Lesson on Realism Part 1: General Tips
Please PM STomnibus if you have any questions about this article.
Each player of SimCity 4 eventually develops a desire to create cities that have some depth beyond a region-sized grid full of high-density zoning. This can be because of a desire to recreate a real location or build a city that he or she may actually like to live in. Building a realistic city or region can be a daunting task at first, so to help the members of the community overcome this major obstacle, I have decided to take on the job of giving all information I know about realism in SimCity 4 in five different parts.
While it may seem that I am trying to tell you how to make your city, I'm not. This is just a collection of personal observations based on realism, not set rules. Build your cities the way you want them. I'm just giving suggestions on how to make them seem more realistic.
Lesson 1: Ready-made maps
With the availability of accurate regions made from USGS maps, the ultimate in realism can easily be obtained as far as your region is concerned. However, these regions have their inherent flaws (which are mostly due to the game‘s limitations), such as rivers that have sudden breaks, reservoirs without dams, and a complete lack of trees.
The first thing that should be done to a freshly loaded region is going through the waterways, making sure that the rivers have continuous flow, and have some amount of bending. It is a personal choice, but adding smaller waterways, such as creeks and streams in already low areas can also add a touch of realism to the region. Also, when two rivers merge, the two combined form a larger waterway.
Lakes and reservoirs also need some attention. While there are natural lakes, they are rare in most locations. Most lakes were made by damming a river, but the lack of dams in SC4 presents a problem. One solution is the use of land bridges and earthen dams. While these may not be the most pleasing of solutions, they do work, and are the only option we have as of now. Lakes generally have varied shores with many small coves and inlets that conform to the surrounding terrain.
One great problem with most regions is quite simple to remedy: the complete lack of trees. Unless you are building a desert or tundra region, trees will be present to some degree. Vegetations is usually more dense along waterways, and generally less dense the higher the elevation. While this may seem obvious, it is amazing how many city journals I have seen with not a tree in sight.
Lesson 2: Placement of Development
Cities do not just develop in random places. There has to be some reason for the people to decide to build up an area, such as a waterway, high traffic area, or natural resource. Placing your city center or historic downtown in the area most likely to be developed for some reason is necessary for realism. Plopping high-density commercial in a grid dead in the center of the map is not always the best way to go about this.
Usually these areas develop along some sort of riverfront or major artery of transportation. Further development of industry and business happens in the same way. Along the main reason for development, the largest buildings are present, with smaller ones being further away. Suburban sprawl generally surrounds the main development, following the landscape. Main point: Cities are not symmetrical and are generally not patterned.
Lesson 3: Road Networks
The road systems of your cities are one of the vital elements of realism on a smaller scale. The success of your entire region also depends on this, so some compromises have to be made, but with a fair amount of planning and strategy, a useful and aesthetically pleasing network can be made.
Highways are used to link large areas of development and channel traffic into one main artery. Originally used to link large cities to each other, a few highways leading into your city will allow for traffic to enter and leave your region to go wherever it needs to in SimNation. Once traffic reaches urgent levels in a city, a high capacity loop around the city is also made. A ring of highway that generally loops around the central district of your city funnels the inner-city traffic from clogged roads and deposits it closer to the desired location in a shorter amount of time.
The height of your highway system also bears some weight. Raised highways are used mainly in larger cities to allow other means on transportation to pass underneath. Ground-level highways are used in all other situations, with fewer transport routes intersecting them. Underpasses for ground level highways can be simulated by lowering the terrain for roughly eight tiles, and placing elevated highway in the depressed area. If done right, the route will remain level, and another route can pass underneath.
Avenues serve the same basic functions as highways, and should be used to connect areas of high development or relieve traffic. The areas surrounding avenues usually host a burst of development due to the higher amount of traffic, so feel free to upgrade that low-density to medium along that expanded route.
Roads simply serve the same purposes as avenues, but at a smaller level still. Roads occur in urban areas to link smaller areas of development and relieve traffic on streets. In rural areas, they serve the purpose of linking communities. And yes, they curve more than highways and avenues. Follow the contours of the terrain, picking a somewhat level and reasonably short route. Streets are simply used to provide access to areas untouched by other types of road networks, and host limited development. Once the traffic becomes a problem on any road or street, it should be upgraded.
