It’s all fun and games (until you build a city)

I posted semi-recently about the convergence of my nerdery and work interests with the Urban Design Alignment Chart. That was a fun little project, but last fall I joined those two interests more seamlessly. So seamlessly, in fact, that I didn’t even think twice about it until just now.

Last semester, I taught HISP471VV: Urban Design. It was the third time I taught the class, and by this point I had found projects that could be tweaked. The class starts with a (brief) history of urban design in the Western world. One of the Very Important Transitions is between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (yeah, I know. BIG SHOCKER.) Anyway, I discuss this in class with lots of pictures, but it’s always better to have a hands-on component.

So, how to make this happen? Medieval Fantasy Cities Generator. This is an incredible tool, which I’m guessing most people use for D&D. It allows you to auto-generate all sorts of different cities, and to control the presence/absence of features such as a river, walls, church, palace, plaza, etc. I generated a few of these, and brought them to class.

Generated map of a city showing layout options menu
Notice the many layout options
Map showing style options.
Yes, the colors and style can be changed too. This thing is SO GOOD.

Then I had the students redesign the cities with Renaissance elements. This is exactly what happened historically: most Baroque cities were not designed from scratch but rather cut into existing infrastructure.

Students redesigning the town.

Some students gleefully swung the “meat axe”* in their urban renewal efforts. Others found the prospect of cutting up a city ethically as well as aesthetically daunting. These reactions were exactly what I had hoped for. The resulting designs were all interesting, and the conversations that followed even better.


So, in other words, I used my nerd skillz for Good. In the realm of inventive pedagogy and gamification, this doesn’t really rate. There’s nothing all that innovative about asking students to design in an Urban Design class. What I really liked about this solution is that it was easy and effective. I didn’t have to laboriously find cities with the exact features I wanted. I didn’t have to then strip identifying information to make sure the students created their own designs instead of being influenced by actually did happen historically. Instead I just used my nerd knowledge and clicked a few checkboxes.

In contrast, a couple weeks later I did ask them to design a city from scratch, using different design philosophies (Baroque, Picturesque, etc.) on different topographies. You’d think finding diverse topographic maps at the same scale would be easy. I wasn’t looking for anything complex: just heat-map colors or topographic lines and rivers, without labels. I wanted topographies the students wouldn’t be familiar with, and hoped I could find a generator like the Medieval Fantasy Cities Generator. Multiple hours of fruitless google search later, I gave up. [If you know of a way to do this, PLEASE DO SHARE] I ended up having to use a topographic map of the world and focused on pieces of Greenland and other unpopulated areas to avoid labels.

Images showing students at work, and two maps on topo backgrounds

More and more people, when discussing pedagogical improvements, are embracing small changes. The Medieval Fantasy Cities Generator is just that for me. I found out about it just reading my usual dorky blogs a while back. I didn’t think of it as a “work thing”. But then when I thought of what I needed for class, this immediately sprung to mind. I know the “work smarter, not harder” slogan is trite, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I’ve never been shy about using my leisure interests for practical ends (see my numerous uses for LEGO) but I do occasionally feel like I have to defend it. Looking down on gamification is a bit passé, but I do get raised eyebrows sometimes still. Personally, I find joining my work interests and my non-work interests to be a win-win. It means I don’t have to feel too bad about my hours spent on my fave blogs and subreddits. And it also means I don’t have to waste hours looking for what should be a simple map. (COUGH topo map COUGH)

* Robert Moses famously loved “swinging the meat axe” when urban renewaling NYC. The process was about as pretty as it sounds.

Another generated map. It's called "Empits Port"
Did I mention that it generates names for these cities too? Cause of course it does.

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