SimCity's new release

I was vaguely aware of the existence of a new SimCity game in production over the last few weeks.  Today, I found out it came out yesterday, and I started looking into it.  Adam Sneed at Slate has written a long post about his experience with the game, that has made me drool a little bit:

To tinker with the environment during a preview of SimCity, I created Sneedville, a playground for my more destructive tendencies. The area in which I founded my city was rich in coal and metal ore, so I chose to specialize in industry. [...]

Because of the work available to them, the residents of Sneedville were low-income. This limited the city’s tax revenue, and there was little incentive for people to move into town. Worse, data showed that pollution from the industrial park was lowering property values and diminishing quality of life. It also turned out that the ore beneath the mines was being depleted.

The city was off to a decent start financially, but following the trend lines wasn’t hard. Real estate was limited, so I needed to make a decision. Should I dedicate myself to industry, knowing it will bring money as well as environmental damage, and that the area’s lifeblood would someday run out? Or should I try diversifying the economy by shifting to, say, commerce, education, or tourism?


Another way SimCity accurately captures in the leading edge of urban planning is through its use of Big Data. Cities around the world are using sensors to measure everything from energy and water usage to pollution levels and crime trends. The game puts the player at the helm of the ultimate smart city as it tracks just about every metric of life in the simulation. At the click of a button, dynamic, colorful maps—inspired by the infographics of data scientist Edward Tufte—present real-time data on traffic, crime, pollution, public health, property values, and much more.

Apparently, there are some serious problems with server access going on right now, but EA says they're working to sort them out.

China's beautiful hypothetical(?) pebble towers

io9 has an article up about the result of a commission for a proposal to do with the city of Shenzhen -- the proposal is a set of six towers that resemble stacked glass pebbles, which would contain agricultural space all the way up.

One of the frustrating things about io9, eco-cities, and China is that it's really hard to tell which things are serious proposals, which things are already in production, and which things are cool concept sketches that aren't really anywhere near happening.

io9 writes,

The Chinese city of Shenzhen recently commissioned the French firm Vincent Callebaut Architects to come up with an innovative and sustainable building solution for the growing metropolis. The result is this: The Shenzhen Asian Cairn Farmscraper project, an initiative consisting of six mix-used towers structured like a pile of rocks. Aside from being absolutely gorgeous, the buildings will provide space for residents, offices, shops, recreation — and as the name would imply, its own food.

See what I mean? The picture up there looks like a sci fi illustration.  But the text says it will provide space... the result is... they've come up with a solution...

And I, personally, have no idea how to separate (a.) my belief in the plausibility and value of vertical farming and integrating nature with the cityscape, (b.) my awareness that China is pushing ahead in the cutting edge in a lot of ways America isn't, (c.) my awareness that China is big on censorship and propaganda, and this could all just be puffery, and (d.) my lifelong indoctrination into the implicit belief that all new buildings built from now until forever will be ugly concrete or glass modernist rectangles and everything else is just a silly joke.

Bridges for wild animals

Mental_Floss has an awesome short article about Wildlife crossings, which doesn't just mean those signs that warn you that deer like to jump out around that part of the road.  Wildlife crossings are these often incredibly beautiful pieces of architecture over highways that save wildlife the trouble of getting hit by a truck:


That and more pictures are available at The World Geography.

Mental_Floss writes,

Wildlife crossings help all kinds of animals get around, including salamanders, panthers, bears, and badgers. These pieces of infrastructure save not just wildlife, but also money: Drivers in the U.S. spend $8 billion annually on wildlife-related damage to cars.

Wikipedia points out that these projects are trivial in cost, especially when compared to the gains, both environmentally and in property damage to people's cars:

The benefits derived from constructing wildlife crossings to extend wildlife migration corridors over and under major roads appear to outweigh the costs of construction and maintenance. One study estimates that adding wildlife crossings to a road project is only a 7-8% increase in the total cost of the project (Bank et al. 2002). Theoretically, the monetary costs associated with constructing and maintaining wildlife crossings in ecologically important areas are trumped by the benefits associated with protecting wildlife populations, reducing property damage to vehicles, and saving the lives of drivers and passengers by reducing the number of collisions caused by wildlife.

I talk a lot about liking the urban world more than the rural, but I'm not sure it always comes across that this is a big part of that -- finding ways to cooperate with, and share our spaces with, animals native to the sites of our development is hugely important.

And, it just generally makes the world a more pleasant place.  Seeing a deer on the highway during a drive can go two ways:  it can either be terrifying, because you're afraid it's going to jump out at you and you'll get into a horrible accident, or it can be pleasant, seeing a cute animal safely away from your car.  Among everything else, these crossings sound like one of the millions of ways we can make lots of peoples' lives a little bit less shitty, which is how you make the world a nice place to live.

Freedom Ship International: a traveling city on the ocean

Earlier today, my partner told me about a project to make a ship that is a city.  Like, an entire city.  I did some googling, and discovered that what she was talking about was the Freedom Ship, which at this stage is just a big plan.


Envision an ideal place to live or run a business, a friendly, safe and secure community with large areas of open space and extensive entertainment and recreational facilities. Finally, picture this community continually moving around the world. You are beginning to understand the Freedom Ship concept of a massive ocean-going vessel.


At first glance, this project sounds really, really cool.  But looking closer at the website, it sounds not so much like a real city -- it sounds sort of aggressively pre-gentrified.

