'SimCity 2000' Teaches 2016 Urban Planners to Reconsider Rebuilding, Alien Attacks

How a 23-year old PC game makes it easy to understand how to protect our cities from disaster.

SimCity 2000

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with SimCity 2000, a computer game that tasked players with building a city from scratch then running it like a despot. It was the best gun-free game out there even if it felt — even at the time — a bit like a relic, what with the blocky graphics and the Jane Jacobs morality lessons. Today, the game just feels innocent. SimCity 2000 arrived before the effects of climate change, before technology began to revolutionize city services, before the housing bubble popped, and before Uber.

Nevertheless, the game allows us to sort of play around with some of the challenges that currently affect many of world’s cities, as well as problems that could perhaps one day strike at the world’s urban centers. With that in mind, I wanted to flex the urban planning expertise I’ve collected in the last year after I started writing the “Future Cities” series for Inverse and see to what extent new lessons about facing urban challenges could be applied in a simulator from the 90s.

I downloaded SimCity 2000 to my Macbook, and pulled up the list of pre-made maps that tasks players with dealing with a disaster scenario. I decided to play two very different ones. The first was inspired by an issue affecting coastal cities around the world: floods. In particular, I chose to deal with a flood afflicting Charleston, South Carolina.

The Charleston Flood

The Goal: Save Charleston from being flooded over by rising coastal waters and rebuild the city with just $20,000. (If you weren’t already aware, things in SimCity don’t have real-world costs. Example: planting a tree costs $1.00.)

The Process: Right off the bat, I realized Charleston was not built to withstand floods. There are way too many commercial and residential communities lined up along the water, and the flat land makes those areas particularly vulnerable to damage by flood. I’m not real clear on exactly how well the game emulates or accurately re imagines what the Charleston coast looks like, but if they utilize any protective measures like levees or dykes, they were not present in the game. So naturally, as the floods began, a pretty big chunk of the city was immediately inundated. And the chances it stays intact are pretty small.

The Charleston Flood of 1989

Neel Patel/SimCity 2000

The only thing you can really do in these situations is to wait for the waters to recede. I sent out some police forces to do … something? Not really sure if that made things work, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Which brings me to my next, more desperate course of action. Higher elevations would have helped to protect these communities, but apparently a computer-simulated 1989 Charleston government neglected to come up with that idea. Yet higher elevations would at least prevent the spread of the flood.

So, as the new mayor, I took matters into my own hands. In areas on the coast devastated by floods, I razed the terrain, and then I raised the terrain. And it worked! The flood waters dissipated quickly, but in their wake was a ton of communities just completely destroyed.

You can see where I raised the terrain to protect the rest of the city, and the coastal lands that were destroyed in the aftermath.

Neel Patel/SimCity 2000

Here’s where the limitations and age of SimCity 2000 begin to prop up and conflict with what urban design and planning has transformed into these days. My goal with raising the terrain was to effectively abandon the immediate coast of Charleston and focus on development inland.

After all, current data suggests the continual rise of sea levels caused by climate change will effectively fuck up our coastal cities. Miami is a really good case study for the way some urban experts are already advocating for people to start retreating into dryer parts inland and give up life on the coast.

The Lesson: Unfortunately, humans are wired with the desire to rebuild. As a result, I was tasked to restore Charleston to its former glory — even though those rebuilt parts would almost certainly get hit by floods again. I resisted at first by building new hospitals behind the raised terrain and concentrating first on restoring power to communities inland first. The last straw for me happened when I was asked to restore access to clean water to the lands I was hoping to abandon.

Much of the city was still lacking clean water access. To extend that access to communities close to the water seemed insane.

Neel Patel/SimCity 2000

Although the game was simulating an environment from 1989, urban planners these days still run into problems trying to get officials to think about their city in the long run. Climate change and sea level rise is a very crystalline example of the way city officials get in their own way and set themselves up for larger obstacles later on, but it’s not the only one — we see the same thing happen in other places when it comes to transportation, water infrastructure, and even revitalization with no clear plan. In this instance, we’re again confronted by the fact that a more sensible strategy of retreating from the coast is blocked by a more uncontrollable push to go back and rebuild — no matter how irrational that is.

Fortunately for me, I could simply quit the game and start a new disaster map.

Aliens Attack Atlanta

The Goal: In a futuristic version of Atlanta, a UFO descends upon the city’s downtown district and fucks shit up. Put out the fires, and rebuild, and bring the city back to a population of 72,000 in just five years.

The Process: This was already a bizarre scenario to wrap my head around. As the UFO started blasting laser beams out and starting fires, I began by sending in the police to do … something? I don’t know how they would be equipped with fending off Atlanta from a massive mechanical beast. All the same, the aliens lit a great deal of the city on fire then got bored and left as the flames started to spread.

Weirdly enough, Georgia Tech came out pretty unscathed.

Neel Patel/SimCity 2000

Massive fires broke out and started to take out block after block.

It wasn't great at first.

Neel Patel/SimCity 2000

I sent firefighters, but they couldn’t stop the flames.

And then it got worse.

Neel Patel/SimCity 2000

It wasn’t long before I’d lost the capital.

Like, a lot worse

Neel Patel/SimCity 2000

And then pretty much the rest of the city.


Neel Patel/SimCity 2000

As you can see, eight or so fire fighting units are not enough to stop a fire. ‘Cause when a fire starts to burn…

The Lesson: I quickly realized I had lost the city. I could have chosen to trudge forward and spend time rebuilding, but this also doesn’t make sense from a realistic perspective. Besides ignoring the larger consequences of what an encounter with alien beings would mean, SimCity 2000 highlights another older way of thinking about cities that is quickly fading: that a city is an isolated community unto itself.

If something like this happened in the real world, every city and town within the region would have sent over their own firefighting units to the scene to help combat the flames and minimize the destruction. The recovery of the city would involve the state and federal resources. Nearby communities would get involved as well.

On the flip side, although the previous scenario highlighted that rebuilding is not necessarily the most sound strategy, the recovery of Atlanta demonstrates that a disaster also offers a potential to start from scratch and transform a city into something new. In this instance, I could have chosen to introduce a subway to alleviate traffic congestion; build high-rise apartments to create a denser environment; could have built more firefighting units around town.

Overall, both scenarios, in their own ways, emphasize the way urban planners these days are moving past the idea of a city as a static system, and towards a vision for cities as fluid entities capable of transforming and adapting based on changing circumstances. This is less a consequence of new technologies and innovations — and more of a concerted effort to change the way we actually think about approaches. Playing SimCity 2000 nowadays is a strange but wonderful way to realize what defines a city is not what it currently is, but what it could be.