The average American’s understanding of urban planning has been disproportionately—and inaccurately—shaped by planning simulation video games. The most famous, of course, is SimCity. But these days, all the real planning geeks we know are playing Cities:Skylines, which offers more features and a much higher degree of realism.
Games like this are responsible for giving many laypeople an inflated and inaccurate sense of the power of planning—in a video game, you can play God, wiping away or irreversibly transforming entire neighborhoods with the click of a mouse. In the real world, that has (mercifully) almost never been the case. The closest we’ve come to it in American history, though, might be the freeway-building era of the 1950s and 1960s, when lines drawn on a map really did result in the wholesale demolition of entire communities—and plunged much larger adjacent swaths of our inner cities into a tailspin of decline that many have yet to recover from.
This history, to those who weren’t alive at the time (and aren’t part of communities in which the harm experienced is still part of living memory for an older generation), can feel abstract and antiseptic. We may even grow more sympathetic to the idea of grand, top-down, transformative schemes when we don’t have firsthand experience of the ugly consequences for real people’s real lives. Fortunately, to rescue us from the allure of Robert Moses-style utopian planning schemes, we have an unlikely savior: utopian-planning-scheme-simulator itself, Cities:Skylines.
A Youtuber who goes by Donoteat is creating a fascinating series called Power, Politics & Planning that brilliantly uses Cities:Skylines as a storytelling tool. Subverting the tidy abstractions of this game and its genre, Donoteat uses the in-game graphics as a prop to reveal to us the messy, sometimes ugly human consequences of planning hubris that sees a city as a collection of roads and buildings.
Episode 2 is all about urban freeways, and to tell the story, Donoteat constructs a remarkably believable and richly rendered city whose rowhouse blocks bear more than a passing resemblance to Baltimore, Washington, or maybe Chicago. We watch as he plans a freeway which requires the demolition of a slice of this historic neighborhood—and then, as he clicks the button to remove each building condemned by eminent domain, tells us a bit about the life and fate of its inhabitant. These aren’t real stories, but they feel real—and might as well be. They begin to capture the gravity and the tragedy of the way freeways snuffed out the rich social fabric of real communities, consigned to the wrecking ball in the interest of speedy suburban commutes.