Friday, September 7, 2012

The Endless Cycle Of Urban Renewal, As A Board Game

The Endless Cycle Of Urban Renewal, As A Board Game:
An urban planner friend of mine is a closeted Monopoly fiend. Though he’s loath to admit it, his love affair with urbanism began with a childhood obsession with the game, which today he partially resents for perpetuating irresponsible ideas about neighborhoods and profiteering.

Nonetheless, the century-old game is most kids’ introduction to the concept of real estate. Which is why Flavio Trevisan’s reimagining--as The Game of Urban Renewal--is so brilliant. By borrowing the language and format of classic tabletop board games (the game Life was also clearly a reference point), The Game of Urban Renewal examines more insipid urban phenomena: decline, blight, and gentrification. “Board games are all about exploring a system, and telling a story,” he explains. “The language of the board game: the board, playing pieces, spinner, etc., along with the act of playing, allows the enactment of process that actually takes decades.”

Trevisan, who lives in Toronto, based the game on Regent Park, one of Canada’s first public housing projects. Right now, Regent Park is being demolished to make way for new developments--like so many other social housing projects from the 1950s and '60s. After the 10-year redevelopment plan is complete, Regent Park will look much like the neighborhoods around it: the prewar street plan will be reinstated, and a series of glassy condo buildings will replace the Corbusian grid of tower blocks.

To Trevisan, the two plans are alike in everything but appearance--and a board game was the perfect way to point out the pattern. “I wanted to draw attention to the fact that history is repeating itself,” he says. “Sixty years ago, an entire neighborhood was demolished and replaced with what was at the time, the most progressive ideas in urbanism. The same can be said today. We won’t know if what is currently being built is a success or failure until another 60 years or so.”

Playing the game is fairly simple. Everyone assumes an identity, from mayor to developer to resident of the demolished development. There’s even an “academic urban theorist” and “skyscraper enthusiast.” Players are directed by a “decision engine” that generates building types. A “tabula rasa rake” wipes the board clean. The whole thing makes the process feel terrifyingly random. “It is ultimately not a fun game to play,” explains Trevisan, adding that he plans to make new editions of the game for other Toronto neighborhoods.

A note at the end of the game’s instructions is ominously clear about who bears the brunt of decisions made by developers and politicians, long after they’ve moved on to the next campaign. That would be the residents, of course, as depicted in the recent documentary about a similar situation in Chicago, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. “The game never ends,” reads the final sentence. “Continue playing until all players have left the game in pursuit of other interests.”

[H/t Lleigha]

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