SimCity: Toy or Tool?

Chris Yewlett & Chris Webster,
Department of City and Regional Planning
University of Wales, Cardiff


What is SimCity?

simcity2.gif (240308 bytes)Fig.1 Example city developed in Winecon SimCity (and its more recent manifestation as "SimCity 2000") began life as essentially a computer recreational game. However, it is not just another game. It sets out to provide a simulation of the process of urban growth and development. Indeed, Maxis (its developer and producer) bills it as "the ultimate city simulator", with over 5 million copies sold to the end of 1996.

The game sets out to model the processes by which cities grow and expand. As well as the expected high quality of graphic simulation expected in games of this kind, the simulation utilises some quite sophisticated underlying theoretical concepts such as positive and negative externalities, spill-over effects, public goods, public choice, land values, accessibility, closed and open cities, spatial interaction, and spatial equilibrium.

Briefly, the simulation places the user in the position of an "Executive Mayor" (US style, but as currently mooted in the UK), with very extensive powers, in both City Planning, and indeed Civil Engineering, terms. The first stage involves creating an appropriate physical terrain, followed by the zoning of land for development (residential, industrial and commercial, at different densities), and the provision of urban infrastructure, i.e. roads; power plants; water mains and electrical transmission lines.

The simulation is rooted in the assumption that an "attractive" new urban location will attract residents (referred to as ‘Sims’) who in turn will build houses, factories, commercial centres, etc., in accordance with the land allocations, financial regime, and infrastructure provided. These inhabitants are not themselves normally displayed (except when rioting!) although road traffic is indicated. However, the main visual display is of the City itself, which may be viewed as an axonometric projection at various scales, whilst the ‘underground’ water reticulation network can also be viewed optionally in wire-frame mode.

During the process of City development, local connection infrastructure is also generated by the ‘virtual inhabitants’. The "Mayor" is invited to review such key variables as taxation and expenditure on assorted services. She/he has unlimited access to a "budget" window, illustrating the current financial situation, as well as a number of other windows showing assorted key variables. It is also possible to run the simulation with or without the option of ‘disasters’, which range from fire and flood, through earthquake and tornado (unlikely in the UK) to out and out ‘monsters’, perhaps more of recreational than educational interest. Full details of the program and its graphics are included in the recent review by Paul Adams in Geocal, No 15, Dec 1996 pp 24-27. (Geocal is the Newsletter of CTI Geography, Geology & Meteorology; contact details for CTIGGM can be found on the back cover).


Planners’ Experience

This game offers much to the would-be Town Planner. The simulation is very realistic within its constraints, which reflect more its political and geographical origin in the USA than technical constraints. Geographically and politically, the government of SimCity is a classic reflection of the in-migrant situation of Mid and West USA, where individual cities are essentially isolated in terms of travel to work area, but participate in economic exchange with other cities, and have a virtually unlimited supply of in-migrants if economically attractive. This, of course, contrasts with the situation in congested areas such as Western Europe or much of Eastern USA, where cities interact on a day to day basis. Moreover, the city is a free standing economic entity, which can for example borrow money for investment (provided that generated revenue will cover repayments); no "rate capping" here!

SimCity has been used for teaching in two cases at Cardiff. At undergraduate level, it has been used in connection with a second year BSc (City & Regional Planning) module on "Planning and the Market" run by Chris Webster. The objective of this module is to introduce students to economic theories of urban formation and urban planning, and thus to explore the way cities grow and take shape, with or without planning intervention. The module is itself delivered making extensive use of the Internet and Email for instruction purposes. Interested readers should refer to http://www.cf.ac.uk/uwcc/cplan/ for further information.

When the course was first launched, an element of SimCity modelling was included in assessment. However, subsequent course development suggested that this was not the most appropriate approach, and instead SimCity is now used as an introductory non-assessed exercise, held at the beginning of the second year. It offers an opportunity to explore, visually and dynamically, many of the principles and theories taught more formally later in the course. Simcity has provided a valuable educational and entertaining introduction to economic theories of urban formation and planning It also introduces the whole concept of using computers for simulation purposes.

SimCity has been utilised at postgraduate level, in the "Planning for Transport" module, which forms part of the MSc Urban and Regional Transport course run by Chris Yewlett. The students registered on this MSc were largely more computer-literate than most undergraduate planners, but perhaps less familiar with the physical and procedural world of planning, and here, in contrast, the program was introduced at the end of a course. Although the "Planning for Transport" module set out to introduce the participants to both the UK statutory planning framework, and also to elements of Transport Planning, this group are not expected necessarily to have such an extensive grasp of underlying economic theory. Nevertheless, the simulation provides a valuable graphic introduction to the way in which cities might actually grow, given particular land allocations.

One particular drawback for this group is perhaps that the simulation needs to run for a number of decades before significant "Transport Operations" come into play. A similar development by Microprose, "Transport Tycoon" offers some possibilities here. Whereas SimCity seeks to simulate the process of city development, for which Transport is regarded as a dependent variable, in contrast Transport Tycoon requires the user to specify the urban layout in some detail, and then proceeds to develop appropriate transport responses. Transport Tycoon has recently been re-released by Microprose on the ‘Power Plus’ budget label, at a recommended price of approximately 10, compared with approximately 40 for SimCity.

Hardware Requirements

[TOP] SimCity 2000 requires a PC (IBM 386 & above and 100% compatibles), running

Windows 3.1 or above (386 Enhanced mode); at least 4MB RAM (8MB recommended); Hard Disk with 7 MB free disk space, Microsoft Mouse or 100% compatible and SVGA Card (with 512 K Video RAM) which supports 256 colour mode. SimCity 2000 supports all sound cards compatible with Windows 3.1 or above.

Transport Tycoon has been upgraded several times. One such upgrade, the ‘World Editor’, enables Transport Tycoon owners (as with SimCity) to design their own world, either to simulate a real locality, or to illustrate particular ideas, rather than rely on the software to generate its own, random, scenario. Operationally, a minimum specification is a PC 386 with 4MB RAM.

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