About 80 people braved a nasty thunderstorm on Thursday night to make it to Park Church in north Charlotte to play a board game. But it wasn’t just any board game event, this was Gaming for Charlotte.
The event, hosted by the city, involved a game that puts players in the shoes of city planners with a limited budget and a long list of needs and wants for the city. Teams work together to plan future infrastructure projects including housing, parks, activity centers, walkable mixed-use development and business corridors. Players must keep certain themes in mind while planning development — these themes include inclusivity, sustainability, connectability, diversity and health — all the while remaining fiscally responsible and within budget.
City planners and consultants developed the game, called Growing Better Places: A More Equitable and Inclusive Charlotte, in the hopes of including a wider range of people in the feedback process for the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan. And they’re tracking the results of every game that’s being played.
After sessions like the one held on Beatties Ford Road on Thursday night, organizers collect exit surveys that track players’ experiences and concerns, and also take photos of each gaming board. Come September, city planners and consultants will combine the data collected through hundreds of game boards and feedback from players to help in developing growth strategies, which will then be used in creating the comprehensive plan.
The game is a way to branch out from the typical feedback surveys and town hall meetings, said Garet Johnson, assistant director of the Long-Range and Strategic Planning (LRSP) division of the Charlotte Planning Department and project manager of the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
“I could give a PowerPoint presentation and we can have question-and-answers like a typical government meeting, and we would not have gotten the kind of input that we’ve gotten,” Johnson told Queen City Nerve on Thursday.
“We wouldn’t have formed the relationships with people and them with each other around the table. The conversations have been magnificent because there are different perspectives and one person might think one way but they listen to somebody else think another; it might be a friend, it might be a total stranger,” she continued. “So we’re learning from each other and providing input to the plan. One of the things that was really important to our staff team was that this wasn’t just a game to have fun, it wasn’t a game just to learn, it was a game to have input into the future.”
Scott Correll, senior principal planner with LRSP, echoed Johnson’s sentiments.
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years and this is a completely different vibe in the room when you have a game and you have a different way for people to interact,” Correll said. “In the past we may have done surveys or public hearings and things like that, but they can be a little dry, so this whole approach is an innovative way for us to engage people and get them to understand the types of issues that we face as a city as we grow.”
The help spread the word about Growing Better Places, the city has partnered with Michael Zytkow, co-founder of Potions & Pixels, a local gaming event series held regularly throughout the city.
With his history as an activist with Occupy Charlotte, then candidate for office, and now as a program coordinator with Sustain Charlotte, the fusion of gaming and city planning is a “perfect marriage” of passions for Zytkow, he said.
It’s a great way to give people an outlet to help spur the change they want to see in the city, while educating them on the difficulties of doing so, he continued: “I think what’s cool about a game like this is it puts people in the shoes of a planner, and it also speaks to the strength of the medium of gaming … It’s easy for us to say, ‘I want Charlotte to be this or that,’ but when they’re forced to play the game, they have to make decisions and say, ‘You know what, we have a limited amount of resources but an unlimited amount of wants. How are we going to satisfy as many of those as possible? What are the core needs that we have?’”
On Thursday night, one team of five played the North division, one of three “geographies” the city is broken into for the game (North, South, East, West, Central). They traded in low-intensity gaming pieces for high-intensity pieces, which came at a cost of four tokens (each geography gets 100 tokens to begin the game). They worked to boost employment in northwest Charlotte, built a transit center and more bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure around Hornet’s Nest Park, approved a regional activity center in University City (TopGolf?), and spread four healthy grocery options across the northern part of the map where they were needed most.
For Kazi Smith, a north Charlotte resident who has done volunteer work in the city, the experience gave him a new perspective on the area, he said.
“It’s pretty new and neat to see what the thought process is and just to look at a map of how things are laid out now and what people are thinking of and what the options are,” he said.
According to Johnson, city planners will continue to break down feedback and react when they see shortcomings in their data collection. For example, their most recent check showed that not enough Latinx people were attending game-playing sessions, so Johnson and staff reached out to leaders in that community to plan a game night that will happen later in August.
The game will also be available to play at all Potions & Pixels events, as it’s been since launching in late June. It’s important to remember that, unlike any other game you’ll play at Potions & Pixels, this one will have real-life implications, as pointed out by Correll.
“Everything you see here tonight, all of these issues are real and these are things that we as urban planners have to face, and we need to understand how the public thinks and feels about these issues.”
Charlotteans, get your game face on.
The next Potions & Pixels event is Board Game Night at 7th Street Public Market on Aug. 7. All photos in the gallery below were taken by Grant Baldwin.