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SimCity vs. The Suburban Sprawl

By Norman Chan

Let's apply real-world city planning ideas to the new city simulator.

EA held its SimCity closed beta over the weekend, letting those with beta codes play hourlong sessions of the new SimCity game (as long as authentication servers were up). If tweets are to be believed, the beta did its job whetting our appetite for the rebooted city building simulator, the first in the series since 2007's middling SimCity Societies. The timing of the beta coincided with my reading of this interesting post on Houzz by John Hill, an experienced architect with a keen interest in urban and suburban planning. Hill's breakdown of the many different types of suburban housing patterns seemed perfectly suited for this new SimCity--I couldn't resist applying its lessons of suburban subdivision design to the game.

The metric that matters the most in SimCity is population. The higher the population, the more successful you are. But moreso than any other game in the series before it (at least in this beta), population is dictated by road design and placement. That's why for the first time, SimCity not only lets you build a wide range of road types (from dirt road to wide avenues), but also curved roads in addition to straight ones. Homes, designated by residential zoning, can only be built along the sides of roads, meaning that the goal should theoretically be to maximize the amount of edge-space around and in between my streets. The fact that the size of your city is restricted to a fixed square area means every acre of space is valuable. For my experiment, I chose three familiar types of street design: a rectangular grid, a circular sprawl, and cul-de-sac segregation.

The Suburban-Urban Grid

The urban grid is the type of neighborhood design we're most familiar with in big cities, originating in Thomas Jefferson's "checkerboard town" design back in the 18th century. Hill says that the grid design accommodates the highest population density--that is, houses per acre, and on first glance, it's easy to see why that would be the case. With rectangular houses, you can stack many in a row along a long street, back to back, with little wasted space. This design also was the easiest to implement with SimCity's road tool (tip: hold shift and drag for straight lines).

In practice, the multiple times I tried using a straight rectangular grid layout in the beta, my city struggled to exceed 15,000 population in the hour played. I discovered that while the grid design lent itself to a high density of residential buildings per acre, it also had a high density of roads--which take up a fair amount of space. Yes, grids lend themselves to tons of intersections--minimizing traffic congestion--but it was probably more than the game needed for efficient traffic management.

Another problem was that I designed my grid for tightly packed houses at the start of the game, not realizing that these small shacks needed space to "upgrade" to larger estates and even apartment buildings as population and wealth grew. On some streets, an entire row of houses would renovate to mansions, leaving not enough room on the other side of the block to upgrade as well.

Radiating Sprawl

Decentralized sprawl development has garnered a strong negative association over the years, even though its original design was intended to be a reaction to the ultra-compactness of urban living. The radiating sprawl has a visually striking look and some logic to its design--central retail and service centers anchor pods of spiraling streets connected by just a few avenues that cut through the residential arcs. Middle america sprawl was designed with openness of space in mind, with the wide arched streets suitable for large detached housing. My expectation was that this design would not be conducive to the goal of high population, given the fixed size of each SimCity town.

I was surprised, then, to find that SimCity was actually very receptive to radiating sprawl neighborhoods, which ended up looking like crop circles from above. The circular neighborhoods were cheap to build (in the game, roads, not houses, cost money) and the idea of putting commercial zones at the center of these pods really worked in the early stages of the game. I was able to create multiple pods of different radii and connect them with large roads--the perfect place for city services like the fire department, schools, and police stations. Again, I was able to easily reach 15,000 population, but as expected, ran out of space to put new roads quickly. Also, while radiating sprawl design worked for residential zones, high-traffic industrial and retail zones did not respond well to the circular streets.

Cul-de-sac Segregation

In French, cul-de-sac literally means "butt of the sack". And these segmented subdivisions have been the butt of jokes for modern city planners. According to Matthew Lassiter, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan, these curling dead-end streets were designed with five-year-olds in mind. That is, they're intentionally disconnected from main streets to provide a safe area for families and children to play. Think of E.T., where the kids of the cul-de-sacs were able to outmaneuver the feds on bicycles. And as I learned from this episode of the podcast 99% Invisible, cul-de-sacs have real quantifiable disadvantages when it comes to traffic. A garbage truck, for example, has to make those wasteful turns at the end of each cul-de-sac to service every house in a neighborhood, while in a grid layout, only has to make right turns. Sociologically, cul-de-sacs isolate families and restrict communities from intermingling--two houses that share a backyard fence may have half a mile of road between them. Also, they're not very pretty to look at from above.

But SimCity cares not for these things, apparently. Cul-de-sac design turned out to be the most successful of the layouts I tried, letting me reach over 20,000 population in just half an hour of play. The generous spacing between the cul-de-sacs allowed houses to be upgraded to medium and large-sized homes quicker, though they never converted to apartment complexes in my run. Like with the other designs, I ran out of space well before the hour was up, and found it much more difficult to destroy and rearrange streets without disrupting many cul-de-sacs at once. It was also more difficult to add recreational parks and fountains in this layout, since some structures required much more space than these curling roads could allow.

SimCity may be just a game, but it's interesting to see how the simulator responds to real-world suburban design scenarios. Players will have to strike a balance between optimizing for "the game" and building something that's aesthetically pleasing and conducive to their own gaming narrative. I can't wait to see what layouts hardcore SimCity players do to optimize population density, though I don't expect to see any six million population Magnasanti builds any time soon.

Sattelite images via Google Maps, screenshots from SimCity