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The virtual city has lessons to teach

Commuter Corner
Joseph Hall

It’s no game trying to establish the Greater Toronto Area’s transportation future, but University of British Columbia geography professor John Robinson is hoping to make it one.

An expert on urban planning, Robinson is founder of the university’s Sustainable Development Research Institute, and he wants Toronto to experience a powerful new computer program the institute is using to help determine Vancouver’s future urban form.

“What we do is build computer games to allow everybody to engage in thinking about the future of their region,” Robinson says.

“These games embody all the best scientific understanding of the social, economic and environmental issues in an area and allow you to navigate through the future, trying to create something you’d like for your region.”

About to be installed in Vancouver’s Science World, where it’s been given 465 square metres of prime exhibition space, the technology will represent one of the most ambitious public engagement campaigns ever undertaken in Canada. Robinson will be in Toronto tomorrow trying to entice some academic colleagues into building a GTA version of the system, known as Quite Useful Ecosystem Scenario Tool or QUEST.

What would you peg as the most important changes that could be made in Greater Toronto? More highways? More transit? Higher-density development? More suburban homes?

If Robinson succeeds in bringing QUEST here, anyone in the GTA could plug their development desires into the program and see how the area would look one, two, three or four decades down the line.

The program concentrates on 10 interrelated areas that affect a city’s quality of life: transportation, water supply, water quality, air quality, land use, energy, housing, jobs, waste and health care.

“People play the game decade by decade, making about 40 policy decisions in those 10 areas, much like a provincial government would do,” Robinson says.

“Then they run QUEST for each decade and it shows you what you just did to your region - what happened to air quality, what happened to jobs, what happens to housing, what happens to land use.”

Players can go back at any time and change their choices to create different results.

“What these games do is give people a solid understanding for these complex systems, so they start to feel like they can grasp it and engage in the debate.”

The data that allow the game to build its different scenarios are based on hundreds of studies from academic, private-sector, government and non-governmental organizations.

Informing people of the long-term potential of their current actions can help focus public pressure on those with political power now making development decisions.

“This is absolutely crucial, because the biggest barrier to a better future is that no politician is going to stick their neck out if they don’t have a constituency for change,” Robinson says.

“We see this game as the next generation of polling - only way beyond polling - because it gives such a rich, detailed picture of what people really care about and what trade-offs they find acceptable and what trade-offs they don’t find acceptable.”

One trade-off often chosen by players in Vancouver, a city that’s been miserly with road construction, has been to alleviate chronic traffic congestion by building more highways.

“But people made all these decisions and they watched the pavement expand. Basically what happens in many of these scenarios is they would pave over the whole (Fraser) Valley.”

Robinson says the QUEST program, developed in part with a $2.5 million federal grant, is both “fun to use and true to life,” giving users a glimpse into what may be a dark future.

It would fit in perfectly at the Ontario Science Centre, an institution with a goal of becoming a more interactive and relevant attraction.




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