After teaming up with the Minecraft creators four years ago, an United Nation official Pontus Westerberg, of the United Nations Human Settlements program, says the Block by Block program has been surprisingly effective tool in helping to improve urban slums.

“The main thing for me is that it changes the relationship between professionals, like architects and urban planners, and ordinary people,” said Westerberg. “It gives power back to ordinary people.”

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Established in 1978, the Human Settlements program was established with the plan to promote socially and environmentally sustained towns and cities. According to UN-Habitat officials it’s important for all countries to have an urban plan, something that is “really rare.” In order for the plan to be a success, public space must be the first priority because it promotes social inclusion and diversity, urban safety, democracy, health, positive environment and offers extra room for businesses and markets.

In an effort to get more community involvement in their public space initiative, UN-Habitat members needed to get people excited for the new design work. “We started thinking about Minecraft,” Westerberg said. “One of the world’s most popular video games.”

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In tandem with developer Mojang, the two groups formed the Block by Block website with a UK Minecraft team to reimagine real world public spaces set for redesign. Once completed, the site is brought to the community where participating members can add their input, walk within the designs and discuss its possible impact. If approved by the community, the virtual Minecraft map is brought to an architect who turns it into a real world plan.

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To prove the program’s success, Westerberg offered two examples during this year’s Game for Change Festival. Block by Block was used in a project in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera. The UN had been in a stalemate of nearly two years with different groups over the use of Silange Sports field. The design crafted by an architect and the community would add a new access road running to the marketplace, a road that would eliminate a small section of the football field; something that the group of 22 year olds who looked after the field didn’t like.

“The football players refused to accept this,” he said. “We brought in Minecraft and they were able to physically walk in the model and stand there and see they could have enough room for football and the road.”

The program was also used to help build community involvement and excitement about a new waterfront in Haiti’s third largest city, Les Cayes. “The idea was that we redesign the waterfront to create protection from flooding and public space.”

According to Westerberg, one of the biggest problems is helping people imagine what a 2D architectural design would look like in a 3D world, which can be difficult for some. That’s where Minecraft comes in. “When we introduced Minecraft in these workshops it was like a light had been lifted,” he said. “You could see and feel a different atmosphere.”

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Nikki P
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I'm Nikki and I like video games.