Let's Teach Children Planning

Planners often encounter ineffective public participation because of the fact that citizens often are not taught planning skills in school, says Michael A. Rodriguez.

Planners who have ever taken part of a public meeting know that the lack of planning knowledge out there is astounding – but we should not be surprised.

The fact is, when are students in K – 12 education ever taught planning concepts? Most of social studies, civics, and government is spent on history, federal government institutions, and world geography. Excuse my bias, but local government and planning are critical to the everyday lives of students. Moreover, neighborhoods are a particularly relatable concept that students in K – 12 can understand and use to engage in many subjects.

A student builds a Cube City. Image courtesy of www.cubekc.org.

This is why I argue that the vocabulary of planning and the concepts necessary to participate in local government and planning issues need to be taught to students in K-12. If we assume students will achieve this in college we do a disservice to those who are not college-bound. Programs such as the Center for Understanding the Built Environment's (CUBE) "Box Cities" program are a great opportunity to get K-12 students learning these concepts. Teaching students about the built environment and its institutions enhances students' ability to be an effective citizen and participate in an aspect that significantly influences their everyday life.

The problem is a lack of capacity among the citizenry to engage in planning issues on equal footing with other stakeholders. How can residents of a community truly understand a long-range plan if they cannot grasp the maps presented? We might take map-reading for granted, but in an era of standardized tests focus and heavy emphasis on math and reading, students lose the time to learn skills like identifying a location on a map and orienting cardinal directions.

My good friend who is a high-school history teacher tells me horror stories of how her students (in 11th grade) had no idea how to read a map of Europe – in a World History class! Simply, they could not differentiate ocean from land, or one country from another. So imagine these students attempting to engage in planning in a few years.

Not all students everywhere are in this situation (she is a teacher in the South Bronx). But even so, there is more than map reading necessary for planning engagement. Design vocabulary ('scale', 'rhythm,' 'walkability,' 'density') and social vocabulary ('mobility,' 'sense of place,' 'community values,' 'housing equity' ) are necessary for planning participation. The concepts of a neighborhood, land uses, home consumption, commercial enterprise, and transportation networks need to be taught. These are not concepts we grasp inuitively; our schools have an obligation teach them and prepare an effective citizenry.

One way that I've become active in this field is in taking part of the Box Cities program. While I was a planning graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, I took part in 'Terrace Town,' a program where grade school children build a city out of boxes and art supplies and present them in a fun day at Monona Terrace, Madison's convention center. I mentored a first-grade class, and was astounded and humbled by their ability to learn and apply planning concepts. They built homes, civic, industrial and commercial structures out of milk cartons and shoe boxes. They placed the structures along transportation networks, and built a rail system in their city. They separated uses when they felt it made sense (like keeping the airport away from houses). Students were also taught 'green' concepts, and built alternative energy infrastructure like windmills. And these were first graders! There were middle-school students whose 'box city' blew me away, and should be a model for progressive urban development.

To the nay-sayers who do not think schools have time to teach planning concepts, or worry more about 'core' curricula in math, science, and reading, I say that teaching planning concepts is fun and complimentary to teaching other subjects. They are not mutually exclusive. Teaching the concept of scale obviously includes math. Learning about one's city and neighborhood, and keeping a journal about the community, requires reading and writing exercises. CUBE has built an entire curriculum around this, and I urge you to look at it and contact them because there are lessons that incorporate planning concepts into almost any subject.

I am doing my part by engaging grade school students and trying to bring Box Cities to the Washington, D.C. area where I now live. Another way to be engaged is to be active in your children's school and try to convince teachers and administrators to teach these concepts, or incorporate curricula like Box Cities. Finally, books like Where Things Are, From Near to Far, The Works: Anatomy of a City, and City Works: Exploring Your Community: A Workbook are great for exposing children to the ideas of the built environment. Let's teach children planning, and lets create a solid generation of planning participants.

Michael A. Rodriguez is a Transportation Analyst with Cambridge Systematics in Bethesda, MD. He is also actively engaged with the Center for Understanding the Built Environment (CUBE) and teaching planning concepts to children.



Kids and City Planning


What a great article about teaching city planning to students in school.
Ginny Graves and the folks at CUBE have done a lot of good work in this area.
I was happy to work with Ginny and Dean to help start the Terrace Town project when I was in Wisconsin.
Now that I'm in Philadelphia I promote all forms of design at http://andDESIGNmagazine.blogspot.com
I invite you to participate in a meeting at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. on April 13, 2010 at which we will launch an international alliance of people and organizations who support design education in K-12 schools.

Do you mind if I do an article about CUBE and link to your comments?

Martin Rayala, Ph.D.

Michael Rodriguez's picture



Thank you for your comments. I would love to participate at this meeting at the National Building Museum. Do send me more information, and feel free to link my post.

I agree, Ginny Graves and CUBE have done tremendous work in this area. Terrace Town was also a pleasure to be part of. I should note that Terrace Town 2010 is now underway - so those in the Madison, WI area should certainly look into volunteering!

