The Cole Neighborhood is an area in northwest Denver that has signifigant need for economic and community redevelopment. Under Mayor Peña, funds for infrastructure and bank loan packages for property improvements were made available to the area, and the decisions about how the money would be spent were to be made by community participants

SimLab Involvement

The Simulation Laboratory (SimLab) in the Department of Environmental Design was asked to participate in creating processes to elicit meaningful participation by the community. Through the creation of physical models of homes, neighborhoods, and infrastructure, along with the training of citizens as facilitators, community participants were engaged in a process of description, evaluation, and prescription, resulting in decisions on funding priorities.

The Role of Physical Simulations

The use of these models has made us aware of some of the benefits and limitations of these simulations games and provided us with a deeper understanding of different media. The strengths of physical media are:

  • Direct, naive manipulability and intuitive understanding : It is very natural to pick and place physical objects; certain characteristics (size, weight, color, shape) can be used to communicate meaning.
  • Tactile interaction : The sense of touch provides an additional dimension of interaction. In augmenting the visual, the tactile aids understanding and retention.
  • Mediation of communication and social interaction : Once a meaning has been negotiated for a game piece, the piece becomes an implicit part of the communication. The objects act as a means of focusing the conversation and a conduit for emphasis, feeling, and conviction. The physical support interaction between players, the ability to give a physical object to another player, and associate a meaning with that transaction can enhance ideas and viewpoints more directly.
  • Some degree of fidelity to reality : As physical pieces, it is easy to place and move objects in 3D physical space and to avoid inadvertent co-location (boundaries of the physical are enforced).

Many of these advantages are interrelated and interact with each other. On the other hand, weaknesses are associated directly with the limitations of the physical material:

  • The models are passive, incapable of changing representation without intervention by users.
  • Behavior is not easy to visualize: All interpretation of meaning has to come from users.
  • Automatic feedback on the consequences of a decision is not provided.
  • Fidelity to reality is limited due to problems such as scaling.
  • Alternate realities are not easy to model; it is not possible to do actions that are not possible in the physical world.
  • Management of information is difficult. Results generated by the game (descriptions, evaluations, and prescriptions reached by the players) must be transcribed into some other form for posterity and future use. Information from other sources that needs to be brought to bear on the problem is not available in the physical model.

An interesting book “The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.” (1998 Pantheon Books) supports our contention that the ability to physically manipulate objects is important for understanding and learning.

What is My Neighborhood?

One question that comes out of this work is whether the use of these simulations cause any changes in the understanding of the participants. Cognitive definitions of neighborhoods are important to planning because as images they inevitably structure reality. Likewise, discrepancies between the cognitive and the real political definitions of a neighborhood are relevant since their existence can limit neighborhood participation in design and policy-making processes

A baseline survey was carried out with 115 subjects. An augmentation of understanding of the boundaries of the neighborhood was observed in the cognitive maps of “my neighborhood” drawn by those neighbors who had used the tools over the ones who had not used them.

Cognitive maps of “my neighborhood” from a survey representative of neighbors who did not use the models (left), with those who did or helped as facilitators (right) (Foy 1991).