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Could Minecraft help us build a better city?

Catherine Carter

It’s been called the ultimate sandbox game, but now Minecraft’s imaginary worlds are being turned into bricks and mortar, thanks to a United Nations program that helps people design better public spaces.

More than 121 million copies of Minecraft have been sold since Markus Persson released his brainchild on the world in 2009. Persson cashed in when Microsoft bought the game for a cool US$2.5 billion in 2014.

Reminiscent of Dire Straits’ video clip Money for Nothing, the program’s simplicity is the secret of its appeal. Minecraft enables everyone from around six years of age and up to take cubes of different textured material and build anything their imagination can dream up. This might be an individual building like a fort or a castle, or an entire world such as the lost city of Atlantis, a replica of New York City or the set pieces for Game of Thrones.

But Minecraft’s true power rests in its potential to engage millions of people in conversations about their cities.

The UN’s program, called Block by Block, works with local communities to reimagine outdated or dangerous public spaces that are ripe for redevelopment.

So far, community workshops have been held in Vietnam, Indonesia, Madagascar, India, Kosovo, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, the United States, Ecuador and Lebanon, and Block by Block is working with 650 hopeful communities around the world.

Minecraft helped locals reinvent their community in Nairobi’s Dandora neighbourhood, a place with a high crime rate and the dubious honour of being near the largest garbage dump in East Africa. Workshop participants created a prototype of a model street, which included zebra crossings on busy streets, ramps near roadways for people with disabilities, drainages to tackle frequent flooding, lighting in strategic locations, waste bins, as well as trees and flowers.

People were able to bring their ideas, from kitchen gardens to skate parks, to life. Planners gained insights into the needs of the community from those living in it every day, while residents gained a deeper understanding of the urban planning process and how to express their needs.

In Vietnam’s Hanoi, a city that has doubled in size since 2000, Block by Block brought together 45 school girls to design safe and accessible places in the growing neighbourhood of Kim Chung. Many of these girls travel miles each day to reach the school, and had experienced first-hand the perils of poor city design.

Among the ideas the girls presented were unbreakable street lights in a particularly treacherous long tunnel, a female-only coffee shop and a shelter with facial identification security at the door. The girls imagined street benches and signage, murals and flower beds to make their walk safer and more enjoyable.

And in the city of Mitrovica in Kosova, a Block by Block project brought together a deeply divided community to regenerate a tired marketplace in the city’s centre. A bridge spanning Mitrovica’s river, which acts as a symbol of the divide between the Serbian and Albanian residents, was at the heart of the project’s revitalisation efforts. Using Minecraft, people from all walks of life came together to design improvements to the river banks, but also to dream up spaces that would reflect Mitrovica’s future as a unified city.

Engaging the internet generation through gaming may seem obvious, and undoubtedly building Minecraft models can help young people and children express their unique perspectives on placemaking. But regardless of age, many participants said using Minecraft had helped them to speak in a common language, and to generate new thinking and learning around city-building. It also helped people to understand how different groups interact with their cities. Men were surprised to discover where women felt unsafe, and young people gained insights into the challenges of age.

Not everyone will become an urban planner or an architect. But everyone can have a say in the development of their city. Tools like Minecraft can democratise the development process, and give people more ownership over the places and spaces that make up their community.

The million-dollar question for Canberra is clear. Could Minecraft help us build a better city? What do you think?

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up a boutique consulting firm, Indigo Consulting Australia, where she provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author