What Do Urban Planners Think of SimCity?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Francis Chen, urban planner:

I studied urban planning in college, and if it wasn’t for SimCity, I would have not gotten into city planning.

Beware, this post is going to bring out the inner kid in me.
I’m going to break down how SimCity appeals to many aspects of city planning. I was a complete dork in elementary school. When I was 5, I would draw maps of geo-fictional cities and fantasy transit maps. I collected street maps of cities across the United States. When Simcity 2, 3, and 4 came out, I was obsessed with each as a kid in elementary, middle, and high school. Simcity brought out the idealist in me. I would want to make my own city, geek out on the skyscrapers, or make farms, build suburbs, freeways, or transit stops. (Unfortunately, these developments don’t conform to smart growth). Building schools, hospitals, parks, beautiful public spaces, commercial spaces, residential apartments … man, there was so much flexibility (especially if you used the cheat codes or mods/plugins). In fact, when Google Maps came out, I got quite excited because I could finally look at the street map of every city in the United States. I’m a map geek. In fact, whenever I was on BART or riding the bus, I would take out my phone and start looking at random maps of major cities in Asia and Europe, and geek out over each neighborhood and district. I would look at my phone and start to memorize as much as I can about each city’s geographical features and major streets, as well as each district and neighborhood that made the city what it is. Get to know me better, and you’ll discover that I can draw maps of cities I have never been too or visited in detail. Watch me draw a map of Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, I’ll do it … because I just love the act of drawing cities spatially, and seeing what they look like. In fact, after Google Maps came out, I decided to use the maps that came out from each city, and tried to make maps, neighborhoods, street grids, parks/public spaces, of my own on Simcity 4. Those cities were my inspiration. I totally geeked out on the transit function once Simcity 4 Rush Hour came out:

Holy crud, I was very obsessed with this feature. For example, as a transportation planner, you’d want to know how many people are driving, versus people who are taking transit/walking, and how to allocate the majority of travelers to take transit based on land use or travel patterns. I think this was one of Simcity 4 Rush Hour’s most powerful features. I was so obsessed with parks and public spaces.
As an urban designer, you are focused on creating public spaces that improve the quality of life for the people who live, work, and play in a neighborhood or urban area. This was so fun to do, it wasn’t even funny. Creating awesome playgrounds, benches, trees, shading space, water fountains. Wanna make that Central Park? You bet you can make that Central Park! If you download the mods/plugins, the parks and public spaces can increase the property values and desirability of nearby land uses and property in an urban area. From a real estate development and economic development planner’s perspective, this is key in bringing tax revenue to local government. What about air and water pollution? Industrial waste?

The environmental planner has to deal with making sure any sort of development (especially industrial development) has the least environmental impact as possible. However, industrial development is often a job source and cash cow in Simcity 4 for local governments. I would often build lots of industrial development and separate them from commercial development / residential development just to make sure everybody was satisfied and didn’t next to crappy air. Or, in fact, just build parks to improve the air quality, and property values of the industrial development. I would say to myself, “Cool, maybe I can attract high tech industry so that the development would have much cleaner air.” And, I did. OK, what about just generally building stuff where you want to?

The land use / spatial planner or community development planner would be in charge of finding ways to allocate land uses that generally provides the highest quality of life to people.

Want to create a suburban neighborhood? A dense, mixed use downtown? Large skyscrapers? A mixture of them? How would you lay out the roads, sidewalks, parks? How would you zone, organize the land uses that would make the neighborhood a good place to work, live, or play?

In addition, what if you want to make sure all the buildings have the same type of architecture / facade style in a particular neighborhood or district (i.e. think lots of major European cities)?

But I digress, Simcity is an extremely idealistic game. As I got older, I realized that I was too focused on the aesthetics of the game rather than the practical aspects of city planning.

Most of what players do in Simcity has very little do with what actual city planners do in local government.

Now, I’ll show you what they actually do:

A majority of a day-to-day job of an urban planner is in current planning. According to the City of Capitola, Calif., government website on Current Planning, current planning is:

Current Planning is zoning review/project review of private property applications. Current planning is development processing. Projects are processed per the City zoning code, which implements the City General Plan.

The review process increases in complexity as the potential for project negative impacts in the environment is greater. Processes vary from over the counter approvals to a few years’ long processes involving EIR and Coastal Commission permits. Compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is fundamental, so all potential impacts can be disclosed to the public and potentially mitigated.

Compliance with regional, state and federal regulations is also part of the process. The case- processing planner is the coordinator of intra and inter- agency input.The Planning Commission has the final approval power over most development applications, with exception of those requiring zone or General Plan amendments, which also require City Council approval.

The Current Planning process helps to ensure orderly development and the aesthetic enhancement of the character of Capitola.
As you can imagine, this takes a lot of bureaucracy and red tape to get through. Essentially, the sum of this is: want to build or modify something? Go to the city planner and make sure he/she will approve it.  You can’t just build and they will come. You cannot build as fast as Simcity 4. All those parks you want to build: it’ll take a long time to get that built. That planner has to make sure that park is following every guideline/code/ordinance is being followed, especially the environmental portion (following NEPA/CEQA is a big deal, especially in California). Many large-scale projects have to be approved by the planning commission or city council first before even being built. For example, a new commercial development could take several months to get approved because it has to pass through a lot of regulation, whereas a small addition to your house might take only a few days or a few weeks depending on the complexity of your project.

So, in reality, what do city planners think of SimCity 4?

It is really what city planners wish they could accomplish in their day to day life.

However, there is a lot of reality involved, and people’s lives are dramatically affected if people just built, redeveloped, quickly, without following strict regulation or proper public participation.

Yes, government tends to be slow and bureaucratic. However, these protections, regulations, and zoning ordinances are meant to protect the citizen or government from rash, impulsive development. The government has to be very careful, and meticulous in making sure their decision affects negatively the fewest amount of people. Lots of these laws and ordinances (especially CEQA/NEQA, which requires each development/project to go through an environmental impact report, EIR process, before being approved) are meant to benefit the resident/worker. It is the job of the city planner to make sure these regulations are being followed. Now, I’m speaking from an North American city planning perspective. It will be much different in countries like in China, where development happens almost every day. I believe some of the stuff that takes place in Simcity 4 actually resembles China more than the United States since stuff is being built almost everywhere. So yes, Simcity 4 is much different than what urban planners do in the U.S. on a day to day basis. I do think it could be more transparent and easier to understand for the public, but realize that their job is meant to help the citizen.
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