Building A Self-Sufficient City In Cities: Skylines – Part One

Cities: Skylines [official site] is our RPS Game Of The Month for April. As part of our month of coverage, we asked Duncan Geere to build an arcology in the game. This is his attempt.

Arcologies are pretty awesome, as town planning concepts go. The towering, fishbowl-topped edifices that seasoned gamers will recognise from SimCity 2000 were one of that game’s most beloved features, but they bear only a passing resemblance to the real thing. In reality (and I use that word loosely because no-one’s ever successfully finished one) an arcology is merely a sustainable, self-contained settlement that can supply most of the needs of a large population that dwells within.

Cities: Skylines doesn’t include the arcologies of SimCity 2000, and at the time of writing there’s only one in the Steam workshop. So I thought it might be a fun experiment to try and build one myself – one a little closer to the true meaning of the term. I wanted to build a city that relies as little as possible on the outside world, with minimal impact on natural resources. As many planners in the real world have discovered, that is far harder than it appears.

The history of arcologies goes back almost a century. Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller proposed early self-sustaining cities, but the term “arcology” itself was coined in 1969 by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, who dedicated his life to trying to establish a sustainable community called Arcosanti in the Arizona desert. Some argue that Antarctic bases like Halley and McMurdo are arcologies, but they only sustain a population of tens and hundreds respectively, albeit in very harsh conditions.

The closest thing we have to an arcology in reality, right now, is Masdar City – a zero-waste city project in the desert of the United Arab Emirates, about twenty kilometres south-east of Abu Dhabi. Work started in 2006, with British architects Foster + Partners drawing up plans for a city housing about 50,000 people in just six square kilometres. It was due to be finished within about eight years, but the global financial crisis intervened and to date it consists of just a handful of office buildings. Final completion is now scheduled for between 2020 and 2025. Surely I could do better than that.

The first step is funding. The Masdar project is expected to cost about $20 billion, so I figure the best approach to approximate the riches of the Gulf states would be to just tick the ‘unlimited money’ box on map creation. I pick the ‘Diamond Coast’ map, because that sounded rather like the sun-kissed shore of the Persian Gulf that the real Masdar City sits on.

I rely on Foster + Partner’s futuristic renderings to lay out my road network. Masdar City is built around pedestrians, cyclists and public transport but Cities:Skylines dictates that buildings have to be on a road so I choose as low-capacity roads as possible while still maintaining something of a hierarchy. Inside the twin squares that serve as the city’s basic shape, only gravel tracks serve the neighborhoods, while a series of roundabouts offer connections to the outside world. I zone the squares as districts, banning all heavy goods traffic within.

Power is a simpler decision – Masdar City is powered by a 22-hectare field of solar panels. The plans originally called for solar panels covering most of the roofs of the buildings, but the planners found that they quickly got covered with sand blown by the wind, and sweeping all the panels in one place was far easier than accessing everyone’s roofs. I build a couple of solar power plants and trash incinerators to power my city, making it 100 percent renewable.

Water isn’t quite so easy in a desert. In the real-world plans, 80 percent of the water in the city is reused – mostly to irrigate crops that grow outside the city walls. I throw up some water towers around the city outskirts, pumping it up from aquifers below ground (which is questionable in sustainability terms – a desalination plant would be better), as well as building three wastewater treatment plants on the seashore. I enact power, water and recycling ordinances to make sure everyone does their bit. I also dot the normal utilities around – education, health, police and fire services.

The next step is public transport, and here I’m going all out. A railway snakes through the city on Foster + Partners’ plans, so I do my best to approximate that – despite the noise pollution it’s going to cause local residents. I also build a subway system and several comprehensive bus routes. The initial plans for the real Masdar City banned cars entirely, relying instead on a personal rapid transit system where a series of pods would whisk you where you want to go. That idea was eventually shelved due to ballooning costs, in favour of a focus on electric cars and other clean-energy vehicles. I plonk an airport down on the city’s outskirts, as the real-world Abu Dhabi airport is just a stone’s throw from Masdar City, and make all public transport free.

That just leaves one final feature of the utopic renders created by the architects that I want to include – a trio of green, leafy strips that run through the city. These break up the grid I’ve created, and I’m careful not to zone them so buildings aren’t constructed on top. I dot a few parks and plazas amongst them, to raise land values further and give my citizens somewhere cool, hopefully in both senses of the word, to hang out. Despite being situated in one of the world’s hottest countries, the real streets of Masdar City average between 15 and 20C, thanks to a 45 metre wind tower modelled on a traditional Arab design that sucks cool air from aloft and brings it down to ground level.

Buildings are also clustered close together for shade in the plans, so I’m careful to zone everything high-density. I go for offices and high-density commercial in the centre, surrounded by high-density residential, with a large agriculture-specialised industrial district outside of the city walls. I throw some high-density commercial in near my stations too, so people can buy a bag of crisps and a magazine before their train ride.

The city is ready. All the services are in place, and it’s time for people to move in. I’ve spent a lot of money, so how long will it take until the city is profitable? More importantly, will the population actually like living in the utopia that I’ve created for them? Nervously, I unpause the game and… Well, you’ll have to wait until part two to find out what happens.

Part two can be found via this page.


  1. Not_Id says:

    Can’t tell you how bored I am of seeing articles of this game on here.

    • Ross Angus says:

      That may be so, but I found this article delightful.

    • MiniMatt says:

      Count me in the “delightful” category too. And in the game.

    • Hensler says:

      I’m sure taking the time to click on it and leave a comment gave you a short bit of relief from that boredom.

