A Second Act for Second Life, as an Urban Planning Tool

Second Life’s passe right? Maybe not. Two MacArthur-grant geniuses use it to help average citizens design their own communities.

Second Life


You remember 2007, right? That was the year that Second Life, the virtual world started by Linden Lab, seemed to explode: Jay-Z held a concert there; politicians gave stump speeches; and businesses rushed to establish their own branded hang-outs. And then the buzz died. But Second Life might have a few surprising second acts through the work of Eric Gordon, a professor of new media at Emerson College, and Gene Koo, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. They recently won a MacArthur grant for using Second Life as a tool for community-led urban planning.


Metropolis conducted a great interview with Gordon. Here’s a couple of snippets:


What’s wrong with the way architects’ plans are used at a typical community meeting?
The typical two-dimensional plans assume that the people viewing them have some understanding of architecture or urban planning–they adopt a professional discourse and bring it to a lay community, without enough thought into how to communicate abstract spatial ideas in a way that people can relate to.

So how did you change that format? How did your community meetings work?
At each workshop we brought about fifteen community members together in a room, and they each had a laptop that we supplied. What they were looking at was a virtual reproduction of the park in Second Life. We built the context around the park–the library, and the houses around it–and left the park space open, as a big empty lot of grass. So first we would all walk through that tabula rasa of the site, and then we went through a brainstorming process, where people would throw out ideas [for what they wanted to see there], like a basketball court, a big sculpture, or seating, and we had a designer on hand who created those things on the fly.

Then we would talk about why something worked or didn’t work, and whether it could be moved. We also allowed people to walk through the virtual park and plant white flags in front of things; then, by touching a flag, they could vote that feature either up or down, so it would turn a deeper shade of green or red as more people voted. And they could also leave comments in the flags.


You’ve just won a MacArthur grant to expand this program to other settings. What’s next? Are you changing your approach at all?
Next we’re focusing our efforts on Boston’s Chinatown, which is going through a fairly substantial master-planning process. This time around we’re likely not going to be using Second Life. We’re interested in moving more in the direction of gaming; one of the things I mentioned was this role-playing component and how effective that was in getting people to get out of their skins. We’d really like to develop that. So before, we gave people slips of paper; but this time we’re actually going to code these characters in a little two-hour game. People will go on quests within Chinatown itself as their character, so they can understand the give-and-take of certain issues, like urban density or walkable streets. We all know that when you go into a community meeting you’ve got a bone to pick. But if you’re forced to experience the space and to identify values and priorities from another perspective before you pick your bone, then you might actually change your perspective a little bit.

Fascinating stuff. Read the entire interview here.

The Second Life of Second Life
Second Life Still Gets Great Press, Even When It’s Dying
How to Find Real World Talent in Second Life
Why You Should Have Your Next Business Meeting in Second Life


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.


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