Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The creators of “Cards Against Urbanity” now want to get non-professionals in on the joke (city planning, that is).
In a crowded pub on a Tuesday night, a group of planners are cackling over scenic view-sheds, stadium boondoggles, and a stress-ball shaped like Richard Florida.
At least these are a few of the terms scattered across the table on shiny black cards. It’s all part of Cards Against Urbanity, which is just like the cheeky bar game Cards Against Humanity, but with an urbanist twist.
Lisa Nisenson prompts the group with a “question” card: “Donald Trump’s latest erection involves blank,” she announces. Nisenson is founder of the planning consultancy and website GreaterPlaces, and is one of the game’s creators.
The rest of us—architects, planners, economic-development experts, and a couple of journalists—lay down our replies, which range from head-scratching to totally gross: “Mutual access easements.” “Self-righteous pedestrians.” “A desire named streetcar.” “Churches becoming condos.” “Moisture problems.” That last card wins the round, for no other reason than Nisenson thinking it’s funny. That’s how Cards Against Urbanity works.
The game is a product of GreaterPlaces and Do Tank D.C., a tactical-urbanism group composed mostly of city-design professionals. “We were basically bored and frustrated” with drawn-out, self-serious planning processes, says Nisenson, who also has decades of experience in city planning and project management. During a night of drinking, she and some Do Tank colleagues realized that a game might bring some badly needed lightness to planning projects—or at least to the profession.
They were right: When the group launched a Kickstarter for the cards in the fall of 2014, they raised $28,833—nearly four times their original goal. Hundreds of card packs are now in the hands of city-minded supporters worldwide.
Back at the card table, I’m the judge of the next round. I read the prompt card aloud: “What’s that smell?” (Not all the cards are explicitly city-related.) But I’m not familiar with all the funny phrases being slapped down as answers. “Texas donut”? “Snout house”? Huh?
“This happens all the time,” says Brian McLaren, a director of the American Institute of Architects and a Do Tank affiliate. He launches into definitions of the unknown terms. Herein lies the incidental beauty of the game: Besides being fun for professionals, it teaches people outside the trade about planning concepts—which sometimes very much affect their communities. (GreaterPlaces also has a printable “cardsplanation” document to clarify all the terms.)
That educational aspect is what led the card-makers to their next project. GreaterPlaces and Do Tank D.C. are now designing what you might call Cards For Urbanity: a deck of cards printed with clear descriptions and visuals of urban design terms, methods, and solutions. These can be used by professionals to help organize their thoughts in the beginning stages of a planning process, as well as to get community stakeholders up to speed about concepts like missing middle housing and woonerfs.
“We cringe when we go into meetings and hear designers talking about nubs and bulb-outs, while people from the community are like, ‘We just want to slow down traffic,’” Nisenson says. “I’m like, let’s stop looking at pretty pictures and talking about what happens in Denmark. Let’s talk about how to actually do this.”
The ”City Design Method Cards” could help level the playing field by serving as a common language and source of ideas. They’ll be portable, easy legible, and even customizable to specific communities and projects. There may eventually be a way to “play” the cards as a game (Nisenson says the group isn’t quite there yet, as the project is still in beta).
But the group is beginning to think about how to get the cards into the hands of non-professionals some day. Emily Brown, a director of the International Economic Development Council and another DoTanker, tells me she thinks she can see their group partnering with non-profits already engaged in civic activism and planning, who could use the cards as support tools within communities.
“We want to engage people in planning with an educational system that’s different from Powerpoint,” says Brown. The group is also currently looking for collaborators in the design and planning world to share ideas for the cards.
The Kickstarter for the new cards doesn’t launch until January, but those interested in their snarkier predecessors can get their fix now. There was only one official print run of Cards Against Urbanity, but you can get equipped with the nerdiest bar game around by printing out the cards yourself for free.
After all, you wouldn’t want to miss out on “Yet another study on how Millennials love cities” or “Meaningless developer concessions,” would you?
H/t: Rachel Kaufman at Next City