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Software and the City

Advanced city simulation software is helping urban planners look decades ahead and make tomorrow's cities more livable

7 min read

23 December 2003--It's a calm late afternoon in the city, when all of a sudden a giant reptilian creature appears, crushing cars, shattering building façades, and leaving a trail of havoc as it advances along downtown streets. Those who have ever played the game ”SimCity,” in which the user becomes an urban planner and has to manage the growth of a virtual metropolis, know how tempting it is to evoke Godzilla's fury to shake things up a little when nothing much interesting is happening in town.

For a group of researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, however, simulating cities is more than just a game. They invented UrbanSim, the most sophisticated city modeling and simulation software to date--a system that could not only help people see decades into the future but also one that could play a role in settling rancorous political disputes. The program simulates urban growth and lets users test different planning scenarios, much like a real-world version of ”SimCity.” You can't summon raging giant reptiles, but you can forecast the effects of deploying new highways, restricting construction over wetland areas, or doubling parking prices downtown, for example.

By the end of this year, the urban planning agency in the Salt Lake City, Utah, region will complete a series of comprehensive tests that will help it decide whether UrbanSim is suitable for use in the area. If the agency says yes to the software, that will become the system's first large-scale implementation.

The software has already been tried out by planning agencies in Honolulu (Hawaii), Eugene-Springfield (Oregon), and Houston (Texas); the Seattle region, Taipei, and Paris are beginning trials as well. People from more than 60 countries have downloaded the software, which is open source and can be freely copied from the project's Web site.

Modeling the metropolis

Cities evolve in complex and often unexpected ways--sometimes in ways that surprise even experienced planners. Build a shopping mall in one location and a traffic jam may appear at another miles away. ”Ultimately, most of this stuff isn't intuitive,” says Frank Southworth, a senior staff member for R&D with the Transportation, Planning, and Policy Group at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tenn. According to Southworth, city simulators have become essential planning tools because they provide the most effective way to forecast the likely effects of different policies and new investments.

But UrbanSim developers claim the modeling tools currently employed by many planning agencies fail to capture a good deal of this complexity of urban dynamics, especially the strong interaction between how traffic grows and where households, shops, and businesses decide to locate--in short, how transportation affects land use and vice versa. ”That lack of feedback is a very significant problem,” says Paul Waddell, a professor at the University of Washington's School of Public Affairs and the director of the UrbanSim project. ”Plans for multibillion-dollar transportation systems can be essentially very misguided if they overestimate their benefits.”

To address this key problem, Waddell in 1995 began to build from scratch a new modeling tool that would become UrbanSim. He was later joined by computer science professor Alan Borning, and together the pair brought to the project researchers from fields as diverse as computer science, architecture, and psychology. The UrbanSim initiative has received more than US $5 million in National Science Foundation grants and is now based at the University of Washington's newly formed Center for Urban Simulation and Policy Analysis.

Another problem Waddell wanted to correct was the coarse level of geographical detail found in older models, such as the most prevalent tool in use in the United States, DRAM/EMPAL, short for Disaggregated Residential Allocation Model/Employment Allocation Model. University of Washington researchers say UrbanSim is the first system capable of simulating the land development process at the level at which it actually occurs--the individual land parcel. Only with this level of resolution, says Waddell, can you study the effects of zoning and other public policies like the promotion of more ”walkable” neighborhoods, which require planners to understand what is going on at the street level.

What's more, many of the older tools--some developed more than 40 years ago--are difficult to operate, have too many constraints, and often generate forecasts in obscure ways that only a few experts can understand. ”One of the major criticisms of older models is that they are very abstract, and have often been called ’black box' models, because no one except the modeler really knows what's going on inside,” says Waddell [see sidebar, ”And You Thought Your Office was Small...”.

The UrbanSim team decided early on that their model had to be clear and explainable with representations of people, things, and actions as they exist in real-life, as opposed to the abstract variables and parameters found in black box simulators. In this sense, UrbanSim is similar to ”SimCity” in that it explicitly represents a city's houses and buildings, as well as their occupants.

Four main agents interact in the virtual city: households, businesses, developers, and governments. At least in this digital incarnation, agents are all single-minded people: households decide where to live and work; businesses decide where to locate and set up their jobs; developers decide where to build houses, office buildings, and manufacturing facilities; and governments decide what development policies and investments they should apply to each part of the city. These agents, however, don't deal directly with each other; their interaction happens through one of civilization's oldest assets: land. It is the land and how it is used and transformed that ultimately determines how the urban landscape evolves.

