Smart cities promise new, innovative ways of participating and co-creating the cities. While this is often an empty promise, there are some examples of virtual participatory planning that inspire hope. Especially considering Covid-19, we need a shift towards more inclusive and virtual ways of participation.
This article will look at two computer game-based planning approaches that have proven successful and popular with citizens from all walks of life:
- Minecraft for redesigning urban spaces
- Cities:Skylines for redesigning urban districts
Example 1: Minecraft and Block by Block: Co-creating public spaces all over the world
In 2013, a Swedish project manager from Swedish Building Services started a cooperation with UN Habitat. Mr. Hallstrom had already implemented some urban planning projects using Minecraft in Sweden. Together with UN Habitat experts, he initiated the “Block by Block” project. This unique cooperation between UN Habitat and game company Mojang consists of participatory workshops, during which residents are encouraged to use Minecraft. Together with the experts, they design and re-design public spaces.
UN Habitat’s Block by Block foundation has funded neighborhood projects in 37 countries already, enabling them to change the urban fabric in their environments. According to the project leaders, more than 25,000 people from diverse backgrounds and age groups have participated. While children and teenagers are most likely to know Minecraft, people from all walks of life have participated.
Mr. Eugenio Gastelum, a digital technology specialist and consultant for UN Habitat in the Block by Block project, explains that workshop participants are always members of the local community. “We invite people that live around the public spaces, who use them, and who are the real experts of the local situation. We also invite all the stakeholders of the project, the architects, urbanists, or city planners of the project as key attendees, so they can listen to the participants during the workshop and see why they shape the project a certain way”, says Mr. Gastelum.
The rationale for using Minecraft is twofold: it is very appealing for younger generations, who can be included in urban topics and participatory processes via the game; and it is a very easy tool to use. The audience of Block by Block projects is very mixed and often consists of all age groups and different religions. Within 20 minutes, it is possible to teach even illiterate people to move blocks around in the game. For more complex procedures, the facilitators are there to assist.
Example 2: Developing a new city district in Stockholm with Cities: Skylines
Whereas Minecraft lends itself to public space planning, in particular, other games can be used at a more detailed level of urban planning. Cities:Skylines is particularly popular with urban planners due to its detail, and has even been used by the City of Stockholm in planning a new city district.
Cities: Skylines is a PC game in which you can build your own city. Along with other city-building simulators, such as SimCity, CityVille, or City Island, Cities: Skylines offers a reduced-stress environment to develop a city, providing quality of life for citizens and problem-solving as infrastructure and economic problems arise. Many urban planners use the game to actually showcase planning ideas and to test them out.
It is important to note that a game like Cities: Skylines also shows what is wrong with urban planning in the real world. This is showcased by how a player starts building cities: by connecting a series of roads, streets, and highways to an already existing main city entrance. This entrance is usually a flyover highway. It is the quintessential concept of American city designing.
Although there are community-created modifications (mods) in the game that allow you to design cities around pedestrian- or bicycle-oriented paths, private vehicles are the backbone of every city and of the whole game. Grid layouts are pushed, whereas public spaces, pedestrian space, and other elements of modern, liveable cities are easily neglected. Even when you focus on using more public transport, the base game makes it hard for you to experiment with more people-friendly urban utopias. In Cities: Skylines, cars are actually spawning out of nowhere.
Despite their faults, in terms of consequence analysis or basics of urban design and planning, games like Cities: Skylines can be very useful. In 2016, the city of Stockholm used the game to plan a new city district. Experts from Paradox, the game publisher that designed Cities: Skylines, were invited to a workshop with the goal of simulating a new district with 12,000 homes and 35,000 workspaces.
Professional city planners, as well as interested citizens and fans of the game, also attended the workshop, making it clear that the shortcomings of the game in terms of public participation can be easily remedied by enabling citizen dialogue and participation. The fact that the professionals used a popular, fun game may even have increased interest and participation.
Here is an impression of Norra Djurgardstaden in Stockholm as planned in Cities: Skylines (currently still under construction):
Can gamification foster participation?
Experts are hoping for gamification to be a new way of offering virtual (and fun) participatory tools to large parts of the population. The accessible tools can also serve to make the idea of a “Right to the City” more relatable, since participatory design tools are an important part of this right.
Easy-to-learn computer and even smartphone games can allow citizens to co-create and change their urban environment with low cost and effort. As long as political will and funding support this idea, there are indeed many possibilities for initiatives such as the ones described above.
Even during a pandemic, this kind of participatory planning works well. UN Habitat’s Block by Block project is experimenting with online multiplayer tools although challenges like video and audio quality as well as internet speed must be considered. Since many people are switching to working from home and investing in better internet speed, there is hope for better technological conditions enabling a fun, new way of planning.
In the end, it comes down to political will. As long as the actual planning results from a participatory process are implemented in practice, the tool is successful. Games are a great way of creating community and improving liveability, provided that they are not used as token participation. When people and communities are at the center of the participatory process, there is hope for co-created, liveable and fun cities for us all.
This article contains excerpts from two other articles by the author, published here: