The Great Urban Game

Game theory

Remarkably little work has been done on the application of game theory to urban development. Mainly, the application has been done around parking. In that case, players compete against each other for parking spaces. What are the best strategies?

But there’s a broader, more interesting understanding of a city as a game, which does not necessarily mean that people are chasing the same outcome, or competing each other. Look at a city this way:

At any time, the city is in a certain state: the shape of the city at time 0. In the city, there are various players, all poised to move according to their own objectives, each with different kinds of moves available to them.

Lucinda and I have been talking about this, with the objective of simulating such as game at Melbourne Knowledge Week.


So far, we’ve considered four types of player:

  • Resident
  • Developer
  • Business
  • Council

Of course, this list can be extended indefinitely. Every day, each of us takes different roles in the city. We might, on the same day, be not just a resident or a businessperson, but also a driver, a pedestrian, a cyclist, a public transport user, a shopper, a diner, a flaneur… But we’ll keep things simple for the start.


Each of these residents might have different objectives. Again, simplistically:

  • Resident: Create a family-friendly environment around his/her house, with low traffic, walkable access, parks, playgrounds…
  • Developer: Make money through profitable, low-risk development…
  • Business: Find affordable premises from which they can run their business, with each business having its own criteria for operability…
  • Council: Minimise conflicts between players, and keep enough of them happy that Council is re-elected…


In addition, each has a certain number of plays available at any time.

  • Resident: Stay, Move, Advocate (where advocate means to take political action to Council to object or propose)
  • Developer: Buy, Hold, Develop, Sell
  • Business: Stay, Move, Advocate
  • Council: Block, Permit, Change the rules

To these four roles we might also add now a fifth: Judge. When there is a conflict between players which cannot be resolve amicably, they can take it to the Judge for arbitration.


Different moves, in different situations, will accrue points for each player. The points represent how well that move has moved them towards that objective.

More Open Gameplay

In the game as its currently established, we can see that players have very limited options. They can buy and sell pieces of land, and operate within the rules—or they can advocate to Council.

Finally, each of the players makes his or her move with imperfect information about the intentions of the other players. You don’t know that a developer has bought next door, until a development application is published. As a business, you don’t know how many similar businesses are being planned for your area.

In Cities By Citizens, we’re exploring the option that citizens might be able to more directly shape their neighbourhood, other than through the slow processes of democracy, or within the bounds of their private space. This means that all players might have more moves available to them, without going always through Council.

In other words, city development might become more like most human games, in which the players play with each other, and the Council is not active—just referee. A referee mainly watches, and intervenes rarely.

This, then, is one challenge:

Can we set up a city game in such a way that the players play directly with each other to create good city form.

Good city form here is one in which all players rack up many points, because points mean that all stakeholders are being satisfied in their quest to meet their own urban objectives.

A Cooperative Game

In conventional city planning, the tacit assumption is that players are in competition with each other. This involves establishment of a clear zone in which they can do what they like (the private); a clear zone in which they can do nothing (the public); and a clear set of rules as to the way in which the private can impact either the public, or other private zones. It works to separate parties individualistically, and have all interaction done through Council or its rules.

This works, and sits within an individualistic view of life and economy. However, it tends to shut out the value that can be created when different players start working together—i.e. cooperating. And we know from life and theory that cooperation can produce more powerful results than individuals working alone.

To refine our quest, then… We want to find a city game in which:

  • the role of the referee is minimised, so that players can work directly with each other to achieve urban outcomes, and
  • the rules of the game are such that it is a cooperative game, in which all players win, rather than a competitive one.

Ideas welcome.

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