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MetroQuest functions like a real-life version of the video game SimCity
MetroQuest functions like a real-life version of the video game SimCity

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 4 | Apr. 2, 2009

Chicago Uses UBC Technology to Plan City's Future

By Basil Waugh

How do you want your city to look in 100 years?

A technology created at the University of British Columbia is giving communities around the globe a peek at how today’s decisions can rewrite tomorrow’s cities.

Like a Web 2.0 crystal ball, the software dramatically illustrates the future impacts of city planning proposals, helping to steer stakeholders away from pitfalls such as urban sprawl, gridlock and decay.

MetroQuest – the Vancouver company and its eponymous software – has worked with dozens of communities from Beijing to Denver. Its ability to get everyday people excited about planning and help citizens rally around plans for healthy, sustainable cities is getting noticed.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) has chosen MetroQuest (formerly Quest) to help northeastern Illinois accommodate an anticipated additional 2.8 million residents over the next three decades. The plan will cover 273 municipalities and a population that is expected to jump from eight million to nearly 11 million by 2040.

In an attempt to give Chicagoans an unprecedented amount of input into the direction of their region, MetroQuest will be rolling out interactive kiosks as the city celebrates the 100th anniversary of Chicago’s iconic Burnham Plan in July. Created in 1909 by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett, it is among the world’s most famous city plans.

“MetroQuest is like a real-life version of SimCity,” says Dave Biggs, a former UBC researcher who created the technology with UBC Prof. John Robinson and UBC alumnus Mike Walsh at UBC’s Sustainable Development Research Institute in 1997. Biggs’ comparison to the video game is apt; SimCity’s creators were early advisors to the project.

“When we first saw SimCity, we thought: ‘If we could portray real cities with real data, this could be a powerful tool for making complex decisions,’” says Biggs. “It allows communities to play games with their own future, see the consequences and choose – collectively – what is most important to them.”

In the first phase of a project, MetroQuest works with cities to upload regional data. “Ninety-five per cent of this information is publically available, such as census numbers and emissions and transportation data,” says Biggs. “Then we interview staff and community members for the remaining information.”

Once a city is “digitized,” citizens can alter key aspects of their city, including population, housing, transportation, density and amenities, much as the original game did. With a click of the mouse, participants can see the effects of their decisions decades into the future, both on a satellite-view map and in a graphical display.

“For example, you can see what a neighborhood might look like with low, medium or high density,” says Biggs. “You can then see how different housing patterns impact your needs for transportation, schools, utilities and other amenities.”

Biggs and his team lead public engagement sessions, or train clients on MetroQuest technology and processes. Sessions are projected on large screens, town-hall style, and participants give constant feedback with interactive clickers.

The end result? According to Biggs, the participatory approach produces better decisions, an engaged citizenry and most importantly, built-in buy-in to the final design. “It gives stakeholders an understanding and sense of ownership over the result, a huge advantage over the conventional ‘design and defend’ method.”

This was not lost on Chicago planners who wanted something that the public could learn to use in 15 seconds, and select policies and see outcomes immediately.

“After a review of the tools available, it became clear that MetroQuest was the only tool that could support the public involvement phase in the way that we wanted,” says Bob Dean, Principal Regional Planner, CMAP.

MetroQuest will return to the campus where it was conceived, with the 2011 opening of one of the greenest buildings on the planet, the UBC Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS). A theatre in CIRS with MetroQuest technology will be available to students, researchers, politicians and community members to illustrate the impacts of climate change.

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Last reviewed 31-Mar-2009

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