Sim City 2000: A New Urbanist Retrospective

Ah…Sim City 2000. I hadn’t thought about that game in ages, until I read Josh’s last post, referencing the game. I, too, remember spending hours and hours of my childhood trying to build the perfect city, and yes, idolizing the coveted arcologies, those self-contained cities in a tower. It’s one of those things that seems like a good idea until you actually start contemplating being a resident of one, at which point it takes on a dystopian timbre. But that aside, I absolutely loved playing that game.

The more I reminisce about the game now, though, the more I’m struck by how deeply ingrained in our national subconscious some of the more destructive elements of the urbanism of the post-WWII era are. There are so many problems with that game from a New Urbanist perspective. That isn’t to denigrate the developers choices, since they were merely taking the urbanist zeitgeist at face value. But it is alarming that no one chose to question the conventional wisdom offered to us by the urban planning movement.

What am I talking about? The game engine was designed in such a way that made certain types of development impossible, favored certain options over others, and encouraged sprawl-minded development.


Let’s look first at the way the game’s approach to zoning laws. There is no such thing as a mixed use zone in Sim City 2000. You have 3 choices, residential, commercial, and industrial, in high and low density variations, for a total of 6 zone options. We can probably attribute some of this to the processing and programming limitations of personal computers in the 1990’s, but the way the game engine behaved reinforced the idea of segregated zoning. Tutorials for the game always instructed the player to make sure that different zone types were separated, citing the NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor, pointing out that no one wants to live next door to a chemical plant. While this is true and not necessarily bad (and parallels the genesis of modern zoning laws), it places an over-emphasis on separation of use, encouraging sprawling developments. I suppose the ultimate irony of this is the fact that the only mixed-used building it was possible to build was the gargantuan arcologies.

Huge tracts of land zoned for a single use…


Revenue in the game is based on property taxes, much like in real life. And as a result, all of the flaws of our modern property tax system were incorporated part and parcel. Like real-world property values, values in the game are assessed based primarily on what sort of building occupies the space, with location playing a secondary role. Both of these are biased towards our current tax model, however. Gigantic office tower downtown? High value, high property taxes. Parking lot? Low value, low property taxes. Perhaps the game engine wasn’t sophisticated enough to always duplicate the effect that this has on real urban environments all of the time, but the basic model is there.

Street Layout:

Finally we come to something that the game engine did that was good. Because the whole map was laid out as a massive grid, that meant that the basic road structure also had to follow a grid pattern. While it was possible to build roads that curved or ran diagonal to the map, it was often prohibitively expensive and made all of the adjacent squares in the grid unbuildable. It was virtually impossible to build the sort of curving, meandering streets, pointless cul-de-sacs, and enormous collector roads that have come to define modern exurban development. Again, a limitation of 90’s computing power, but one worth taking note of.

Streets laid out in a grid. Note the ironic positioning of a gigantic parking lot directly across the street from the Mayor’s house.

So what’s the final verdict here? Is Sim City 2000 a cultural relic from the Urbanist movement’s heyday or is it possible to build a good city with it? I’ll have to go play the game again and report back.


3 thoughts on “Sim City 2000: A New Urbanist Retrospective

  1. Despite marketing itself as a more advanced simulation, and more open-ended, the new sequel seems to have the same problems:

    As far as I can tell mixed-use zones are still absent and auto-traffic is still the default.

    It would be cool if someone could convince Maxis to incorporate new urbanist principles. Perhaps a petition? I know it’s just a game, but it enforces certain ideas.

    • Thanks for sharing the link. Looking at that, it seems like the newest incarnation is a step backwards! Curvy roads? Really?!? That’s a new feature? I guess graphics processing has finally caught up with reality in an unfortunate way. I suppose the developers are more interested in mimicking the real world than they are in educating people about building good cities. It’s really easy when you don’t have to live in the city that you create; the visual features become the single most important aspect of the city.

      Also disappointing to notice that all buildings are set back from the street substantially. I guess walkability and creating the “outdoor room” effect that makes a neighborhood pleasant to walk through don’t really matter when you’re viewing everything from a god’s-eye-view.

      Definitely a step backwards. 😦

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