So Six Urban Planners Play SimCity 5…

SimCity 5

Last month, Co.Exist and Greg Lindsay brought together a diverse group of six urbanists, three architects, three journalists, and a video game designer and let them loose in a tournament to build the best city in SimCity 5.

Who can design the “perfect” city

The result: KPF’s XimCity

Writer John McDermott sums it up for the tournament as all teams were destined to fail by the game design:

The game’s beauty lies in the fact that–like in real life–creating a “perfect” city is impossible. What makes cities great, rather, are their imperfections. By placing millions of error-prone humans within a limited vicinity, cities constantly force their inhabitants to bump into one another physically, mentally, and emotionally. A truly great city isn’t governed by an algorithm, it’s one that routinely delivers the unpredictable.

I would probably go one step further to say that “good” or “better” cities are too dynamic to ever really be considered truly designed or planned. Residents and city leaders come and go, each generation puts its own touches on the community, stuff happens. The unexpected and, yes, unpredictable allow and influence cities to be free flowing and exciting.

Planning helps, but not totally.

Edward Glaeser wrote it best in his book “Triumph of the City” (9): “With very few exceptions, no public policy can stem the tidal forces of urban change.” In other words, change happens and generally speaking no amount of tinkering from local leaders can really stop it.

[photo via SimsTrueLife/flickr]

Attend TechniCity Through Coursera

If you have some free time over four weeks in early May 2013, consider signing up for Jennifer Evans-Cowley and Tom Sanchez’s online Coursera course: TechniCity.

Above is the embedded introduction video. And below is the course description:

We are part of the ‘TechniCity’. The increasing availability of networks, sensors and mobile technologies allows for new approaches to address the challenges that our cities face. The way we understand cities is undergoing sweeping transformation, right along with the analytical tools we use to design our cities and the communication tools we use to engage people. Absorbing, studying and understanding the role of technology from a critical viewpoint allows us to generate creative ideas for improving our cities.

This course begins by examining how our cities are changing. We then jump into how technology is used to engage with the public to support decision-making. Students will be examining tools for analyzing the city. Then we move into exploring the infrastructure that makes the real-time, technologically-enhanced city possible. And rounding out the course is an exploration of entrepreneurial urbanism, looking at how creativity can spawn technological innovation. You’ll hear from technological innovators and thought leaders about all of these topics.

I’ve already signed up, and I’m very excited to see what’s in store for next May.


Planning Books That Shaped America

Library of Congress Logo

Last week, the Library Of Congress unveiled a list of 88 “Books that Shaped America”.

There are many books that you would expect to be on such a list, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

There are two books on the list that are always mentioned in urban planning circles: Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives (1890) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Riis’ book about New York City tenement living led to much housing law reform, while Carson’s book is cited for helping to start the contemporary environmental movement.

One other book is on the list, Christopher Colles’ A Survey Of The Roads Of The United States Of America (1789), is not mentioned frequently among planners, but it had a tremendous impact on American planning. The LOC’s summary:

Irish-born engineer and surveyor Christopher Colles produced what is considered the first road map or guidebook of the United States. It uses a format familiar to modern travelers with each plate consisting of two to three strip maps arranged side by side, covering approximately 12 miles. Colles began this work in 1789 but ended the project in 1792 because few people purchased subscriptions. But he compiled an atlas covering approximately 1,000 miles from Albany, N.Y., to Williamsburg, Va.

Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives can be downloaded for free at Google Books.

[image via goodlogo!com]

What Planners Can Learn From Climate Change Scientists

Climate Change Science Jargon

The above table was taken from an interesting journal article from Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol titled “Communicating the Science of Climate Change” that tries to persuade climate change scientists to improve their communication skills to better present their findings to the public.

Scientists use too much jargon. And since most people (the public) are not familiar with that jargon, the underlying message tends to get lost. This communication gap has proven troublesome in the ongoing issue of climate change, specifically with the percentage of people who doubt arguments that climate change is occurring.

Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol hit the nail on the head in their article:

Americans are also unaware of the strength of the scientific consensus. At least 97% of climate researchers most actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is occurring and that it is primarily human-induced. But that strong consensus is largely unrecognized by the public. Only 39% believe that most scientists think global warming is occurring, and 40% believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether it’s occurring. Even among those in the most engaged categories of figure 1, only 44% of the alarmed and 18% of the concerned say there is scientific agreement that the world is warming. Among the disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive, less than 5% believe there is such agreement.

Much of the underlying science in climate change research is almost always deemed sound in many of the recent efforts to debunk scientific findings. The biggest issue is getting the public to understand what scientists have been arguing for years. And that starts with simplifying words, phrases and concepts so the public can follow along and understand too. Better word choice is key (see the meaning gap between: uncertainty, error, error, bias, and anomaly).

Although part of the problem too is the cliquish scientist environment that seems hesitant to “dumb it down” for the public. See the public spreadsheet for examples of this sometimes snobby attitude. This attitude definitely does not help.

To be fair, certain scientists tend to not engage regularly with the public, so it is easy for them to get trapped in their own jargon. However, they should definitely make the effort to do so.


As planners already know, communicating with the public allows planners to better do their job by making sure everyone is on the same page. Look through an average planning document like a General Plan. They were meant to be read by the public. The result is ultimately less confusion and generally more support for future efforts, thus fewer doubts about the underlying science and theory, and more action.

For an example of what happens when everyone is on the same page: see The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Very simple message that everyone understood.

UPDATE: Added two new links.

[image via Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol]

Eleanor Roosevelt Quote On (Financial) Planning

Eleanor Roosevelt

“It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.” — Eleanor Roosevelt on (financial) planning

Okay, well Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote was really about responsible financial planning, but it can also be interpreted for any type of planning–especially urban planning. Consider this, most people have ideas about what changes they want for their hometowns and how they want their cities. But until those ideas are acted upon, they are basically wishes; once those are acted upon, then they are essentially plans or blueprints or whatever you wish to call them. The latter involves public participation and civic engagement–both tenets of urban planning.

The point is to use time, energy, and efforts wisely.

[photo via Britannica]