Building for the Future

Peter Park is in the urban-planning game for good.

Park was invaluable in converting their abstract feelings into reality, Norquist says, and he credits the planner's careful, almost mathematical attention to every detail of how buildings would express themselves in a given space. "He understands cities," Norquist notes. A member of the Milwaukee planning commission once compared Park to Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the nineteenth-century French administrator whose system of grand boulevards, bridges and public buildings transformed modern Paris. "I was kind of shocked," Park admits.

Park's greatest influences haven't been the famous architects or planners codified in textbooks. For him, inspiration comes from places -- or, as he puts it, "going to places that are interesting and surviving places that are not." His parents would take their three children out of school every year for two weeks to visit New York or Chicago. It was on these trips that Park first experienced the culture and energy of metropolitan areas, which fed his growing interest in architecture. Later, after he was trained in design and planning, visiting great neighborhoods in Boston, monuments in Washington and assorted cities across Europe made him think about the concepts of composition that create great cities. "You know, from a design point of view, what makes these places successful?" he explains. "But also from a planning side, what were the influences and motivations for implementing things in this way? What had to happen on the political level, or the financial level, or an engineering level, to come up with this result?"

Park is quick to point out that planners are only as effective as the mayors who appoint them, and he credits many of his Milwaukee successes to Norquist's intense support for good planning. But in Sim City, players are the mayors and responsible for every aspect of their towns. They have the power to control taxes, build infrastructure and civic institutions, and adjust the power and water supply. It's like Dungeons & Dragons for bureaucrats. Park may be geared to lay down the tracks that will guide the future of the Mile High City, but can the guy hang with Sim City?

With Mayor John Norquist (in front of the Milwaukee 
Art Museum), Park got experience he can use in 
With Mayor John Norquist (in front of the Milwaukee Art Museum), Park got experience he can use in Denver.

When he first sits down at the computer in the gray conference room of the Webb Municipal Office Building, Park says that he hasn't played the game in years, although his twelve-year-old son, Jonny, owns an earlier edition. He listens attentively while I explain the different controls. Then, running the cursor past the various woodland creatures scampering through the digital foothills, Park begins by clicking on the road function and laying down a main strip on a north-south axis. He then bisects this road with a cross street and lays out the rest of his streets in a traditional grid pattern. On the screen, one of his advisors -- the city planner, actually -- pops up and tells Park to zone for development.

"How do I do that?" he asks, fidgeting with the touch pad. I show him the icon to select residential, commercial or industrial zoning. Along Main Street, he puts in a small police station, a firehouse and a medical clinic, zoning it medium-density commercial. Along adjacent streets, he goes for medium-density residential. He creates a separate industrial area southwest of the town and places three wind turbines and a water tower there to produce the city's power and water.

The market economy jumps into the fray, and little cubes of scaffolding begin to rise from the dust. In their place appear factories, then a few diners and shops, then some small, single-story homes. Confident of his infrastructure, Park puts the time control on "cheetah speed," and the years tick by like seconds. Soon there are larger, low-income apartment buildings popping up next to brick row houses, while on the next block, a taco joint makes way for a retail store. In an empty lot at the center of town, he puts in an elementary school and surrounds it with parks. By now, the population of Parktown has grown to 600. He checks his budget and worries about costs eating at his coffer of 438,000 "Simoleons" -- so he slashes the funding for school buses. "Why would we need buses," he says, "when we've created a walkable city?" Parktown soon passes its 23rd anniversary. He clicks the zoom function and examines the little pixilated people jumping around in the park and scuttling down the sidewalks. He circles the area with the cursor, clearly pleased. "It looks like we've got a nice little neighborhood springing up here," he says.

The layout of Parktown is not unlike that of the small capital city of Pierre, South Dakota, where Park grew up. His parents fled North Korea in the 1950s, started medical internships in Minneapolis, and later completed their training in Chicago. Park was two years old, the youngest of three children, when his father was offered a position at a radiologist's office that later grew into a partnership. The family moved to Pierre, the only Koreans in a population of 15,000. Park has fond memories of the place and says his family relished the nuances of small-town America. Although Park wasn't aware of it at the time, he was absorbing the city's classic design, which is almost inseparable from the childhood experience he evokes now. For example, riding his bike with friends down the main street, which is bumpered on one end by the American Legion cabin and on the other by the county courthouse; on a perpendicular street are the state capitol and other government buildings. Pierre's civic structures are located in prominent places, a pattern that Park follows when the citizens of Parktown request a church. "A civic building should have a civic location," he says. He locates the intersection that serves as the city center and drags the cursor five blocks up Main Street. Then he places the domed church in a bookend position at the top of Main, where it stands like a cathedral in a European city or a white steeple in turn-of-the-century America.

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