Saturday, October 31, 2009

Settlers of Catan, TOD Version

Settlers of Catan, originally uploaded by gadl.
Every city planner, city politician and professional dealing with economic development should become good at the game of Settlers.

I began playing the Settlers of Catan in Jerusalem, where a friend, Sharon Alley, introduced us to the game after her trip to northern Europe. Some of my favorite memories include the long hours of play I had among my expat friends in some winter school breaks in Tiberias, overlooking the Galilee. Part of the beauty of the game is the combinatorial board's simplicity, so simple, indeed, that the fact that the instructions and development cards where all written in Danish (or something) somehow did not hamper us much. It was in the play though that things got very interesting quickly. Right from the start, when players take turns placing their pioneering settlements, the game immediately makes Monopoly seem monotonous.

Thinking back on what motivated me as an architecture student to focus on urban planning, I seriously list the influence of the Settlers of Catan. One reason why my educational tract veered into the Department of Urban Studies + Planning during grad school was the theoretical analogues the game presented me as I studied the roles and interrelationships of transportation, trade, politics and industry in improving urban development and regional competitiveness. By a combination of diplomacy, haggling, and economic resourcefulness, players are forced throughout the game of Settlers to fight for competitive advantages over a simplistic board of resources. This is the only game I know where direct competitors can actually trade game (resource) cards in open negotiation after each dice-roll. (Imagine, for example, what would happen to chess if a player could haggle with his/her opponent to convert a rook to the other side in order to get back his/her queen). This simple and ingenious alteration to the board-gaming norm forces strategies and impromptu alliances to become fluid, crafty and subtle. Some of the dramas of Poker are manifested. Any player of Settlers develops both a an economic resource strategy beholden to the fate of the dice roll as well as a political strategy to deal with his/her opponents. The best players, therefore, can't help but to gain a sense of the underlying politics and economic strategies influencing regional competitiveness in the real world. Part of the value of the game is that it teaches you to think about the resources of cities in systematic, simplified, physical terms while allowing you to see the value of the soft and open social/political dynamics involved that promote development in more non-deterministic terms.

During my run yesterday, I thought about Settlers as I reflected on my work as a transportation-focused urban designer. (Curiously, as my friends well-know, I was always a Settlers player that favored a road-building strategy over a city-development harvesting/mining focused resource strategy). I suddenly realized that the game could use a rail and transit-oriented development strategy to make it more reflective of the life and health of cities. Here then are my rules for "rail-road" building in Settlers, Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Version:

All the rules are the same except for the following additions:
1) A player can upgrade a road link into a rail track by purchasing a second road and laying it next to the existing road link (a "track" is thus two planks side by side). A track counts as two links in determination of links for the "longest road".
2) A player can't instantly purchase a track. S/he must wait at least one round before upgrading a road link just purchased, and s/he can only upgrade those road links between linked settlements. Players cannot begin to upgrade roads to tracks until the game's first two complete rounds are played.
3) A player can substitute a sheep resource card for a wood or clay resource card in order to upgrade a road to a "track" (my opinion is that sheep need to become a more useful commodity to a game of Settlers - there's always way too many of them). It is probably best to not allow a player to substitute two sheep cards to upgrade a road link. In other words, you will still need at least one of the road building resource cards to upgrade to a rail track (we don't want to tempt players too much from using sheep to draw development cards).
4) This is the money rule: Settlements (including cities) connected by tracks allow the settlements to collect resource cards from one another's tiles, as if they shared the same spots on the board. However, only the next adjacent settlement connected by rail can collect from its neighbor's tile. So in the case that three or more settlements are connected by tracks in series, each settlement can only draw from the tiles of its immediately linked neighbor.
5) No circumventing the Robber allowed. ...A Robber also plunders the train!

...Test it out, Settlers playas, and tell me how it works. I believe these rules can serve as a useful analogue to teach your friends about the value of rail.

The rules above may need adjustment because of the new dynamics it adds. It may be necessary to play Settlers TOD to 12 points (instead of 10) due to the fact that players will be drawing more cards toward the end of the game and you may want more time to have interesting scenarios play out. That's another thing Settlers teaches planners, btw: all things must have their balance and sweet spot. E.g. you want settlements connected by rail, but you don't want that at the expense of drawing development cards. Cities are full of caveats. Codes and planning rules should not over-emphasize one thing at the expense of another thing necessary to the civic life, health and competitiveness of a city.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Smarter Charlotte

Attendants of "BarCampCLT 2"

This week I had opportunities to attend two events featuring smart people here in Charlotte. At one event, Charlotte Viewpoint's "A Smarter Charlotte", co-hosted by Civic By Design, we spoke about the disconnect that arose in Charlotte's position between two recent national rankings of cities. One put Charlotte in the 6th overall position as the "brainiest" city in America in terms of college degree attainment, while the NRDC ranked us as only 38th overall on its "Smarter Cities" list for large cities, which evaluates cities for sustainability. We had a wonderful discussion, sometimes tense and lively, as my fellow attendees and I pondered various reasons why Charlotte's educated populace seems to consist of many cutthroat "rugged individuals" who avoid civic engagement and who pursue lifestyle choices that impede adoption of a city-wide, corporate vision for sustainable living in Charlotte.

