There's a computer game called "Sim City" -- that's with an M, not an N, although the latter might make it even more interesting for some.
Anyone who has spent time with the game quickly realizes two things:
1) It is incredibly difficult to plan a community without everything crashing in shambles in terms of traffic overload or financial bankruptcy, and
2) The "game" uncannily resembles the real world in communities such as Palo Alto, which has played the "planning" game for more than a century with high levels of citizen engagement, one way or another.
It also resembles an ambitious new "Plan Bay Area" effort to engage citizens in planning the future of the Greater Bay Area -- with public workshops starting April 21 and continuing into May, backed up by an informational website. It is "one of the most comprehensive" regional-planning efforts yet, at least in the nearly half century since regional planning agencies were created.
At the county-level workshops, participants "can help build a better Bay Area using a fun, interactive Web-based visual simulation tool."
Yet if you think local planning is tough, try regional. Starting with existing communities and conditions, problems and economic realities, factor in a predicted 2 million new residents, 900,000 new housing units, and 1.2 million new jobs through the year 2035 -- although the plan will project to 2040.
The new effort is spearheaded by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in partnership with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The agencies also are partnering with Envision Bay Area, a strategic initiative led by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and some nonprofit organizations working to promote public participation on Plan Bay Area.
The effort will be a supreme test of modern communication methodology as well as an exercise in management of information and opinion that will be virtually unprecedented.
At one level it will be a simulation, a creation of a vision for what the Bay Area should be, could be or shouldn't be.
Back to Sim City. It is shorthand for "simulated city," and the game enables one to start from scratch and build one's own community, with houses, schools, government buildings, sewers, streets, parks and other accouterments of society.
The Sim City website has a sweeping description: "From the dawn of civilization to the future, your city will evolve through time, its growth dependant upon your decisions and achievements."
One can do great things, the description continues: "Construct amazing cities with a wide variety of choices. Create a New York-style metropolis, a romantic European city, an exotic Asian paradise, a futuristic Cyberscape or combine them to make something truly unique."
One can also plan for disasters, a la the "emergency preparations" effort in Palo Alto: "Lay waste to your city with a variety of epic disasters, including earthquakes, meteors, and giant monsters. Prepare for and handle unexpected crises."
Now back to the real world, planning style.
Over years of observing local and regional planning efforts as a journalist my primary observation is that it is incredibly difficult to translate even the best, most logical and carefully done plans into reality. But most plans fail far earlier than the implementation phase. They fall into a fatal gap: Lack of easily accessible information about current conditions, trends, economics, predictable patterns of development and local politics.
To help minimize that knowledge gap, ABAG and MTC will sponsor meetings throughout the Bay Area "to inform the public of the Initial Vision Scenario for the PLAN BAY AREA effort." The scenario "sets forth a potential land use pattern for development in the Bay Area to accommodate approximately 2 million new residents, 900,000 new housing units, and 1.2 million new jobs through the year 2035."
The effort has a noble objective: "… to accommodate growth in ways that minimize greenhouse gas emissions and maximizes benefits of infrastructure investments."
In addition to public meetings, the initiative has created a backgrounder website that may help fill in at least part of the information/knowledge gap for people inclined to get involved -- a relatively new tool that could improve the planning process substantially.
The first public meeting will be held April 21 in Mountain View, followed by others. Palo Alto's City Council and Planning and Transportation Commission will be discussing the initiative in late April or May -- it is unthinkable that Palo Alto would not be a significant voice in the regional process.
The Santa Clara County workshop will be held April 21, 5:30-8:30 p.m. at Microsoft Corporation in Mountain View. A San Mateo County workshop will be April 27, 5:30-8:30 p.m., at the San Mateo Public Library. Other dates and times are listed on the website: www.onebayarea.org/plan_bay_area/workshops.htm .
Sim City Creator has its own website, too, if one wants to take a practice run: http://simcitysocieties.ea.com/index.php.