SimCity is a city-building video games series first published by Maxis in 1989. SimCity was the first in a long line of sequels and spin offs including the popular Sims and the less popular, but not less awesome, SimSafari and SimAnt (yes you simulate an ant colony) as well as five updates version of the original city building game. The goal of the game can vary, but started off with an undeveloped patch of land. Players must then build a city: zoning for development, creating infrastructure like roads and railroad tracks, creating public institutions and then maintaining those institutions through good governance (yes you get to be the Mayor!). You can also build your ideal city and then send an alien invasion to destroy it.
As a kid (and adult) I love SimCity. It’s challenging, fun, and like most Maxis games contains a lot of goofy humor. It was not until I started studying history that I realized the game contains numerous representations of actual historical processes that influence cities. I’ve laid them out below.
Agriculture on the Fringes
One of the biggest problems I’ve found when building my Simtopia is that early in the game demand for IA or agricultural zones is always enormous. This is generally because at first, cities lack healthcare and education infrastructure, the two things that make income rise. Thus you have a ton of low income sims looking for work. So early on I always zone lots of agriculture, but realized in doing this, it also drastically increases my water pollution. It becomes a necessity then to keep agricultural zones on the fringes of the city center. The idea of agricultural development being on the periphery has been a widely studied topic by historians. Perhaps most notable is William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. Cronon examined the timber, cattle, and grain industries in Chicago’s hinterlands that all served the metropole. Yet segregating the rural and the urban is not an intrinsic value of cities. Joanna Dyl, in her study of turn of the twentieth century San Francisco, outlined the complicated relationship between diseases, animals, and urbanism.
In 1907, an outbreak of the bubonic plague threatened San Francisco. As the major port of the West Coast, the city took severe measures in order to make sure the city would not be quarantined. One of these measures involved new regulations about animals in the urban environment. Rats, who carry the plague, were not welcome in the city. Horses on the other hand, necessary for work purposes, could stay but were subject to new sanitary restrictions further separating humans from animals in ways that did not exist prior to the plague. Chickens presented a unique problem. Around 16,000 domestic chicken yards existed in San Francisco, mostly in poor neighborhoods, yet the Board of Health found chicken coops dangerous hot beds of plague activity. Nearly 11,000 residents disposed of their birds, unable to afford the new ordinances that required concrete and walls. Closing of chicken yards in San Francisco created an opportunity for companies operating in rural peripheries of the city to ship their food stuffs into the city. The case of San Francisco historicizes the concentric model of city and hinterlands, showing the policies that created this divide. This example also dealt a tough blow to many of the low-income in San Francisco who relied on chickens for subsistence which brings me to my next point.
Poor People and Pollution
In Sim City there are three types of Sims, low-wealth, medium-wealth, and high-wealth. When you zone for residential areas, any wealth type can occupy that zone. So say you zone a bunch of low density residential in hopes of getting mc mansions but instead get a bunch of trailer parks. This depends on one thing: land desirability. Land desirability is a complicated aspect of the game that takes various considerations. Desirability can go down based on pollution levels, crime, high commute or freight times, garbage, lack of health coverage or access to education, natural slopes, radiation, traffic volume and land value. Pollution is a particularly tricky offender. It comes from agriculture but also ID or dirty industry which tends to develop quickly at the start of the game. Yet in the game, having some low desirability isn’t too big of a problem. That’s because low-wealth Sims will essentially live anywhere and not complain about it.
The correlation between pollution and low-wealth in Sim City has unfolded in industrialized cities across America. Andrew Hurley, in his study of Gary Indiana, argues that exposure to harmful pollutants and a less than healthy environment has always been closely related to class (and race as well, however, unfortunately no racial stats exist in Sim City). According to Hurley, U.S. Steel polluted the air, water, and soil of Gary, but in the first half of the century this burden was shared equally by all citizens, forced due to transportation restrictions to live in a relatively compact area near the factory. In the post war era, however, new affluence coupled with the rise of the automobile caused middle class residents of Gary to flee the polluted downtown for greener pastures. Suburbanization left low income residents to bear the brunt of the pollution problem. Yet unlike Sims, low-wealth citizens allied with other interest groups that crossed class boundaries, fought U.S. Steel in order to procure environmental regulation. So perhaps my low income Sims will take a page from the environmental justice playbook, but for now, I am free to build dirty industry and landfills in their backyards.