Teen-Agers Design Their Own Cities -- on a Computer

May 09, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — If our kids could design the cities of our future -- the cities they'll have to live in -- what would those communities look like?

Would our children select the world of spread-out superhighways, strip malls, office parks, the suburban cul-de-sacs and big shopping malls we've been so busy constructing for the last generation?

Or would the next generation go for an ultra-high-tech world -- modernistic megastructures, high-speed vehicles, universal cellular-phone connections, dispersed population centers? Or a traditional scenario -- dense center cities, streets placed on grid patterns, a premium on parks, waterfronts, libraries, theaters?

Today's youth -- or at least a cross-section of middle-schoolers -- go much more heavily for the traditional city model than you might expect. The young people's choice came into focus recently during a national competition to design their preferred city of the year 2010, using the popular software, ''SimCity.'' Students from 185 schools nationwide participated, with the seven finalist teams invited to Washington for the final judging during National Engineers Week.

The top trophy in the Future Cities Competition was captured by three youngsters from Yorba Linda,California, who created ''Ancona,'' an energy-efficient, people-friendly city with a magnetic-levitation train-transit system intended to make automobiles obsolete.

There was, in fact, lots of high technology in all the scale models the students drew up based on their SimCity experiments. The entry I liked the most, a model by students from Ann Arbor, Michigan, called ''Sapphire Bay'' (for clean waters), Players deal with the complexity and interrelatedness of urban systems.

Most government decisions aren't made that way.

Afeatured noise-free helicopters (powered by electric motors). Its youthful designers included an underground transit system with personal vehicles propelling passengers' capsules to their destinations with a burst of nitrogen gas.

But Sapphire, in the model the students created, was also a city dotted with multiple parks. ''We wanted a really dense population so that we'd have more open space for the other animals on this earth,'' one student told me. ''We want people to get out of their homes, to see other people, not just interact by computers. And we wanted people living closer together because today, to get across Ann Arbor, it takes forever.''

The same kids, you may argue, will see things differently once they have the freedom of their own cars. But the balance of expectations and hopes among these 13-to-15-year-olds, students bright enough at math to get caught up in a contest sponsored by engineers, was striking. The cities they wanted included not just high-tech wonders but a human-scale, walkable environment reflecting a respect for planet Earth, architectural quality and creative interaction with other people.

Equally surprising is that the SimCity software, on which the City of the Future competition was based, is selling briskly in the competitive kids' software world. Indeed, the new and improved version of the software, SimCity 2000, recently ranked near the top of sales of all computer games.

In vivid contrast to run-of-the-mill juvenile software, SimCity offers no violence, no zapping of extraterrestrial aliens, no overpowering winners. You don't need an 11-year-old's hand-and-eye coordination to do well at it. Instead, the player creates a city and grapples with urban problems ranging from crime to pollution to traffic gridlock. The player must build infrastructure while holding taxes at reasonable levels and balancing the city budget -- and all the time keep approval of enough residents (called Sims) not to be thrown out of office.

Youngsters are taught connectedness. In the SimCity algorithm, soaring crime rates and joblessness trigger riots; positive economics, low crime and education keep the peace. In SimCity 2000, the recent update, the player must maintain libraries and museums or his Sims will dumb down and the city will be unable to attract high-tech industries.

It shouldn't be necessary to rave about such software; it ought to be the norm, the expected. Why shouldn't we use computers to give young people -- indeed all of us -- more choice about our cities and environment? The genius of SimCity, suggests Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Association Governments, is that it requires the players to deal with the complexity and interrelatedness of urban systems.

Most government decisions aren't made that way. We try to run police, sewer systems, schools, hospitals, zoning and transit as if they were separate worlds, when in fact each profoundly impacts the others.

Most advertising, most political campaigns sell the big lie of simple answers and solutions. For years, campaign strategists have used computers to analyze and then manipulate public opinion.

What the SimCity model does is the opposite: It uses the computer to explain complex policy alternatives to us all. It suggests we ought to have a right to design the world we live in. Even more critical, it treats us as adults. No wonder kids like it.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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