatible and convertible.
  • The newest version now has layers for income and existing rail infrastructure.

Finally, I'm surprised at early comments that I don't have enough freeways!  It's not a freeway dependent city, by choice.  (See the .doc file above for more on the freeway wars.)   But freeways that run only on the periphery and don't connect into the core are common enough in cities of this size class.  See:

  • Victoria, British Columbia, metro pop 330k.  Two small shreds of freeway, created only as traffic required.
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia, metro pop 372k.  Fragments of an outer ring freeway, nothing into the city.
  • Christchurch, New Zealand, metro pop 390k at least before February's earthquake.  One 5-km shred of freeway approaching from the north (Kaiapoi to Belfast), but it's really just an extended bridge.
  • Palm Springs-Indio, California, metro pop 365k.  The area is bypassed on the north by Interstate 10, far from most of the urban cores.
  • Gold Coast, Queensland, metro pop 591k.  A massive highrise hotel/retail core (30-60 storeys) at Surfers Paradise, a highrise business core in adjacent Southport, but the only freeway bypasses 7 km to the west.

The last two of these are not, by any stretch, leftist car-hating enclaves.  In fact, they're exceptionally car-dependent.  Still, no freeways near the core.  It's possible!

    For Any 6-12 Year Olds Out There …

    8404-0000-xx-33-1 If you’re still too young to be a transit geek, you might enjoy this news, emailed by a frequent reader:

    Lego has recently released an excellent new Public Transport set (see
    pictures attached), which my sons and I had lots of fun building and
    playing with this last weekend. Continue Reading →

    Did Sim City Make Us Stupid?

    250px-SimCity_Classic_cover_art My post on the lack of good simulation games triggered this reverie from Peter, regarding the city-planning simulation game, Sim City:

    Ah, SimCity.  … As a youngster I spent many hours building fields of residential tract housing, industrial parks, huge blighted and substantially vacant commercial districts, mega-highways connecting them all, and Godzilla.

    When I recently discovered that the original SimCity was released as open source, I had to download it and try it out. I knew that it was inaccurate, but it was nostalgia. Then I discovered exactly how inaccurate it was. “No mixed residential and commercial areas?!? WTF!” I did play it long enough to also notice that transportation was pretty much a capital expenditure with no operating costs. Sigh.

    Yes, those are the two of the worst fallacies built into the original Sim City:  

    Continue Reading →