Turning to a board game for insights on planning Charlotte’s growth

Novel Stonewall Station construction

What can a board game - especially a wonky, policy-oriented board game - teach us about how Charlotte should grow over the next two decades?

Local officials are hoping the answer is quite a lot. As work on the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan rolls on, and city officials rework the rules governing development into a new, unified ordinance, the “Growth Game” is a central component of their strategy to gather feedback about what people want to see. 

“The game is a way to get our citizens involved in actually developing those scenarios,” planner Garet Johnson told a Charlotte City Council committee on Monday.

[Read more: Charlotte looks ahead two decades to plan growth]

The game’s full name is “Growing Better Places: A More Equitable and Inclusive Charlotte.” It’s available online and at in-person events over the next couple of months, though the online and physical versions differ sharply.

“Playing the full game and having the discussion around the table is so much more robust,” said Johnson.

A quick recap of the 2040 plan and unified development ordinance, or UDO, if you haven’t been following the process: Charlotte hasn’t had a comprehensive plan for its growth since 1975, and planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba has prioritized creating a new vision to guide Charlotte’s expansion. To implement that vision, the city is overhauling its approximately 1,000-page zoning ordinance and dozens of other regulatory documents, such as stormwater and tree ordinances, rolling them into a single UDO. If all goes according to plan, Charlotte City Council will adopt the new vision and rules sometime in 2021. 

So, what does planning Charlotte’s future on a board game look like? The first thing to know is that this isn’t quite “Risk” or “Monopoly” or even “Settlers of Catan.” The online version is more of a series of ranked preferences, where you get to choose which areas of the city you think should see the most residential, commercial and other growth, as well as agree or disagree with certain strategies to achieve equity and inclusion.

For example, players are asked whether they agree with statements such as “Charlotte should create stronger development standards for some or all types of development to require multi-modal transportation facilities” or “Charlotte should plan mixed use development in key areas around the City, adjacent to existing neighborhoods and transportation facilities.”

Unsurprisingly for a game that likely attracts urban planning enthusiasts, most of these statements have racked up large margins of support among players, according to the results displayed online. One of the only questions with a major split is around whether to loosen the rules and allow more accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, such as backyard apartments, in single-family neighborhoods. That tends to arouse fierce opposition - witness the current struggle over ADUs in suburban Montgomery County, Md. - from current residents. But giving people the ability to build more densely in single-family neighborhoods is seen by advocates as a critical tool in alleviating the nationwide housing shortage, and Jaiyeoba has said Charlotte should explore eliminating single-family zoning. 

About half those who have played the growth game online said they are against strategies that would add density in single-family neighborhoods. But planners said that when people play in-person, they are more likely to agree with such strategies. 

“People are much warmer to those when they have the chance to discuss among the group,” said Johnson. 

The actual board game is significantly more in-depth than the online version. While the online game takes anywhere from five to 20 minutes, the physical version requires multiple players over two rounds, and takes anywhere from 1 ½ to 2 hours. 

Players are required to allocate the housing units expected to accommodate 325,000 additional new residents by 2040, as well as 205,000 new jobs, between five different areas of the city (North, South, Central, West and East). Players also have to select “vision elements” (such as “inclusive & diverse”) and strategies that could achieve them (such as “duplexes and triplexes”). 

Want to play the game?
  • Charlotte has joined with Potions & Pixels and other community groups to provide public opportunities to play the growth game. A schedule is available online, and large playing sessions are planned Aug. 1 at Park Church on Beatties Ford Road and Aug. 22 at the WeWork space in the new RailYard building in South End.
  • You can also check a copy out from the city yourself if you're looking to mix it up at your next family game night.  

Players have to use a limited amount of available “community funds” to add amenities and infrastructure such as parks and pedestrian/bicycle improvements (This being a game about municipal planning, you can acquire more community funds if a majority of players vote to authorize a bond issue). 

They also have to decide which types of places should be emphasized in each of the city’s sectors, such as “regional activity” and “lower-intensity residential” centers. Game participants are supposed to discuss their preferences and the trade-offs, and a leader records their feedback and submits it to the city. So far, more than 160 people have played the game in person, while almost 300 have played the online version, Johnson said.

One goal is to get people to consider the “hard choices” inherent in a city’s growth, Johnson said. For example: Should employment be concentrated in the central part of the city because it has the best access transit, possibly at the expense of the eastern part of Charlotte, which has the smallest share of the city’s jobs? Is it equitable to concentrate industrial development in west Charlotte - and if not, where should future industrial development go?

Charlotte City Council will receive an update on the plans Oct. 7, Jaiyeoba said. Feedback from the games will be incorporated as city staff works to develop “preferred growth scenarios.”