Planning for urban security with games: the case of the UrbSecurity project in Leiria

Edited on 13/06/2023

Civic participation is essential for sustainable urban development, but few tools and solutions are available to foster in practice. One of the new approaches that's being tested is the use of serious goal-oriented dynamic games. UrbSecurity has   implemented one of these approaches with surprising results.


We are living through complex times. As cities are growing in an accelerated world with unprecedented population mobility, conflicts naturally emerge. In this context of globalization and worldisation, cities are the main stages of interaction. The same spaces are used by different people. People of different ethical and cultural backgrounds coexist. In cities, multiculturalism is experienced, but also the effects of differentiated development. Richness exists side by side with poverty. Paradoxically, in the era of instant communication, interaction channels are lacking. Gentrification processes generate human movements and transformations that affect neighborhoods. Roots are lost and the sense of community does not always develop. Isolated islands of luxury and poverty remain, separated by no man's spaces. The physical and cultural spaces of social construction that could leverage social empathy are missing. Public space plays a key role as a place of aggregation and dissipation of conflicts, but only if city management tends towards greater participation of the population in decision-making processes. The creation of collective identity and a sense of ownership comes about through the involvement of populations in a city that considers them, made for them. Planners, urban planners and political decision-makers try to make their proposals and achievements, but they need to consider who lives in the city.

The effort to make the planning and management processes of cities more participative, avoiding hierarchical top-down processes, is not new. But it has been difficult to achieve processes in which the populations participate actively on a large scale, even in matters of greater proximity. Sometimes it has even been difficult to include representatives, experts and technicians (stakeholders) in the elaboration of a more participatory urbanism. Planning processes tend to be long and complex. Citizens feel that their opinions are not turned into actions. There is a lack of communication and evidence that civic and public participation is worthwhile, that it pays off for the time citizens have invested in these activities. It is not clear to citizens that participation pays off. Many participatory processes tend to be participated in by the same citizens each time, bending the needs and priorities of the inhabited territories. It is easy to unleash hate battles, of one against the other, making the necessary collaboration to live in shared spaces impossible. There is a lack of efficiency, collaboration and the transformation of these processes into something pleasant and consistent for citizens. Even technical and planning experts find it difficult to make a difference, due to lack of means and knowledge to implement new methods. On the other hand, political decision-makers may be wary of the supposed loss of power, but mainly of the waste of time and slowness of extending decision-making to the people. Ultimately, everyone wants achievements that improve the city.

One of the solutions to meet the needs of all stakeholders in a participatory urban planning process are games. It is possible to learn with game dynamics to build more interactive, effective and enjoyable user experiencing through the application of gamification and serious gaming techniques. These techniques can be used in existing processes or generate new types of approaches. This is what was done in the UrbSecurity project in Leiria. UrbSecurity is a project under the URBACT Programme, led by the Municipality of Leiria, and joined by 8 other European cities.  UrbSecurity implemented a collaborative process in which multiple stakeholders worked with analogue games to discuss, identify problems and find joint solutions to improve urban security in the city of Leiria, focusing on two distinct urban areas. We worked on the historical city Centre. of Leiria and on a more recent expansion area, characterized by a high multiculturalism. For each area, the Municipality of Leiria identified several stakeholders as collaboration partners. A work plan was defined, consisting of three distinct steps for the implementation of an end game as a collaborative planning tool.


We chose to use analogue games, popularly known as board games. Games of modern design were used, taking advantage of the mechanisms and differentiated experiences they provide to users. This type of games has the advantage of being easier to develop and adapt. They have lower entry barriers than digital games and rely on player facilitation and support techniques that would be worked on by the municipality's technicians. They are also easier to adapt and configure, encouraging collaboration between participants by requiring direct activation by the participants, with no hidden information. The process was created specifically for the two urban realities in question, conducted by Micael Sousa (link is external), researcher at the Department of Civil Engineering of the University of Coimbra (link is external) and at the Centre for Territory, Transport and Environment Research (link is external) (CITTA), as part of his PhD thesis. The invited researcher acted as trainer of the municipality technicians, preparing them for the game’s facilitation process, but also as designers of the games adaptation and development. The development of the various stages of the games to be used in UrbSecurity were also built following the principles of co-creation between the guest researcher and the municipality technicians.  Thus, the very conception of the method leveraged the spirit of empathy and collaboration among the technical team. Although the objective was to generate a game that would be a planning tool, many games were used during all stages of the process. This allowed unique participatory dynamics to be generated, as they were games that helped to build another game that resulted from the interactions and participation of stakeholders and technicians.


