SimCity - This Civil Engineer's Perspective

I'm a registered Civil Engineer in California and have worked in the San Diego Land Development industry for the past 16 years.  Today I was thinking about the similarities and differences between SimCity and real life land development.

Land Development
One thing we commonly do in land development is to study a raw piece of land and determine what exactly can be built on it. Every site has it's limitations, based on geography, biology, archeology, planning zone or other local ordinances.  In San Diego County, that can be pretty challenging because of our natural terrain.  Our county is full of canyons, mesas and hillsides.  For the most part, if there's a plot of land that's easy to build on, someone already has. The days of being give a plot of land like Matisse Plains is long gone.

Even if we do have areas that can be easily built on, there are often unseen factors which come into play.  If your biologist finds wetlands, guess what? You have to keep your development footprint 100' away. Have some steep slopes? You probably can't build there either. Want to build in hillsides? Make sure you leave another 100' buffer to cut the brush down for fire safety.  Archeological sites? Yep stay away from those too.  Then there's the other unseen factors: existing water aqueducts, sewer trunk lines, large box culvert storm drains, easements, outdated maps for property lines. The list goes on and on.

Buildable Area & Neighborhood Design
On residential projects, once we determine where exactly we can build, we do what we call a Preliminary Grading Plan or Yield Study. We try to fit in as many units as possible to see what the maximum number of homes will be.  If your site is relatively flat, a grid pattern will yield the highest number of units.  But just like in SimCity, a grid is rather boring, and usually not a place that you'd be very proud of when complete.  A nice "look and feel", nice parks, good access to education, mass transit, and jobs: These are the factors that sell in today's market.  The Sims are similar in what they want, except for the "look and feel". That usually comes down to the SimCity mayor. Some of us like to build for flat out high yield, creating grid patterns of high density low weatlh, which hold up to 1.5 Million. Others like to build themed cities: Mega Resorts, small hamlets, quiet German villages, a seaside city with an amusement park, or a mini version of Paris.  I've even seen a desert cactus farm built in SimCity.

City of Cactus Fields by Thayne Mercer of the SimNation Guild

As civil engineers we are responsible for the "Wet" utilities: Sewer/Water/Storm Drain.  I'll take a look at each:

Storm Drain
When we design a residential development, we determine not only where the storm runoffs will flow, but how much water will be carried in the storm drain system. We determine whether or not the existing storm drain is large enough to handle a "100 year flood", and calculate what size the on-site storm drains need to be.  SimCity has none of that, which is actually pretty nice. Hydrology calculations are complicated, take a long time, run on DOS based software, and frankly aren't that much fun (sorry to all the hydrologists out there, it's not for me). Good choice Maxis.

I usually don't have to deal too much with water pumps like we do as Sim Mayors. Most of our water comes from the Colorado River or from Northern California. My job is usually to find the correct pipe to connect to, ensure there's enough water pressure and then connect to it. We'll design the development's water system, but for the most part we're just connecting to an existing system.  Thank you No Cal, keep the water flowing south as well as the SimCity patches.

Sewer is probably the trickiest of the three wet utilities to design because it's usually a gravity system (naturally flowing downhill), and unlike SimCity you can't just dump it out on the ground.  Even though we'd never do that, my biggest pet peeve with SimCity is being on the sewer view and watching sewage flow uphill. It can be accomplished with a pump, but we avoid it at all cost because pumping is expensive, while gravity is free.

Map of Metropolitan Sewerage System
The San Diego Sewer System

When water goes down my drain or I flush the toilet, it flows downhill to the sewer system in my street. That sewer system then leads down the street out of my neighborhood, then down a canyon, eventually leading to a system of large pumps that pump all of San Diego's sewage to a treatment plant in Point Loma, which is treated and then discharged two miles off the coast in the ocean.  As civil engineers it's our job to design a sewer system that can utilize the natural slope to convey that sewage. This aspect is completely ignored in the game, although we do have to find a location for the regional sewer treatment. Due to the amount of space sewer treatment takes in the game, and the fact that it usually occurs in a far off corner of a city, I would prefer that there would be a Great Work that could be done to handle all the sewer, or simply pay a fee and be done with it.

Sewer and Water facilities seem to always take up a lot of room.

The Design Team
As a civil engineer, you're working as part of a team with an architect and landscape architect that are largely responsible for the "look and feel". Architects design the buildings and everything inside it (in tandem with a Mechanical, Structural and Electrical engineers). Civil Engineers design the streets, the grading of the site, the wet utilites, and bring the utilities to the building. Landscape architects design the landscape and hardscape surrounding the building. In SimCity, the Sim Mayor makes all the decisions and you can create whatever type of place you want to create. Best of all, there's no approval from Planning Commissions, Board of Surpervisors, City Council, or voters required.  +1 to SimCity.  (And no, I wasn't involved with any of those projects that are linked to.) The downside to being the sole person in charge is that you're not always the most creative person. I often see people complain that they are disappointed in their own city creativity and that they fall into a rut of making grid cities. This is where architects and landscape engineers excel. +1 to real life architects.

The best part of working in land development is seeing your design constructed and ultimately used for it's intended purpose. It's very satisfying to drive around and look at the places you designed. Whether it's a master planned community, neighborhood, resort, park, shopping center, or new roadway, it's flat out cool to see people use the "place" that you had a hand in creating.  The benefit of SimCity is that you can see that process sped up.  Instead of waiting months or years, you can build an entire city in a couple of hours or days. The sense of satisfaction from completing a SimCity can be very similar to how it feels to complete a real project, just on a much smaller scale.  It's why I love SimCity and enjoy sharing information about how best to utilize the land in the game. It's great fun and can be very satisfying seeing something you saw in your head come to fruition.

1 comment: