Cities Don’t Have A Reset Button

Tim Fernholz distills lessons about urban planning from the new version of SimCity:

While playing, it’s easy to solve your early economic problems by zoning more land and collecting more taxes. But soon you run out of land, your budget is in the red, pollution is becoming a problem, and your industries are running out of workers. As the city grows and more services are demanded, density becomes your watchword. This is a true nod to the realities of urbanism, where building up is the only way to efficiently capture the economic benefits of new residents.The most important lesson of SimCity, and of the real Detroit, is that growth is the only successful urban policy. But the brilliant decisions of the past become traps as you realize how they limit new development. It makes for an engaging, obsession-creating game, and a troubling reality.

The game also allows for maneuvers that real cities do not: 

One common rap against young market urbanists today is that they are too impatient with the human realities of politics. It’s true that SimCity takes politics out of the picture, but there are moments in the game when this very absence is instructive, eerie, and conspicuous: When a poorly planned city of my design ran out of residential space—and workers—it became clear that only massive restructuring would save the city from failure. An entire neighborhood would need to be wiped out and re-zoned for the greater whole to thrive. My digital bulldozers wasted no time. Obviously, the real world doesn’t work that way.

That’s partially the point. In his 1994 critique of the SimCity’s simulated approach to politics, Starr concluded that the best simulations work to expose their assumptions. What cities need to do to survive can be a political mess.