The Living City at Festival Belia Putrajaya in May 2014.
The Living City at Festival Belia Putrajaya in May 2014.

The Living City is an interactive game designed by #BetterCities. The game utilises modular blocks of Lego to engage game players in a discussion on what our ideal city should look like. As urban activist Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

As a team, #BetterCities has taken the game to two festivals so far: Festival Belia Putrajaya in May and Cooler Lumpur Festival in June 2014.  In designing the game, we wanted to strip the power of big governments and developers to dictate the growth trajectories of the city. We wanted to witness the form of a city that is entirely governed by its people.

In The Living City, everyone is invited to contribute a building or facility onto the green terrain using Lego as the only construction material. At first, a virgin forest blankets the entire green terrain. Deforestation occurs to accommodate the newly built buildings until an entire Lego metropolis is formed. We invited people of all ages to play.

The best cities articulate the collective ideals of the people who live in it. The chaotic urbanism of the games encourages the discordant voices of the people. Over the few days of game play that took place at both the festivals, we were able to observe an intense non-verbal negotiation process between the participants in the growth of a fictional city.

The Living City at Cooler Lumpur Festival, Publika, in June 2014.
The Living City at Cooler Lumpur Festival, Publika, in June 2014.

Some of the interesting ideas that materialised in the city included shelters for the homeless, “posh, low-density housing in the greenest part of town” and even a vertical farm. It was such diverse usage of the space that gave – and gives – a city character.

Many who took part in our game were very enthusiastic about improving mobility within the city. When our game first started, participants from Festival Belia set out to build an elevated rail network. Subsequently, it was observed that most “developments” are clustered around the train stations.

Skywalks were also introduced soon after as people sought to connect different skyscrapers to provide mobility within the city for travellers on foot. Some people even built a giant pedestrian bridge that traversed across the entire landscape! Alas, the physics of the construction proved unfeasible and the free-standing bridge collapsed under its own heavy weight.

The Living City @ Cooler Lumpur Festival 2014 from #BetterCities on Vimeo.

In the collective city, everyone’s creation is subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of other game players. During the gameplay at the Cooler Lumpur Festival, held in Publika, a father and son duo tried to construct a behemoth skyscraper at least double the height of the next tallest building. It was largely derided as “insensitive” to the existing landscape and “offensive” to the taste of passersby. When it was finally torn down by other players, the builders were visibly irritated.

But there is a lesson to be learned from this episode. While we hope that our creation is spared from the endless cycle of demolition and construction in a city, we are ultimately powerless to stop others from replacing our buildings. This is a necessary compromise that ensures a city belongs to everyone instead of being subjected to the whims of powerful individuals concerned only with the immortality of their creation.

The Living City also tries to educate people about the heavy toll on the environment brought about by the expansion of a city. When building, many people were conscious of the need to deforest large areas as future sites where their buildings will stand. To offset the damage previously afflicted on the natural environment, some tried to replant trees onto roof-top gardens.

By limiting the number of green space available, we were also taking cue from the city walls of Paris and the green belt surrounding London in trying to encourage the development of a more compact and denser cityscape. When the game first started, the Lego structures were dispersed across the entire landscape, but gradually as more structures were added, the only feasible solution was to keep building higher as land area dwindled. By imposing geographical boundaries, we wanted to discourage land wastage on suburban sprawls and minimise our tendency of viewing cities as having limitless growth potentials.

Most importantly, from the game play, we want to carry across the message that the city is a living organism. It has the capability undergoing many rounds of evolution to arrive at a temporary equilibrium to satisfy the sometimes opposing and conflicting needs of different groups of people. A great city is not a static place in time. It evolves and changes in response to the generations of people who continually occupy its spaces.

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#TheLivingCity is an open invitation to every concerned Malaysian citizen to participate in a discussion of an ‘ideal’ city. The travelling exhibition will be part of the George Town Festival 2014 from 20th to 31st August 2014. Prior to the exhibition, a master class workshop will be conducted by Danish-Icelandic architecture firm, KRADS using Lego as the only thinking tool. Deadline for application to be part of the workshop is Friday, 25 July, 2014. For more information, please visit www.betterciti.es/thelivingcity

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