Any direct questions or comments can be emailed to me at marodriguez6 (at) gmail.com

- Michael A. Rodriguez

UrbanPlan Program

Another great program out there is UrbanPlan provided by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). This program is run by urban planning and real estate professionals. Teachers are provided the framework in which to lead the 3-week program in their class and ULI volunteers then help support the project. It allows the students to get a first hand experience with each facet of development - city needs, community needs, developer, planning design, financing.

This program is offered in high school, undergrad, and graduate levels.

More info can be found at: http://www.urbanplan.org/

_pete kane

Teaching Kids Planning

I agree with you 100 percent. I too had the opportunity to bring the world of planning (and politics) into the classroom for a local high school civis class. I didn't use the box method but the good old fashioned paper and colored pens. I was also amazed on the intuition and skills that these kids displayed in "building" their cities and neighborhoods. The only real thing they didn't have was the language of planning. That was my role.

Okay all you planners out there, get into the schools - it is a very rewarding experience!

Box City

When I was in second grade our teacher drew a huge map of the neighborhood and we drew milk cartons to look like our houses and placed them where we lived. Lots of fun.

Primary School Planning Exposure

While I agree with Mr. Rodriguez, there are hundreds out there saying we should be teaching this, that, and the other thing. Teaching planning concepts are so far down the list. More than that, what good would it do? Planning's legitimacy in my neck of the woods is more a curiosity than a fundamental part of local government, unfortunately. Teaching kids about planning wouldn't even make in impact in communities like mine. Without the requisite structure, i.e. a planning department, all their good ideas wouldn't go anywhere. I would argue that we need to do more to educate decision-makers on the value of planning.

However, the Smart Growth Partnership, in Greensburg, PA has made significant strides toward educating students. They've developed a program called Economic Exchange Day. The program takes HS senior economics students from two neighboring districts and in a series of class visits and one full day, goes through the elements of a plan, SWOT analysis, visioning, and asks the students to come up with a revitalization effort for their CBD. It has been a great program for students, faculty, and community leaders. What's great about it is that, as the author points out, most of the issues planning is concerned with have been taught, yet, they haven't seen the process first hand.

Teach Adults Planning

We need to teach adults planning to. Having been part of a municipal planning commission, I learned that most adults in the community have no idea what land use planners do. If adults don't know, they can't teach their children.

Michael Rodriguez's picture

Other planning education programs.

The response to this has been wonderful, and I've fortunately heard from a few people about good work in this area being done around the country. I wanted to highlight a few that were emailed to me.

Valeria, at the Center for Urban Pedagogy, told me about their program has students in Brooklyn do an "urban investigation" and explore fundamental questions about their city. These are questions like "where does the trash go?" or "who owns the internet?"

Jaime from the Center for Architecture Foundation let me know about her programs as well. Over at CAF in NYC they had a fun family day with kids building cities, very similar to what schools do in Box Cities. They also have a display on exhibition at their center, so those of you in the NYC area should head over, take a look, and get more involved.

Thanks for the great feedback; its encouraging. I find it wonderful to know others feel similarly.

- Michael Rodriguez

Inform. Educate. Build Citizens.

Great post and discussion!

I have been involved in various forms of youth/community education as discussed, including two particularly enjoyable projects. One involved conducting a photographic scavenger hunt with young people in Vancouver, BC and the other was teaching basic planning to middle school kids as part of the National Engineers Week, Future City Competition in Oak Harbor, Washington.

People seeking teaching resources may wish to note that the Canadian Institute of Planners has a book available on their publications page titled "A Kids Guide to Building Great Communities" that outlines over 80 pages of exercises for teaching Planning principles.

Finally, given the need for Planning education as described here I feel there is one particular idea that should be considered critically important. The need for municipal Planning departments to engage their communities with active efforts to teach/inform about planning practices and contemporary theory as it relates to their community's context. This needs to be done in an ongoing manner that is independent of any particular project or application (which is almost exclusively the case and often leads to the forming of adversarial positions and a sense that the municipality is trying to justify their actions, as opposed to providing unbiased information). I suggest we execute strategies that use all the professional facilitation, engagement, and participatory tools we have available to achieve this (for example: social networking tools; walking tours; open space sessions; workshops; charrettes; videos; surveys; lectures; newspaper and magazine articles; posters; TV and radio discussions; publishing booklets; free courses, etcetera).

The goal is to increase the knowledge and understanding of planning within the community. Over time we would be helping to build a citizenry that is able to understand and engage in planning actions with more awareness, effective measures, and participation. The results of this kind of work would bring us closer to municipal planning that is fair, efficient, just, and effective.

If our efforts are focused on building the places of our communities and ensuring that the "machine" runs efficiently, but we loose sight of building our citizens with the assets of knowledge and understanding that empowers them, we as Planners are forgetting who this is all for. People.

Give a community a plan; you have informed them. Teach a community how to plan; and you have empowered them.

rob voigt
Urban Planner, Facilitator, Artist, Blogger.

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