In the first stage, participants interacted through game dynamics that took place at various work tables, each accompanied by a technician from the municipality. Some modern storytelling and creativity-enhancing board games were used to collaboratively identify problems and solutions leading to increased safety in the urban area in question. After this, the participants were invited to vote on which would be the main problems, followed by a group work process to fill in preliminary proposal sheets for the main problems found. These proposals were then put to the vote again. One session was held for each urban area, lasting around 3 hours and with over two dozen participants in each session. The sessions identified as solutions increased police surveillance, public lighting, improved public spaces and transport, urban regeneration and social programmes.


At the second stage, already more conditioned by the effects of the pandemic, it was necessary to reduce the groups and work with a maximum of six participants per session. Four such sessions were held, two for each study area. In this second session, the participants continued to identify problems and solutions, interacting with the cartography of the various zones. Drawing games were adapted in order to generate new communication and expression dynamics among the participants. Graphic representations were made on maps of the urban areas, generating a new tangible aspect of information collecting. It was also a strategy to foster empathy among participants. Priorities were collected in this phase, resulting from the two graphic expression games. This was followed by a voting process that determined the priorities of each working group. As in the first stage, stickers with multiple votes were distributed to the participants, which generated a hierarchy of priorities, as votes could be freely assigned. This graphically impactful, transparent and interactive way of voting helped to reinforce empathy among the participants, making it clear what each one's concerns were. Although there were some opposing priorities, no conflict was felt among the participants. The second phase was preceded by the exposure of additional technical information to the participants, to support decision-making. Data was presented and videos of the zones were shown. The pandemic context prevented the sites from being visited in person.

The second phase was complemented with online sessions which the facilitator simulated some of the design games through online collaborative tools supported by video streaming platforms. Despite the limitations, the online process also generated debate, problem identification and some prioritization. It was a way to make up for the constraints that prevented the level of interaction that was experienced in the first session.


The third stage resulted from the culmination of the two previous stages. It was the data previously collected with the problems, priorities and proposals that allowed building the game that would then be the desired collaborative planning tool. The proposals were counted and a game economy was generated that launched a collaborative challenge to the participants. Modern board game mechanisms were conjugated to support the narrative, making it easier to read the increasing complexity of the proposed solutions. Participants had to take on the role of a mayor and manage, over 4 years, the budget to improve urban safety in the area concerned. To do this they would have to make individual and collective decisions. In order to implement large-scale solutions, they would have to discuss and combine their respective budgets. Each player received a small fraction of the budget per year (per game round). This represented their voting power. Implementing buildings for social projects, extensive public transport networks and large public spaces required the cooperation of several players. The available options were represented by analogue game components, cubes, discs and colored wires with appropriate captions. The game took place on the map of each urban area, divided by a hexagonal grid that helped to frame the effect of distances and areas of influence of the proposals, such as the area of coverage of policing, video surveillance, the length of a bicycle path or where to focus on territorial marketing.


The third stage also suffered from the restrictive effects of the pandemic. Four sessions were held with six participants at a time, two for each urban area. The same strategy was adopted as in the second stage. Four proposals emerged, two per zone. We concluded that, despite some similarities, the proposals were different, very dependent on the participants and the dynamics that were generated between them. This leads us to conclude that the participation processes should be broadened to include as many participants as possible, ensuring that there is diversity and representativeness of the various social groups.


It was proven that games generate solutions and are collaborative tools to express the will of the participants. It also became clear that the process how the playable approaches are created is of utmost importance, as is the method of data collection and processing. A playful environment is generated that reinforces empathy and collaboration, but without losing focus on the seriousness of the issues at stake.

The game development process resulted from the dynamics implemented in the previous stages, also fed by social games.  This method was only possible because it was developed with flexibility and adaptability by the technical team. A stricter format could hardly have had the same results and been implemented quickly and at low cost. From the data collection we found that the participants were surprised by the dynamics implemented, having admitted that they were initially suspicious because it was a process fed by games. But when they saw the results they regarded the process as a positive one, something that should be continued, and that it would be disappointing if the proposals developed were not implemented in practice.


In the future the final game should be tested with more users, and preferably with more representatives from the local population. It will also be relevant to attempt to replicate this process in other urban areas, since the model followed can be applied to any urban territory and to other issues besides urban security.

There's an english version of the game available online to be used by any city that wishes to implement this methodology.
These Instruction and rules manual supports the print & play version of the game, making it playable on any urban map.
available at:

Micael Sousa

Written translation by Marlene Costa




Submitted by Patricia Moital on 25/10/2021
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Patricia Moital

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