Perfect Plano

September 13th, 2011

We’ve been talking about moving to a new city. To be honest, it’s something we’ve been talking about for years. Since we haven’t left Richmond yet, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever leave. I’m worried that we will talk about it forever, too scared of change to actually do it. In the meanwhile, we will suffer from feeling like we’re living in limbo, never becoming comfortable enough to settle down here because of the tiny chance that we might pack up and leave.

Anyway. Plano, Texas landed on our list of potential cities. Knowing nothing about it, I began my research by looking at it on a map.

The first thing I noticed was the uniformly spaced grid. Major roads are approximately one mile apart. This might not be surprising to anybody who lives west of the Appalachian mountains, especially if you’re familiar with square townships created as a result of the Land Ordinanace of 1785. But where I’m from, no suburbs are arranged on a grid. The streets are dynamic, or curvy. Much space is wasted.

Upon zooming in, I noticed something even more fascinating. At every major intersection, there is a shopping center. Hubs of commercial activity are never more than a mile away! Coming from a suburb where you can’t walk anywhere, the layout of Plano is very appealing.

Critics might accuse this type of suburban development as boring, but I think it’s perfect. It allows residents to have their own slice of land, but in a dense enough fashion to support walkability. And of course, the organized grid satisfies my appetite for order. There are one or two areas around here that resemble this style of development, but most of the suburbs surrounding Richmond are more capacious with unnecessarily large residential lots and buffers of undeveloped space between neighborhoods.

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May 5th, 2008

Has it become trendy to dislike suburbs?

There is a scene in the movie Juno that satirizes suburbs by showing images of McMansions in a series, presenting to the audience their conspicuous similarities. Several people in the audience snickered as they realized the joke, even as we sat in a big box theater in our own similarly amorphous suburb.

Suburbs are a relatively new approach to land use, only becoming a possibility after World War II with the availability of FHA loans and the growth of the Interstate Highway System. Many of the recorded problems with suburbs since their inception nearly sixty years ago are being resolved. Densely developed housing (including the increasing popularity of condominiums and townhomes) and a mix of housing types offered at a range of costs prevent segregated social classes. Job opportunities in suburban areas are increasing, alleviating traffic to and from the central city during rush hour and rather, dispersing it over a larger geographic area. Home owners are conscious of the design and character of their house and are demanding unique styles. Planners are triumphing in local governments, developing ordinances that will enforce smart growth. In general, people care about the future of their neighborhood.

I am optimistic about the future of the suburbs surrounding Richmond. For an area that is experiencing rapid population growth, policy-makers, planners, and developers are working together to accommodate the population smartly and plan for the future. Essentially, mini-cities are being created in the suburbs that incorporate both the advantages of cities and the charm of suburbs.

Significant efforts are being made to revive older sections of the suburbs that are closer to the city and have been abandoned as growth sprawled outward. An outdated shopping mall that has gained the reputation of being dangerous and dirty struggles to compete with the new large shopping malls built farther from the city. It will be replaced with 83 acres of mixed-use development and will include residential, retail, and office space, potentially reviving the surrounding neighborhoods, increasing property values, and restoring the area’s reputation.

A new town is being built at the edge of Richmond’s suburbs on an old train line. Based on New Urbanist principles, it will be built around a town center that will provide offices, schools, restaurants, and shops among and within walking distance of the residential neighborhoods, reducing or even eliminating the dependence on an automobile. Eventually, the old train line will be reinstated, providing rapid transportation to Main Street Station in downtown Richmond.

Another mixed-use development will include more square-feet of office space in the suburbs than claimed by the central business district in the city. This will alleviate rush hour traffic into the city every morning as jobs will be closer to homes.

It is the residential characteristic of suburbs – historically, bedroom communities that provide few employment opportunities and require residents to commute to cities to work – that create many of the problems associated with sprawl. Thoughtful approaches to planning and development can resolve problems such as income segregation, traffic congestion, long commutes, social inequalities, and inefficient land use.

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Strawberries from Irvine

April 30th, 2008

I recently purchased strawberries at a national grocery store chain in Richmond, VA. They were grown in Irvine, CA – over 2,000 miles away.

I recognize arguments endorsing local produce such as reduction of oil consumption and support for small local farmers. However, I wonder if the subjective definition of “local” requires reconsideration. Advancements in technology including rapid and efficient transportation as well as knowledge of modern farming techniques allow farmers to produce crops in larger quantities and transport them to more distant areas than ever before. Rather than producing a variety of crops to sustain the local population, regions can now specialize in crops that thrive in specific climates while the entire world essentially becomes a market in which they can find their niche. I can buy strawberries from California, oranges from Florida, limes from Mexico, and apples from Virginia just like I can buy electronics from China, tea from India, and cars from Japan. With commerce and communication creating a global economy for many industries, why can’t the definition of “local” as it applies to produce farmers be expanded as well?