Households, for instance, are often asking: are we happy where we live? Could we move to a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood closer to the kids' school and near that new shopping mall? They make what is called a discrete choice. A household discrete choice model, therefore, gives the probability that a given family will move based on its profile--housing costs, number of workers, income, age of members, number of children, and other characteristics--and the vacant home in consideration.

But in real-life, even people with the same characteristics make different choices. And the same person might make a different choice in two different circumstances. To account for these uncertainties, UrbanSim choice models add a random component to each individual's decision. (This same method, developed in the 1970s by economist and Nobel laureate Daniel L. McFadden, now at the University of California, Berkeley, is also used to study people's behavior when choosing telephone services, transport modes, and colleges.) In other words, in the world of UrbanSim, the gods do play dice, contrary to Einstein's dictum.

Data hungry system

The decisions the UrbanSim agents make repeat annually, so the simulator evolves the city from one year to the next over a span of, say, 30 years. At any moment, the user can ”zoom in” down to grid cells of 150 by 150 meters (about the size of a suburban block) and see what's in that cell--the individual parcels of land, how many people are living and working there, what kind of housing and businesses are there, and the price of real estate.

This level of modeling detail has advantages and disadvantages. A drawback is that the number of calculations necessary to determine agents' choices can grow explosively for huge cities. In fact, the kind of simulation used in UrbanSim--microsimulation--was developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but was not implemented due to the lack of computing power. ”There's a constant trade-off between how much detail or accuracy you want in the simulation versus keeping it computationally reasonable,” says Borning, the project's co-director.

Today, using UrbanSim to generate a 30-year forecast for the Salt Lake City region, for example, can take more than a day with a high-end desktop computer. And eventually, researchers may decide to develop even more detailed models, trying to capture other patterns in urban growth. The question is, how much detail is worth computing? Is it enough to model a household? Or do you need to also model the father, the mother, the kids, and maybe even the dog?

Simulating at a high level of detail also requires having a lot of data available to input, as was found during tests of the system in the Puget Sound region of Washington. ”The model system has been described by some as very data hungry,” says Waddell. Puget Sound's data input process has been going on for several months and the agency hopes to have the model up and running by the middle of 2004, says Larry Blain, Puget Sound Regional Council's principal planner. The needed input includes geographic information about the area's land parcels, census and households surveys, an inventory of businesses, zoning boundaries, and many other datasets. In fact, it might simply not be possible to use UrbanSim in many regions due to lack of information.

Software as peacemaker

Urban planning tends to bring together a wide range of people and advocacy groups, each with its own idea of urban development. University of Washington researchers say they hope UrbanSim could become a tool for more interactive, consensus-building collaboration; it could be used not only to assess urban growth, but also to evaluate the impacts of development plans in terms of resources consumption, air and water pollution, loss of open space, and even wildlife endangerment. The program could help mediate conflicts when developing plans are halted because of disagreements between different groups.

In fact, UrbanSim's use in Salt Lake City has played a key role settling a lawsuit. In 2001, the environmental organization Sierra Club took the State of Utah and the U.S. Department of Transportation to court to contest a multibillion-dollar series of transportation projects in and near Salt Lake, including a major highway that would run through wetlands and reduce open space in the region. The region, which includes Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo, has been growing rapidly, and by 2030 planners expect the urbanized area's population to nearly double from 1.7 million to nearly 3 million. The suit was settled last year on condition that the region's planning agency, the Wasatch Front Regional Council, would thoroughly test and eventually adopt UrbanSim as a tool to improve its planning processes.

Since then, the agency, which had been experimenting with the system prior to the suit, has been assessing the effects of different scenarios. ”We feed the model different transportation networks, different land use assumptions, policy assumptions, and see what comes out--we compare scenarios against each other,” says John Britting, Wasacht Front Regional Council's head modeler. Scenarios include not building much of the transportation system that they had planned to build over the next 30 years, or imposing high parking costs in the downtown area, or defining an urban growth boundary to contain development. As a test of the system, the agency compares the simulation to the expected outcome according to a group of experts. They expect to report the test findings at the end of December.

Look and feel

If UrbanSim is to attract more municipalities than Salt Lake, though, it will have to dress itself up. One of the main challenges in furthering the software, says the University of Washington's Borning, is to present the simulation results in a more useful way so that people can understand them, interact with them, and participate more easily in the planning process.

Experts say that, ideally, stakeholders should be able to see computer-generated streetscape animations of different scenarios--what it would be like to walk in the neighborhood or commute to work, for example. It would be easier then for people to visualize the effects of alternative development policies and projects. ”It'd be really nice if you could bring in something like a SimCity interface and put it on these models,” says Oak Ridge Lab's Southworth. Maybe they could add Godzilla, too.

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