An Actual Urban Planner Takes On The Original SimCity

In this guest editorial, John Reinhardt, a member of IBM's City Forward team, compares the actual job of urban planning with that found in the Super Nintendo version of SimCity.

There's an urban legend that my mentor once told me: "There are two piles when you apply to a top urban planning school. If you write about your love of SimCity, your application goes straight into ‘Pile B'—the trash bin."

Harsh words, but perhaps there is some truth. An entire generation was taught Urban Planning by Dr. Wright, a 3-inch, green haired imp, from the Super Nintendo version of SimCity. I myself was hooked from a young age, and made an entire career out of it. Today, I work for IBM as the Program Manager of City Forward, and I'm part of the American Institute of Certified Planners, but my education goes back to the early 90's and Dr. Wright.

I recently found Dr. Wright's Urban Planning Guide, the instruction manual for the Super Nintendo version of SimCity. Was my mentor right, or was Dr. Wright my mentor? Was an entire generation of bright minds ruined on this simple yet addictive game, so much so that to mention it in an application to planning school was to be relegated to the trash bin?

An Actual Urban Planner Takes On The Original SimCity

I've taken some time to reflect on it and flipping through the pages I now laugh: it's not just SimulationCity, it's SimplifiedCity. It's a game. A fun one at that. But essays deserved to end up in the trash bin if the author believed that it's easy enough to solve "wicked problems" with only a computer simulation. Someone who places all of their faith in a simulation is probably too simple for the complexities and gray areas of the urban planning profession.

I'll walk through three ways that SimCity for the SNES simplified city building: Zoning, Disaster Management, and Finance. But first, who are you dealing with? Why should you listen to me instead of the beloved Dr. Wright?

A comparison:

An Actual Urban Planner Takes On The Original SimCity

Now for the fun stuff. Where did Dr. Wright get it wrong? Where did he over-simplify?

Zoning

Zoning is the "bread and butter" of planning. The SNES version of SimCity tries to make it simple by providing three zones and corresponding colors—Red for Residential, Blue for Commercial and Yellow for Industrial. The American Planning Association (the professional association for urban planners where I worked for nearly three years) keeps a list of the Land Based Classification Standards. It is a bit overwhelming, but in it, yellow is "Residential activities", red is "Shopping, business, or trade activities" and Blue is "Social, institutional, or infrastructure-related activities". There's also gray, purple, light green, forest green, and others. Standards are there to help cities communicate with each other across common colors, but urban planners are free to choose whatever colors they want. In this way, the SNES version was not technically "wrong", but they did not teach the widely adopted North American standard land use colors.

An Actual Urban Planner Takes On The Original SimCity

Disasters

Imagine if Godzilla actually stormed Tokyo? This one is too easy to pick apart, so I'll add some nuance. Dr. Wright's urban planning guide gives "three emergency steps" to triage an emergency: 1) Fire control, 2) Restore Power, 3) Rebuild. I wish it were this simple. In my job at Booz Allen Hamilton, we'd spend hours preparing cities to prepare for emergencies. I even helped develop FEMA's Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program in which we had more steps than I can even remember to just prepare for the emergency, let alone begin the recovery. When I worked at the American Planning Association, it wasn't until a year after Hurricane Katrina that we started meaningful contributions through the Dutch Dialogues and Delta Urbanism programs. The same will happen with Hurricane Sandy or any other trauma to a city's ecosystem. SimCity for SNES has you deal with an acute crisis but it's hard to determine the long lasting impacts of the disasters. Real life is infinitely more complicated.

Finance

This one speaks for itself. Just surf over to the NY Times to hear an earful about the economy. A 1993 report from the American Planning Association sums up a planner's role in the economy as such: "Too often capital improvement programming is ignored or dismissed as superfluous. But it is an integral part of the functioning of the economy. Without it, all services would eventually decay until they were no longer useful." What I like about the SNES version of SimCity is that you can get rid of the real-world constraints and headaches with this easy cheat tip from Gamefaqs.com:

At any time while playing a city, spend all of your money on buildings that require funding (such as police stations, fire stations etc). When the tax screen apears at the end of December hold down L. Select ''Go With Figures'' and then go back to the tax screen. Turn all of the dues to 100% and exit still holding L. When you release L your money will be at $999,999.

I don't think I ever played SimCity without the cheat code implemented. Stadiums galore! And for that, I am thankful.

A System of Systems

In my day job at IBM, I like to think of cities a system of complex systems. If you tweak one area over here, something else happens over there. That's pretty intuitive and simple if you think about it. It will be interesting to see how Electronic Arts captures this "systems thinking" in their new release, given that the SNES version is over two decades old!

In closing, I still don't know if planning school applications end up in the trash bin like my mentor joked. Dr. Wright may not have had all the answers, but he sure did make SimCity for SNES a lot of fun. It's the game that launched 1,000 careers and Nintendo should be proud. It's a game that leaves you with more questions than answers and those are the best kind of games.


John Reinhardt is Program Manager of City Forward at IBM. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and studied urban planning and urban design at the University of Pennsylvania.
Images and infographic via John Reinhardt.