    • airmikee says:

      You poor thing! Oh no, I feel so sorry for you. How dare someone hold a gun to your head and force you to read something on the extremely limited internet? I mean there’s only four other things to read online, and I know this was the best choice out of those scant options, especially considering, you know, the gun that someone is holding to your head forcing you to read things you don’t want to read. I hope you find a way out of such a horrible situation so you can go back to reading things you want to read.

    • Alice O'Connor says:

      I’m sure we all appreciate you attempting that impossible task.

    • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

      GASP!! RPS’ game of the month is appearing a lot on their website? How the fuck dare they!!!

      Related: I on the other hand am most upset that April is coming to a close; I have found the glut of articles on my favourite game of all time to be rather pleasing.

    • Al__S says:

      You quite clearly can, and have. Well done!

    • rochrist says:

      I can’t tell you how bored I am with people telling me how bored they are reading articles no one forced them to read.

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      I instead can’t tell if you’re having fun of those who always complain about this kind of stuff or if you’re actually being honest.

  2. heretic says:

    looking forward to part 2 :)

  3. WiggumEsquilax says:

    Trash incinerators…renewable?

    • Duncan Geere says:

      Generally they’re considered renewables – more renewable than throwing it in a landfill anyway. It’s basically the most sustainable option, once you’ve recycled out all the plastics and metals. So yeah – good spot :)

    • BobbyDylan says:

      Trash is always renewable. We will never run out of Rubbish.

  4. Duncan Geere says:

    Thanks for the kind comments folks! Quick note to add that if I were repeating this experiment I’d definitely be using this awesome mod that lets you build buildings next to footpaths.

    • wyrm4701 says:

      That is perfect, I can finally try to build a car-free city and hopefully watch it fail spectacularly. Thanks!

  5. melnificent says:

    Please can we have an end to the Skiary (link to

    I need to know how it ends.

  6. wyrm4701 says:

    This is awesome, I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

  7. Moth Bones says:

    That’s quite odd. I’d never heard of Masdar before, but was just listening to a radio 4 programme that mentioned it while cooking. I come here, have a look at this article, and there it is again. The radio programme suggested about 300 people are living there.

  8. teije says:

    Cool experiment – giving me some good ideas for my next build – looking forward to seeing part 2.

  9. Ostymandias says:

    Real-life Masdar is obviously sort of a perversion of the concept of sustainability; a zero-waste town built with oil money and migrant labor under slave like conditions.

    But I really appreciate this approach to the game, I think this is an interesting approach to some of the issues of urbanization and the discipline of “urbanism”. If anything, I would wish for the simulation to be even more complex and allow things like real estate investors, a true urban economy of land prizes, property rents and rent gaps, complex modeling of citizen behavior, crime, social exclusion and inclusion and so on…

    Currently I feel the simulation is quite “Floridan” (As in Richard Florida), especially with the district option of allowing same-sex marriages(!) which feels very in line with his (very problematic) ideas of gays as a driver for an urban cultural economy.

    (I’d love for the game to be a springboard to a broader discussion on the ideas of people like Lefebvre and Brenner :))

    • Gap Gen says:

      Oh wait there’s an option to allow same-sex marriages in the policy menu? I did not know that.

  10. Rufust Firefly says:

    I have a bad feeling about the water tower near the incinerators, but maybe it will all work out OK.

    I remember building several all-mass-transit cities back in SimCity, though the stock C:S rules would prevent this.

  11. Shadow says:

    There’s been a fundamental misinterpretation of the term “arcology”, or rather, the term “habitat”, which isn’t necessarily a synonym to “settlement”. Arcologies are theoretical self-sustaining, environment-minded, high-density habitats, which means a single construction and therefore disqualifies conventional towns or cities from the definition.

    So while working towards a self-sustaining eco-town is a respectable goal, an arcology is something considerably different.

  12. Gap Gen says:

    When you said self-sufficient I thought you meant deleting the highway coming into the city, depriving your city of imports and exports as well as probably immigration (short of people coming in by train, which I’m not sure they do?)

    Also if you want above-ground rail as a mass transit system I’d strongly recommend the rural station mod, which adds a smaller station to the mix.

    • Duncan Geere says:

      I’d like to do that, but as you say – the game doesn’t really support it. Also, the real Masdar City isn’t cut off from the world so it wouldn’t be true there either!

      • Gap Gen says:

        Yeah, like you say it’s another kind of project.

        Still, I like how in this game renewable energy is so easy to use – windmill spam at first then solar (which I think is the cheapest energy source if you don’t have a dammable river or a fusion plant that you’re using to capacity). I’m also in the process of kicking heavy traffic out of my city centre and forcing it onto the highway ringroad. It’d be interesting if this game modelled particulate pollution, but I guess it’s a simplified thing.

        • Gap Gen says:

          Actually, thinking about it, there *is* the Mission to Mars mod which only has a rail link (to some supposed off-map launch site), and even with that you can load cargo onto freight trains: link to (it also has some tweaked water/sewage model to circumvent the lack of rivers)

  13. Kefren says:

    Really interesting, thanks!

  14. wnr says:

    I would have thought paved pedestrian paths and bridges would be a good fit some this kind of build. Not sure if those gravel paths are adequate. The game is actually pretty good about people walking to work (I think they will walk almost span of a whole tile). With a comprehensive network that connects different zones and avoids crosswalks, street traffic can really be minimized to buses, cargo, and service vehicles.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Yeah, a lot of my highways are raised so my pedestrians can pass underneath (and even then I want to get rid of them because who likes living in flyover country).

  15. Maltose says:

    Desalination is not necessarily more sustainable than pumping groundwater. Like everything in life, it depends. Groundwater pumping is perfectly sustainable as long as you don’t pump more than gets replenished. Desalination plants have much higher energy costs and the disposal of the concentrated brine can have negative environmental impacts.