Nearly 15 years ago, I gave my writing class a virtual city and asked them to save it. Six groups of students competed to see whose city would stay vital for an entire century. Five of the six groups failed miserably.
After the experiment ended, I got a little ribbing for teaching with video games, but “SimCity 2000” was anything but a game. It provided a few lessons about urban development that our city planners and politicians might consider.
If you do not know “SimCity,” its offerings are — and remain — masterpieces of intelligent gaming. The players run city government: collect taxes, allocate funds, make repairs, expand services, zone regions for various uses, and then lay down the infrastructure of daily life.
Writing about saving a city was, in the end, far easier than pulling off such a miracle. The students all began in the year 1900, managing a small city built on several hills. I had designed the terrain to resemble another city they should have known, even from their leafy retreat on the bucolic campus where we all worked and studied. A river flowed through their city, navigable from the nearby bay to just below the city's fall line. The young city managers went gamely about the task of making the metropolis thrive for a century, balancing the needs of industry, retail, residential space and open land.
Things began well for everyone, with each group budgeting for a coal-fired power station so the electrical grid would have enough power to let mixed-use neighborhoods modernize and expand. For a while, as students noted in their progress reports, prospects for the city appeared excellent. Businesses opened and bit by bit the population grew.
Of course, all of those new residents needed schools, good roads and civic amenities such as parks, fire stations and police precincts. All of the students, at first, kept pace with the demands of an expanding metropolis.
As the original infrastructure aged, however, and the power plant neared the end of its working life, problems began to afflict the river city. Entire neighborhoods went gray as crime, suburban flight, decrepit power lines and overloaded roads frayed the fabric of urban life. Money was scarce for a more modern source of electricity, and pollution from the coal plant blighted several areas.
Meanwhile, residents demanded ever more services, and not all of these demands could be met by the city's budget. Some of these people simply packed up and left for another city to the south, and my students began reporting population declines. As maintenance costs rose, tax revenues never quite kept pace. My ever-optimistic students sketched out grand plans alongside day-to-day needs to provide transit, energy and hidden-but-essential sewers and drinking water.
As the city declined, one group hatched a master plan to gentrify its once-vital urban core. Goaded on by an avid baseball fan, the group took out millions in loans to finance the construction of a ballpark downtown. Roads were inadequate to service the stadium and the neighborhood around it was not large enough. My young city council voted to demolish several blocks of old buildings, including some still-working businesses. Up went the ballpark, and the umpire only called “Play ball” a few times before the entire sports complex flopped. Shortly afterward that group's keyboards locked up as the game informed it that the city had gone bankrupt.
Other groups failed after budgetary fiascos that were not so spectacular, including a gradual but ultimately complete abandonment of one city when the electrical grid grew so old that no amount of repairs could keep neighborhoods from becoming slums.
The one group that managed to keep its city vital began with the basics of urban planning. Its members realized that mixed-use neighborhoods, transit options beyond cars and a logical street grid would make their town attractive to residents. They hatched no grand plans but built from strength to strength, using their budget to micromanage trouble-spots before they became full-blown slums.
The group considered quality-of-life issues and put in an efficient and mixed-source electricity supply, including wind power. By the year 2000, that city had a financial district of moderate high-rise buildings near the river with walkable neighborhoods around it. Crime, pollution and trouble with civic services were minimal, even after a tornado struck the city. This city had a rainy-day fund set aside for just such an emergency.
Of course, it was only a game.
Today, out of one window, I see my tool shed, where some very clever thieves pried off the hasp and got away with $2,500 worth of power tools. I have insurance, so the sting is not so keen now, although my shed is only one of dozens hit by this series of thefts in Richmond and Henrico County. I'm told by the police that we homeowners need to keep lights on, get dogs and watch our properties in these difficult times.
Outside my other window, I see a single strip of new asphalt down the middle of my street. Last year the city began repaving, but I'm told that the budget was not sufficient to finish the project. Never fear; I'm also told that we'll have a freshly paved street. Eventually.
Never fear, we'll also get a new ballpark downtown.
The latest edition of “SimCity” is still available. In fact, the classic version can now be played online for free: a bargain in these hardscrabble times. That would be a good holiday pastime for our city elders. S
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.
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