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  July/August 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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Earth's Innovators
Some people think outside the box. Some don't think about boxes at all.
by Dashka Slater

Natalie Jeremijenko | Amy Smith | Ted Sargent | Erin Gately | Dave Biggs | Jay Harman

Dave Biggs
Cofounder, Envision Sustainability Tools
Vancouver, British Columbia
envisiontools.com

Imagine a SimCity for the real world, where you can design an ideal green community and then make it happen.

Environmentalists often wish they could show people the consequences of their choices: the asthma and hurricanes that result from dependency on cars, the farmland paved over for subdivisions, the gridlock that ensues when public transit goes underfunded. Dave Biggs, cofounder of the Canadian company Envision Sustainability Tools, has found a way to do just that. It's called MetroQuest, and it's a computer simulation program that helps people decide what they want their region to look like 40 years from now.

"People are used to making short-term choices — what kind of car should I drive? What kind of house do I want to live in next?" he says. "But they're not thinking, 'If 6 million other people did this, what would be the cost to the things that I care about?'"

MetroQuest was inspired by the computer game SimCity, which invites players to plan the future of imaginary cities. Now in its fourth generation, MetroQuest has been used on four continents, largely by public agencies holding planning workshops. Participants make decisions about transportation and land-use policies, and the program uses real data to show what their region will look like if their plans are carried out.

For Biggs, an avid cyclist, hiker, and urban-policy wonk, the program reflects his belief that environmental issues are inextricably linked with social and economic ones. Sustainability, he argues, comes from creating a system that balances the three. "I'm attracted to systems that work well and that work efficiently, regardless of whether they're human or natural," he says. "I seek out beauty, and I see beauty in cities when they work well. But a lot of cities don't."

A typical MetroQuest workshop begins with a discussion of what participants want for the future. Not surprisingly, most people want everything: big, inexpensive houses with ample backyards, short commutes on uncongested streets, clean air, low taxes, and a winning baseball team. But what they find as they use MetroQuest is that some of these desires are mutually incompatible, particularly when population growth is factored in.

If they build inexpensive, single-family homes for a million people, for instance, they're going to end up building them on agricultural land. There goes the clean air, the short commute, the pastoral view, and all the jobs associated with farming. Faced with the results of their decisions, the participants then go back and begin fiddling with the variables until they arrive at a future they can live with.

The surprising result of MetroQuest is that workshop participants of all political stripes end up reaching consensus fairly easily, and that consensus tends to be far greener than many might have predicted. Instead of sprawling, car-oriented suburbs, people opt for dense urban corridors served by public transit — the kinds of places environmentalists are usually told are a political impossibility.

"People are amazingly well able to make a choice between two things," Biggs explains. "Would you like to live in a row house near transit, or would you like to live in your own house and breathe poorer air? Because that's the decision that's before us."


Photo by Jeff Vinnick.

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