So...poignantly to me, the session topics at the next event I attended, BarCampCLT2, seemed to feature two striking themes: the world of social media entrepreneurship (which aims to cater to the world of online - sometimes civic - communities where autonomous and private life seems to be in rapid retreat) and sessions on sustainable living initiatives and technologies that were led by CPCC's and gdwell's damned intelligent and agitatively so D.I. von Briesen (here below - one of the most remarkable characters I've ever encountered in Charlotte, I hafta admit).

D.I. diverts Barcamp's waste from landfill

The collective IQ-rubbing and agitation/perturverance/"destruction" (inside joke) at an event like Barcamp is always a visceral pleasure for me. Especially when evaluated in light of the Smarter Charlotte event's lamentations. Barcamp 2 is a wonderful manifestation to me that indeed there is hope for Charlotte. In people like D.I. and the Barcampers, there are present among us smart souls willing to take upon our greatest challenges by steeping themselves - with seeming abandon - into the very social dimensions ...and technologies!...that will create a truly smarter, civically cooperative and economically prosperous Charlotte. I feel like Charlotte is in great hands. You just have to look in the marginal places and corners of our city to find these busybodies, but, indeed, they are here and gleefully at work.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sketch Culture at Peril

With the advent of Insta-Virtual Urban Design (a typical example here), I believe that we Urban Designers today are at a critical juncture in terms of our personal cultivation of design intelligence. The intellectual investigation afforded by the examination and perfection of the drawing hand is being displaced by the primary reliance on visualization tools such as Sketchup and Photoshop. I am very afraid that many young gifted designers are quickly losing not only their manual sketching, modeling and rendering skills, but their ability to explore their world in terms of the whole, lived-in experience. A kind of design mastery is gained from experiencing the urban world through the discipline of sketching it and, in turn, imagining urban spaces creatively on the drawing board or notebook. Despite the promise of virtual design becoming more "manual" and the tantalizing possibilities still latent in digital media, hand-sketching culture is languishing, and I am not sure that our virtualization tools are good surrogates.

An important thing to develop design intelligence is to exercise the mind to mentally translate three-dimensional space into perspectival understanding, transforming cityscape into a place of memory (an experienced environment). There is a hard-earned intelligence that is gained only by slowly honing the drawing craft. Drawn spaces are remembered spaces. Spaces you've taken from image to memory.

I discovered Edouard Vuillard in the National Gallery of Art last month, and I've been doubling my sketch-training efforts since, in an attempt to recover some of my atrophying drawing abilities. Don't get me wrong, I see the usefulness of Illustrator, yet, I definitely feel the eroding of ability that comes with primary reliance on it. Vuillard finally made me aware about what I have been losing.

Album, 1895, originally uploaded by Maulleigh.

As Donald Goddard reflected about viewing Vuillard's work: "Not only is everything, including human figures (women), given equal importance, as most writers notice, but everything is given special importance in an infinitely various world that is also an integrated whole". Vuillard's art fills out thus the rich space of perspectival memory. As Goddard continues, I reflect over what we urban designers are losing in engaging the disembodied virtual spaces we are now inhabiting day by day.

There are distinctions but no gaps, even when there are disruptions. Vuillard painted Place Vintimille, the park he saw from his window in Paris, three times for decorative works. The last time was in 1915-16, when the sidewalk was being torn up and renovated in the middle of World War I. We are confronted directly by the trench that stretches across the foreground (perhaps a reference to the battlefield) where workmen prepare the new sidewalk. Still, children play in the park, people sit on benches, the trees spread out singularly but in abundance, and through them can be seen the line of apartment buildings on the other side of the park. Near the very center of the painting are the tiny figures of a man and a woman seated on a bench on the far side of the park, the man reading a newspaper, the woman wearing a red skirt. It is the only spot of real red in the painting, as though it were saved just for her, and it makes us notice every other detail of this grand tapestry. More than any of his confrères, Vuillard, the citydweller, was a man of nature, echoing the philosophy of the American conservationist John Muir, who wrote in the late 19th century, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe," and of Muir's contemporary, the English naturalist and novelist W.H. Hudson, who wrote, "We are no longer isolated, standing like starry visitors on a mountain-top, surveying life from the outside; but are on a level with and part and parcel of it."

If Urban Designers are to have one skill on Architects and Landscape Architects it is Vuillard's immersed experience of illustrating memory-scape...level with and no longer outside of the spaces of dwelling.