SimCity Adopts a Form-Based Code?

No, but I do wish they would. Over the holidays, my ten-year-old and I started playing SimCity. As the many other city planners who’ve played the game have observed, it’s a great way to explore basic city building concepts with people who don’t think about it too often. Now as I gripe about some of the things that a form-based code would fix, my kid commiserates, and suggests an open letter to SimCity.

Good timing, too, because we’ve just updated the Codes Study , the real life examination of the places where people are starting to change the ways cities are put together, by prioritizing walking and biking, over driving. These cities have legalized a mixture of compatible uses – something that’s been generally illegal to build for the last two generations. These mixed uses are allowed, provided the form of the building fits in with the character of the block. That’s why we call them form-based codes instead of use-based codes.

Not all form-based codes in the Codes Study are created equal. Some are short and sweet. Others are long and comprehensive. Some are clear and direct, while others are complicated. But all of them have something to teach us about making our places livable and resilient.

So if you’d like to join us in looking at the 584 cities who are upping their game, check out the Codes Study. This is a collaboration by a lot of people over the last twelve years, and it’s always a work in progress. So let us know if you don’t see your city or town properly reflected.

And in the mean time, using SimCity as an example, here are a couple of the things these new zoning laws do and don’t do.

The Front of the Building is for the People
Know those places where you like to linger on the sidewalk, maybe grab a coffee or read a book? Those are some of the places that just happen to also be making the biggest contributions to the livability of your city. In SimCity, just like in most older zoning, if you turn your building around to make a walkable main street, the game still gives you a blank look on the back of your buildings.

The way SimCity is meant to be played reflects use-based codes, that have parking between the storefront and the sidewalk. In these places, cities should save their cash and not build sidewalks, because they aren’t safe and rarely used. Or better yet, just turn the place around. This sort of auto-centric environment is one reason you won’t see any cyclists in SimCity, and not very many pedestrians either.

Not All People Thrive in the Same Intensity
It’s easier to do one thing well, instead of six things well. In SimCity, the skyscraper is done well. In most of North America, the single-family home is done well. However, for the places that have gone through the brain damage to get great at a wide range of character – the rural-to-urban spectrum we call the transect – and the range of housing types that are appropriate in these character areas, they are so beloved that most of us can’t afford to live there. As the supply catches up with demand via form-based codes, expect that to change.

Streets are Places Too
Okay, SimCity, we’ve run our traffic counts and we are sure that we, in fact, do not need to upgrade to a six-lane road! However, it’s true, that without strong pedestrian and cycling amenities, streets around skyscrapers have to get big fast. What we’d like you to consider is that streets are the histones which compact and organize the DNA of Place. And that building bigger roads makes traffic worse, but bike lanes reduce traffic delays.

People are Happiest Near their Loves
One of the many things that SimCity does well is recognize that more people will move in when you put them near things they love – parks, stores, schools, transit – and they just won’t come at all without basic services of police, fire and hospitals, right in their neighborhoods. Yet why in the real world do we constantly try to super-size these services to the regional scale, and put the bedroom communities far away from everything residents care about? Form-based codes are helping the law get up to speed with all those key elements that the gamers have understood for decades now.

Game on!

Hazel Borys

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  1. A few months I was looking for a game that reflected better (i.e. not 1950s) urban design, and rejected SimCity pretty quickly, as even after 20+ years of making the game, they are still stuck in the 50s (I think it is a toy-train sort of mentality).

    Anyway, I ended up finding another indie game called Banished, where you control the lives of a small population of (presumably) banished people with medieval technology, and help them grow their population and towns, add farms, etc over many generations.

    Like SimCity and unlike a lot of other games (the Civilization games), it is non-confrontational, so you don’t have to worry about invading hoards or other players destroying your stuff, though there are a few natural disasters. What’s neat is that the characters you control all have to walk, all have designated homes which they may or may not share with others, and their happiness level goes down the further they have to walk to go about their business (work).

    So to keep your people happy, you want them to live near work, and near markets, which are places they can go to refill the food in their homes.

  2. To be fair to Sim City, the screen shots you show are of Sim City Buildit, an addictive yet dumbed down and very simple game compared with the real Sim City. Perhaps you have comments on how the real Sim City treats urban planning?

  3. I have always wished SimCity would reflect “city” traits such as biking and mass transit in more flattering ways and even stopped playing it some years ago due to its autocentric design. SimSuburb would more accurately describe its current manifestation, but I dream of a version much more truly urban.

  4. Fascinating post and well-illustrated too! As the previous comment points out, it is in fact a derivative of the main SimCity game that you’re showcasing but the point stands whichever version you draw from.

  5. Tropico does a fair job at walkable communities, though it’s a command economy rather than a zoned free market.

  6. I’m hopeful that a soon to be released game “cities skylines” will provide a better simulation of urban planning principles. Sim-city is a fun game but far too limited to be taken in anyway seriously.

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