Virtual World Tools for City Planning

Courtest of the Orton Family FoundationSecond Life is an online virtual reality role playing game.  It launched about seven years ago and since then, has gathered quite a large user base.  (Recently, the developer, Linden Labs, has been experiencing a fair amount of turmoil, but that’s beside the point.)  With its almost 15 million registered users, Second Life is a proof of concept that everyday people are interested in designing space and the ways in which humans interact within it. This idea inspired the Orton Family Foundation to submit a Request for Proposals from towns in the Northeast and Rocky Mountain regions.  They wanted to inspire a movement towards greater community involvement in city planning.  While the town of Acton, Massachusetts was not chosen as a grantee, it decided to move forward with its proposal nonetheless. Flanked by Tufts University’s Justin Hollander, Acton implemented the use of Second Life in its community brainstorming for a redesign of Kelley’s Corner, its key commercial area.  This enabled residents to provide input from home while still interacting with other residents (engaging about 450 people).  It also provided an organized collection of proposed ideas, as residents submitted their proposals through the Second Life interface.  Ultimately, the themes identified by the citizen-proposed plans were an increase in “walkability, built character near the street, gathering places, parks and recreational areas, and a focus in the center of the neighborhood.”

The result of this project is encouraging for the future of citizen engagement in city planning.  As has already been recognized by Government 2.0 advocates, there is disconnect between the challenge faced by governments to engage its constituents and the solutions and technologies that already exist (which have typically been used more for entertainment value than productivity).  With a young population that is increasingly comfortable and familiar with digital technologies and 3-D modeling and visualization, and an increasing number of social city building games (Social City, Verdonia, FrontierVille), the opportunity to bridge the gap between these challenges and their solutions grows ever greater.