Exactly how many miles from my front door does my locality end and a neighboring locality begin?

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Creating a TF2 Map

April 19th, 2008

Eric and I began discussing ideas for a Team Fortress 2 map months ago, but I became discouraged after working for hours on different versions of the map in Valve’s 3D map editor, Hammer, only to discover upon testing that the design was all wrong. After some consoling and much bribery that may have included bacon, Eric convinced me to try again and provided me with a comprehensive design document. I anticipate that with clearly defined guidelines, the map-making process will be more enjoyable this time and thus more productive than our unorganized attempt made previously.

Our map is a “gimmick” map, meaning that will not adhere to the typical game play elements enforced in Team Fortress 2. In Team Fortress 2, players join one of two teams – either red or blue – and choose to play one of nine classes. Each class is designed for a unique role in the game with different weapon sets, health points, and character behavior, fostering an interesting and balanced game experience. For example, the Scout class lacks health points and is handicapped by a short-range shotgun while the Heavy can sustain more damage and boasts a badass mini gun*; however, the Scout can run faster than any other class and can double jump while the Heavy walks insufferably slow. Working together, a team with a balanced variety of classes (and players playing the classes as they are intended) will achieve the objective.

*Not actually mini at all.

Our map will only allow players to choose Scout (red team) or Sniper (blue team). The objective is to provide players with the opportunity to practice playing each class to master the subtle nuances of each. Scouts will learn how to dodge bullets and race to the capture point while Snipers will learn how to aim at an erratic target through the scope. When the Scouts successfully capture the capture point, players on the red team will be switched to the blue team and vice versa, requiring players to attempt both classes.

Inspiration for the map came from the scene in the movie 28 Weeks Later where snipers on the roof of a tall building are shooting at zombies on the street below them. In our map, a horde of Scouts (the zombies) will emerge from the front of a building at ground level and race down two streets (an “L” shape) to the capture point while the Snipers on the roof of a building at the hinge of the “L” attempt to shoot them. Scouts may be able to enter the Snipers’ building and ascend stairs to the roof to try to distract the Snipers.

This is what Hammer looks like. I arranged the windows so that I can see a 2D view of each axis (an overhead view and two side views) and 3D view of the map that I can navigate through. The tools are exceptionally simple – the block tool creates forms, the texture tool applies textures to blocks such as bricks or sky, and the entity tool creates special features such as lights, spawn points, capture points, and doors.

In the initial stages of building a map, I use simple textures and blocky forms to facilitate modifications. Once the layout of the map has been play tested and approved, textures and details will be added to give it the aesthetic of a city. Obstructions such as parked vehicles, crates, and dumpsters will be added to the street to prevent the Snipers from having an excessive advantage.

To begin, I created the frame of a cube-shaped room to confirm that my spawn point and lights worked properly. I discovered that if the spawn point isn’t hovering a few units above the ground, the player will be stuck in the floor when the game begins.

On the second iteration, I expanded the cube into a rectangle with a tall building at the end opposite of the spawn point. The purpose of this iteration is to determine the ideal distance of the street. I noted the time required to run from one end to the other as well as tested the line of sight.

I adjusted the length of the street and the height of the building and tested it in game again.

Once we were confident that the basic frame was an appropriate size, I added a Sniper spawn point on top of the building. I ran the map on my computer and Eric connected from his computer so we could test the street distances with a player on each team. The building height and street length are such that a Sniper looking through his or her scope can accurately aim at Scouts at the far end of the map.

In previous versions, we considered creating a single street rather than an “L” shape configuration with a building on either side of the street, requiring the Scouts to run through a choke point between the two buildings. We also tested a taller building and created an invisible “kill” texture in the space below the roof so that Snipers who tried to jump to the ground would die. In the end, we decided that it would be more realistic to allow Snipers to fall to the ground and become swarmed by zombies Scouts with baseball batz.

While there is not an official method to restrict players to only two classes, I found several work-around suggestions in level design forums. The one that I tried involves a trigger that fills the spawn room that, when touched (when the player spawns), sends a command to their computer to join a specific class regardless of what class was chosen. This works perfectly on my computer, but is ignored when Eric connects to my map from his computer. I suspect that he has enabled a setting that prevents the server from sending commands to the client for security. If this is the case, I’m not sure how to proceed other than to trust players to join the intended class.

The next steps include carving stairs to the roof with doors at both ends, providing full-featured respawn rooms with resupply lockers, and creating a capture point. The time required to capture the capture point will be tuned and the street will be analyzed for location and quantity of obstructions for Scouts to hide behind. Upon completion of these core game play elements, the map will be tested on private servers. As feedback is received and implemented, the map will simultaneously be receiving graphical updates.

I am motivated to complete this map because we have some pretty awesome ideas for our next map.

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