Bridges and tunnels should be used sparingly and only when no other alternative is available. Waterways do not have a roof of bridges, and mountains are not Swiss cheese. Bridge type should also be considered. You don't see a copy of the Golden Gate crossing a river to give access to a small clump of industry. Use the type of bridge that matches the area. Have an old fashion village? Use a covered or stone arch bridge. Have a scenic bay in a sprawling metropolis? Use a suspension or Golden Gate. Use bridges to add character to your city, keeping the scope of the crossing in mind.
Lesson 4: Zoning
Whether your city is going to be a concrete jungle or a typical hometown should determine the density of your buildings. As a general rule, low density should be the only type of residential and commercial zoning until your city is ready to get its first skyscrapers (around 75-100,000 sims), as small towers will build in medium density if the conditions are right. I have gotten a tower with at least twenty stories to build in a town of 5k, so stick with the small time as long as possible.
Industry should be zoned carefully to prevent a town full of slums and the common problem of residential areas being zoned away from it like it was the plague. Each city has a poor section, and industry is a perfect way to ensure low income housing develops. Dirty and manufacturing are used with great effect for this, and keeps the fact that not every factory produces microprocessors alive. High tech is a sign of your city's wealth and quality of education, but it should not be the only type of industry.
Commerce is developed by individuals who see a high level of traffic (customers) in an area, and build. This should be reflected in your zoning. Business should form the core of your city, with fingers reaching out to high traffic areas in other areas. Single plots or tiny cluster of two or three plots should be placed at crossroads in rural areas. A few random plots could also be placed along rural roads. Just don't put skyscrapers in the middle of a farm.
Residential areas should be based on the level of business and industry. Once a city reaches about 50k, large clusters of apartments are not uncommon near the city center. While rare in smaller towns, single apartment complexes can be seen here and there. Suburbs and bedroom communities should surround larger cities since not all want to live in a giant concrete cracker box. The VAST majority of people live in single family housing unless in a gigantic metropolis, so make your cities reflect this.
Lesson 5: Utilities
Without a utility system, your city will simply not develop. This is often the deciding factor between keeping your finances in the black or the red, but can also be the part of your city that seems out of place in an otherwise flowing community.
One does not find a power plant in each city, however, or a dump slathered in the middle of the industrial zones. In most areas, a central power station, water plant, and dump is present. In many places, the trash is sent miles away, and water and power can travel hundreds of miles before reaching the faucet. Unfortunately, we can't just send our trash out of the region or buy our power from a nuclear plant capable of powering half a large state.
The only slightly realistic option we have is to build a centralized area for each utility. Power and trash can be combined into one area, and if the power plants are clean, water can be combined with them. Don't combine all three, or water and trash. Unfortunately, we have no options for handling this obstacle to realism, unless custom lots or mods are found to take care of these problems. Using cheats is one option, but many purists simply refuse to even mention these. Until some solution is found, we are stuck with these problems.
Lesson 6: Public Services
Your city can exist without these, but unless you just want to see your sims live in torment, they get built. There is not much to adding realism with these, besides deciding which level of what service you put in an area. Obvious things, such as not placing a large medical center in a farm town of 2k and not putting a high school in every hole in the road that develops should be noted, as they are about the extent of this topic. Just don't place all services in one clump. Spread them out, placing fire and police coverage in your city centers, with small outposts in strategic areas.
In all honesty, realism is all in the eye of the beholder. Different nations, states/provinces, and even neighborhoods vary to a great degree, so your idea of realism is probably far different from mine. There are general guidelines that should be followed, as they are pretty much universal, but you should take inspiration from your local community. Don't build a city that will get a good review in the city journal forum, build what is pleasing to you.
This is only the first part of what will be four, possibly five articles on realism. I plan on releasing three on realism specific to different sizes of cities (with images), and possibly one devoted to rural or boondock areas. Any suggestions for these future articles or comments about this one are more than welcome, as I'd like to improve my ability to make realistic cities as well.
If you have any questions about this article, please PM STomnibus.