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Urban Planning “Games”: A Novel Approach to an Old Problem

Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Gabriel Garcia Marengo/Flickr

How do you liven up discussions around urban planning, get participants thinking outside of the box and get people to take a holistic and inclusive approach to community planning? Why not try a game?

Games are emerging as a useful platform for fostering meaningful dialogue on today’s most pressing urban development issues. Through simulations, role playing and even the use of LEGO blocks, interactive urban development and planning games can provide a fun and engaging way of bringing disparate groups of stakeholders to the table. These games remove the threatening atmosphere often felt in more formal meetings, and allow participants to more casually communicate with one another while collectively evaluating different paths of development.

Games can help simplify complex and seemingly insurmountable problems by detangling components and breaking them down into smaller, more comprehensible pieces. Furthermore, games that require role playing can force participants out of their comfort zone helping them to begin to understand and view problems from a different perspective, such as through the eyes and experiences of a bicyclist, bringing light to issues they may normally overlook.

Recognizing the value of games, the United Nations in collaboration with the makers of Minecraft, the Urban Land Institute, MIT and countless other institutions have developed interactive games as teaching and outreach tools to facilitate learning and decision making between stakeholders of all ages and backgrounds.

Putting TOD Games in Action in Mexico and Turkey

Recently, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities’ team in Mexico co-developed a role playing, LEGO-based game to supplement their Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Guide for Urban Communities, inviting players to explore a range of development strategies at different scales for a city and facilitating a discussions of the benefits of zoning and transit-oriented development (TOD).

Players are assigned roles, representing different government agencies or sectors, private developers and the public. With a map of a specific site, they use colorful LEGOS that represent different land use types (e.g. commercial, residential, industrial) and stickers to denote different types of sidewalks (e.g. with or without trees), cycle paths (e.g. two-way), and traffic lanes (e.g. dedicated bus lanes) to build and visualize different development scenarios.

DOTS game in Mexico. Photo by Benoit Colin/WRI

The game serves as a vehicle for bringing to life the principles of TOD and has proven to be an effective technique in engaging the public and professionals from multiple sectors in talking about TOD.

Given the game’s success in Mexico, the Ross Center’s team in Turkey incorporated a session of the game into the 2015 Livable Cities Symposium in Istanbul in November 2016. The workshop introduced the topic of transit-oriented development (TOD) and allowed participants to explore the concept through the redesign of an actual squatter settlement (Kucuk Armutlu), located next to the university where the Symposium was held. The workshop provided an interactive environment for participants from various disciplines—from urban planning and environmental engineering to the private sector and academia—to learn how they can better design communities in an actual low-to-middle income neighborhood isolated from public transport, both by natural barriers and a major highway.

Players were divided into two teams. One group was assigned to represent  a  ‘business as usual’ approach, requiring members to develop recommendations within the confines of current legal restrictions, such as zoning that does not allow mixed-use development, and planning conventions that typically take a top-down strategy. The other group was tasked with taking a more ‘radical’ approach, allowing recommendations to include reforming laws and planning processes. Both teams focused on three main problems facing the community: disjointed scales of planning; disconnected modes of transit that are physically inaccessible by the community; and a lack of vibrant public space.

In addition to addressing real problems and facilitating an understanding of TOD in the design process, the game attempts to foster meaningful collaboration between players of diverse backgrounds. Each player must shed their professional and educational beliefs and take on an assigned character, making decisions through that person’s eyes.

This was the most challenging part of the game. Many of the engineers, urban designers, architects and others found it difficult to support new and contrary ideas to what they normally believe. Another challenge that the players faced was learning to interact with one another and accept different perspectives. In fact, what was most revealing about the workshop and the game was that with honest and enthusiastic participation and discussion, it was still possible to establish common ground.

Players acknowledged the importance of active participation from diverse stakeholders in the decision-making process. The participants’ motivation and excitement demonstrated the importance of instilling empathy in players during the strategic decision-making process. Greater empathy fostered better communication and collaboration and helped players to better plan for all people. Participants realized that planners in Turkey and beyond need to actively engage the public in the planning process—a practice that is largely non-existent today.

As Jane Jacobs explains in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

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