The idea of a city that is a boat, in fact exactly the sort of city they're roughly describing at that website, that sails around the world, stopping in at all the major ports, sustaining a real population of people who actually live there, is really cool.  And, I think, just bordering on possible.  But what they seem to be trying to do with this project isn't to make a city at sea -- they're trying to make a rich neighborhood from a city, at sea.

That, to me, makes it sound like a much more awful place.  And it has all the trappings of that awfulness -- the name, especially, squicks me out.  Neither a ship nor a city are good places to maximize freedom.  They're great for a lot of other things -- adventure, multiculturalism, innovation, etc.  But the principle 'your right to swing your first ends at the tip of my noes' is a lot more restricting when people are packed densely.

But this project does give me hope.  Because if we're getting into the business of building ships like this, then it's only a matter of time before somebody gets it right.  (And with the speed things change in the world now, that might only be a couple of decades.)  I'm not interested in signing up to live on the Freedom Ship, but it would be awesome to live on the next one, the S.S. whatever, something with an organic nature that builds up its own, real infrastructure with a real mix of people from different socio-economic classes all pursuing what better life that ship can offer them.

And if it doesn't happen in real life, it almost certainly will, eventually, in one of my novels.

Slate on Amish values in technology

Jamey Wetmore at Slate has written an article arguing that new technologies are making us behave more like the Amish, which struck me (as I'm sure was the point) as slightly absurd.  I didn't realize, though, that the Amish values surrounding technology aren't about outright avoidance of electronics or combustion engines -- it's that the Amish take a defensive stance against technology as an effort to protect the family and community.

For many of us, the technology rules the Amish have developed seem arbitrary and silly. But they are actually thought through very well. The Amish meet twice a year in groups of 40-50 families to decide if any rules need to be changed. If someone is thinking about using a new technology, this would definitely be a topic of conversation. What are the metrics for making decisions about technology? Community and family. The Amish believe that the best life is one that is lived in community with fellow believers. The majority of their decisions are driven by the goal of strengthening the ties they have to one another.

So those seemingly arbitrary rules I just mentioned do have a purpose. Why can’t an Amish person buy a car? They’ve seen how our communities have slowly unraveled to the point where many of us don’t even know the names of our neighbors. They think the automobile—which gives us the ability to travel great distances by ourselves quickly—bears a great deal of the blame for this. But they do see the benefit of occasionally using car travel, and if a neighbor wants to lend a hand, spending time with them helps to strengthen their ties.

Jamey makes a lot of solid points in this article.  I mean, I still wouldn't want the rest of civilization to start focusing on family as much as the Amish do.  I think that would be really bad for us, and I think America's reduced emphasis on family is a good thing.

But I like the idea of structuring our relationships with technology to build communities, rather than focusing just on profit and convenience.  This reminds me of one of my favorite TED talks "The shareable future of cities" by Alex Steffen, specifically the bit about halfway through about the drill.

China's future garden cities

I often hear Americans whine about climate change, complaining that even if it is real, there's nothing we can do about it, because no matter how hard we try China will never stop polluting so it's all pointless. As a counterpoint, I present the Garden City:

In 1902, a self-taught urban planner named Ebenezer Howardpublished his utopian vision for "Garden Cities"--self-contained circular towns radiating from a central city, connected only by train. Neither town nor country, they were a dense, compact fusion of the two: suburbia without sprawl.

Although Garden Cities never really caught on in the West, the Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture has resurrected the idea with Chinese characteristics: a “prototype city” twice as populous and 20 times as dense, with a tower taller than the Empire State Building at its core. Working with one of China’s largest real estate developers, the firm aims to build them by the score.

The idea is that the small, dense cities, surrounded by "greenbelts," will be built, people will move to the cities, then, when they reach capacity, instead of sprawling out, with new, haphazard construction spreading across the landscape the way it does in American cities, a satellite city will be built nearby, connected only by high-speed rail, to start taking in the new population growth.

It's genius, and it's been around conceptually for over a hundred years.  China has plenty of problems, but it turns out destroying the world with pollution isn't one of them -- or, at least, they're doing more to make it not one of them than America is.  (Cough cough fetishistic individualism is going to kill us all cough cough)

We could use this kind of design in America.  I say we fence in New York, bulldoze the suburbs, and start building satellite cities until we've replaced the necessary housing.  (Not necessarily in that order.)

SkyScrapers in DC

I figured I was probably going to like any article with the headline Skyscrapers in DC would be good for America.  I was not mistaken.

The main issue is that DC area real estate is one of the primary "inputs" to the federal government. If housing in the DC area became cheaper, then in effect real compensation of DC-area federal employees would rise (allowing the government to attract better workers) at no cost to the taxpayer. Similarly, the federal government would just straightforwardly save money if it didn't need to pay such high rents for office space. And as well as being the most expensive office market in America, DC also has one of the most expensive hotel markets in the country which raises the cost of doing routine federal business which often requires federal workers based elsewhere to travel to agency headquarters' in the DC region.

I have occasional arguments with people about whether the US should be more urbanized. I think it should.  A lot of people think that living in the city is an occasionally necessary evil which everyone should avoid if they can.

According to the CIA world factbook, 85% of Americans lived in cities as of 2010, so making cities better is kind of a big deal.  And one of the problems with American urbanization is sprawl.  When I say "Bigger cities," I don't mean "More sprawl."  I don't mean that more of the empty space in America should be turned into two-to-three story tall fields of suburbs and strip malls.

Instead, I think we need to make the existing cities more friendly to increasing density. Skyscrapers are a great way to do this, and since DC is the most important city in American politics, it needs to be more open to access and development.