"Crafting a balance, like I attempted to do in the land of the Sims, often is met with the crushing realization that your city’s best-laid plans are suddenly spiraling out of your hand." As the GR Forward planning process moves ahead, Rapid Growth's Tommy Allen shares some game-inspired perspectives with our city.
I’ve met plenty of fascinating people in my life, and in 1989 I met a game changer – though this time it wasn’t a person but a game. I started playing SimCity. And along the way, as I ventured to create a digital world alongside my analog life, my observations have yielded something unique.
Maybe my attraction to SimCity’s build-a-city platform was related to my fascination with cities that began as a young child. By SimCity’s debut in 1989, I had not only called New York City my second home (as I jetted back and forth from Grand Rapids too many times to count) but I had also visited nearly 20 U.S. states and 8 countries, all before the age of 25.
My experience with world cities - all in various states of transition - would come to inform my vision as I built my SimCity from the comfort of my desktop at home. It also influenced the way I would learn to navigate in the future.
The programmers of this game set in stone certain city services they determined non-negotiable within SimCity’s world, with you acting as the mayor - what you were referred to instead of “player” – and expected to put them in place right at the start: education, safety, parks, leisure activity spaces, and even one that would become a 21st century realization, health care.
As later versions emerged with ever brighter graphics from this black and white original, the mayor had to face tougher decisions, like the introduction of taxes as well as other streams of income, like adding a gambling facility, building a military base, or simply erecting more prisons. I would scratch my head as to how prisons would make money until I arrived in the 21st century where I live today.
And suddenly it isn’t just a game anymore.
So what the heck does this have to do with anything in Grand Rapids? Plenty.
Over the course of the last 50-plus years of our urban renewal, we have all played a part in this transformation, whether we actually participated in the process or not.
I am not saying that cities are games but after a decade or so of visiting speakers and endless TED talks streaming over YouTube, we have heard all too often a consultant’s mind-numbing chant: the city is a playground. End of story; let’s play.
But it is not a playground for all.
For some it is where they live and for others it’s where they go to work without a thought of play. It is many things with no easy definition as SimCity would have had me believe.
Crafting a balance, like I attempted to do in the land of the Sims, often is met with the crushing realization that your city’s best-laid plans are suddenly spiraling out of your hand. You begin to realize that maybe you opened one too many coffee shops in your Sim world when you should have built a factory. The balancing act of cities in analog feels the same way as we grow into the city we have attempted to create. Except in some cities you can simply reboot the program while in others the methods to gain traction take much more time.
Looking around us, we have opportunities we did not have before and a sense of optimism fills the air. Plans are circulating, needing your input. Plans are emerging, from the economic and environmentally transformative GR Forward
to the city’s most recent report on The Great Housing Strategies
. Both of these opportunities (along with others emerging all the time) need our voices to be heard.
The challenge evident in both reports is that all cities, like ours, are struggling with what is next, so I am encouraging you, as we prepare to usher in a new mayor in the months ahead, to look to the future and see if you will be willing to take a few more steps with me….and, yes, I am inserting myself in the process -- not as a lifestyle editor and publisher, but as a fellow citizen.
We are a place that enjoys being on the top of so many great lists and bemoans being at the top of a few others, but while we are
our lists, we are also more than the sum of our lists at the end of the day. And maybe before we start our next steps of planning, we should adopt a simpler method for understanding each other.
Even as I write this, more lists will begin to appear that might discourage us, like this one
, but we have real opportunity in the face of such negatives. We have the people here to correct this imbalance and the work they are performing is often unsung.
Grand Rapids wants to be grand in the future, but we will need to stretch a bit to get there. Staying the course is working for some but not others, as the housing report shares critical data on wages and housing matters. How can we work to ensure success is available to all?
In the coming weeks I look forward to diving into The Human Fabric
by visiting Austin, TX author Bijoy Goswami
, who proposes that we consider framing new “houses” within our city experience to foster advancement. Each house has a perspective, one that deserves to be heard in order to gain understanding. Goswami is a builder of models that cities (as well as people) can put into practice as they seek to create a future.
As we’re building the next chapter of Grand Rapids, much like the mayors of SimCity, we will only be strongest when we seek to include a diverse set of voices. As we dive into the public comment section of the plans mentioned above and others, we have time before their adoption to contribute our voices. I encourage you to do so.
Maybe one day we’ll survey our perfectly balanced city, built with the wisdom that comes from listening to many voices. Today, though, we set out to do the necessary bridge-building work that somehow SimCity was trying to communicate to all of us future city believers.
The Future Needs All of Us.
Publisher and Lifestyle Editor
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