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Watching a real urban planner play SimCity is incredibly satisfying

“I’m going to give everybody the black lung!”

Watching a real urban planner play SimCity is incredibly satisfying

SimCity is one of the greatest video game franchises of all time, if only because it demonstrates something important: Designing a city from scratch is very hard, and it’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time. That’s even more evident thanks to UC Berkeley PhD student Dave Amos, who studies urban planning and whose commentary on the game offers a hilarious criticism of both game design and planning bureaucracy.

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In the embedded clip, which is highly watchable even at 35 minutes long, Amos builds his own city from scratch in SimCity 2000–the game many purists consider the pinnacle of SimCity. As Kotaku puts it, “[It’s] the game that struck the perfect balance between accessibility and the finer tuning of city-management.” (See what happens when an urban planner plays the newer SimCity 6, here.)

Without spoiling all of the fun of the video, Amos teeters between righteous urban planning educator and malevolent game mayor who will pinch his pennies before reluctantly building a town its first school. “Right here, [the citizens] gave me a mayor’s house,” he brags. “And I put it amongst the people–though separated from them by a few small parks. I don’t want to get too close as my mayoral rating isn’t very high still.”

He points out how some of the game’s most popular hacks don’t work at all in real life. Putting a coal plant in the corner of your map protects a SimCity from much of its pollution, but in the real world, that would mean the smoke just covered a neighboring town instead. Neither cities nor their policies can be designed in vacuums, he explains, for just this reason.

But in other cases, he’s able to put his background to use. Little did I know that arranging roads on a 6 x 6 grid versus a 4 x 4 grid–in other words, allowing six buildings on each block rather than four– changes the taxable density of a city. As he explains, this slight shift in the grid increases the proportion of buildable land from 64% to 73%.

[Screenshot: City Beautiful]

“It’s not an enormous difference, but in SimCity as in real life, roads require maintenance,” Amos explains. “You want to minimize roads and maximize land value.” This logic is exactly why pedestrian-first communities make so much sense, beyond obvious quality-of-life benefits for citizens.

Ultimately, Amos continues to be a fan of the game now that he’s an urban planning expert. And he eventually constructs an incredible city, full of parks and public amenities on the water.

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But he does have one major criticism that SimCity would actually be smart to fix.

[Screenshot: City Beautiful]

While SimCity has the same zoning that the real world city planning does–commercial, residential, and industrial–and it uses three colors to denote each. But the game’s colors differ slightly from the real world. And for a city planner, that means SimCity is just close enough to the real zoning colors to become very confusing. In this regard, SimCity actually falls short on training the next generation of urban planner.

“It’s sort of embarrassing because I grew up on SimCity,” says Amos. “When I became an actual planner, it took a while for me to switch the colors in my head.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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