Reading, Writing, And Planning: Urbanism In High School

Josh Stephens's picture

The high school curriculum overlooks a great many subjects, so we could go on at length pointing out its ironies and shortcomings. But the topic at hand is urban planning, so let's stick with that.

I would never want to inflict the intricacies of urban planning on the casual student, slogging through high school or college distribution requirements. Memorizing ordinances and calculating optimal curb heights is no way to inspire young minds to think about their cities and how to make them better. On the other hand, basic understanding of urbanism and planning would seem appropriate, if not essential, for the 90 or so percent of American kids who grow up in the cities and suburbs that have resulted from modern planning principles and whose lives are, by extension, dictated by planners. Let's throw in the 10% who live in rural areas too.

There is something unnerving about a curriculum that enables students to remain completely ignorant of the very surroundings in which they live. I'm certain that almost no student understands the forces that colluded to produce their respective culs-de-sac, housing projects, mansions, or homesteads. Nor would it occur to most of them to find out. Laypeople approach the built environment with the patently contradictory attitude that it came about as an act of nature and--despite kids' natural curiosity about the world--that it therefore offers no opportunities for inquiry or betterment.

College is supposed to fill those gaps and nurture the dreams that high school ignores. But running across urban planning in the course catalog is different from, say, running across Slavic literature. You can at least guess at the latter even if you have no firsthand experience with it; the former offers little but mystery. That is to say, the typical college freshman doesn't even know what planning is--so how can he or she be expected to spend precious credits finding out whether it is worthwhile?

If American cities are to heal themselves, and if the planning profession wants to attract the brightest students from the widest possible talent pool, urban planning must find its way into the high school curriculum.

The closest most high schools come to planning consists of passing references to architecture in art history courses. This is a tenuous connection, at best. Even so, art history presents architecture only as individual works--often as examples of styles or historical periods--not as elements of a built environment, and never as profound forces that affect everyday life.

But changes are afoot.

Eight years ago the College Board brought the often marginalized field of human geography into the mainstream by creating an Advanced Placement course. It came about at the urging of a host of professional geography organizations, including the Geography Education Implementation Project, the National Council for Geographic Education, and the American Association of Geographers. Say what you will about the College Board's powers of arbitration. It has sucked the life out of many subject. In this case, however, it has done the curriculum a great favor by legitimizing geography and approving it for high schoolers' consumption.

AP Human Geography--which I taught for four years at a private school visionary enough to adopt it as its culminating, senior-year history class (and brave enough to let me teach it)--does not, of course, focus solely on urbanism. It runs the gamut of other mysterious, but fascinating, fields such as anthropology, economics, demography, and sociology. These subjects are not only absent from most high school curricula but also are valuable for anyone who will one day flip through a college catalog or otherwise walk this earth. But among those topics, urbanism makes its stand. AP Geo typically includes two solid units of urbanism, one on urban systems and the other on urban structure. That's where planning comes in.

Obviously a two-week peek at urban structure reveals little of the profession--but nor should it. Instead, it offers students the chance to contemplate cities and evaluate, in broad strokes, the theories and practices that made have made cities what they are. The course trods over ground that the profession has probably long abandoned: Is the Hoyt Sector model useful? Do stores still consider threshold and range in the age of e-commerce? Did redlining happen, or is it a myth propagated by liberals? Does the bid-rent curve reflect land values properly in a multiple-nucleus city? Who cares?

Hoyt Sector Model

The answers that AP Geo provides are not nearly as important as the questions, or, rather, the opportunity to ask questions. Even simplistic, outdated theories provide invaluable foundations for further inquiry--even if that inquiry proves the original assumption wrong. Moreover, the course can embrace some of the urban canon, many of whose works are as compelling as any nonfiction ever written.

I remember when I first read Jane Jacobs and Kenneth Jackson. I was 25. My life would have been different indeed if I'd read them at 17, as my students have. I don't expect them to become planners, but I do expect that they will at least be better urban citizens than they otherwise would have been.

Despite its potential, AP Geo is not about to challenge AP Physics or AP US History for a place in high school's top shelf. Though the numbers grow every year, only about 20,000 students took last year's exam. Many of those students hail from states with mandatory geography requirements. But that's a few thousand more students who graduate high school knowing more about cities than most of their counterparts--which is usually less than zero.

Until Planetizen publishes "Urban Planning for Dummies," AP Geography is our best hope. And it's not a bad way to spend a couple semesters.

Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report ( and former editor of The Planning Report (



From A Highschooler

That's why I regularly come to this site, because high schools don't offer this, and I'm seriously considering urban planning as a career. But I wonder how many high schoolers would actually want to take a class in urban planning. Most of my peers that I know only care about the presidential side of government, and that they see in black and white. Urban planning is an obscure section of government, maybe better integration with civics class would be the goal. But for now SimCity will have to be what peaks their(our) interest.

urban planning in high school

In Maryland high schools, a brief unit on Smart Growth is required in sophomore National, State and Local (NSL) Government classes. I had it when I was in tenth grade - we even had to build a model of a town based on Smart Growth principles. Unfortunately, state testing took time away from the Smart Growth unit; most teachers didn't feel like teaching something they themselves didn't understand; and my classmates thought it was a waste of time. Not that you could really explain Smart Growth in a couple of lessons.

Another approach

In fifth grade I remember two different speakers who came into our class to speak about their profession. One was a local business man who taught us about very basic business principals and led us through some activities. The second speaker was an architect who gave us hands-on building projects and brought in drawings for us to examine. Both of these speakers had a huge impact of my view of the world, or at least how I could be part of it.

Local planners should take the initiative and ask schools if they can talk to a class or two about the field of planning. This would only provide these students with a brief introduction to the field, but in future, when they hear something mentioned about their city, they would listen more carefully...or maybe even ask questions.

If the APA, Planetizen, or another organization put together a guideline for this kind of talk more and more planners might take the initiative.

here here!

Josh, I'm completely with you. One of the many projects floating around in my head is to do an interactive planning workshop/summer program for high schoolers. The need for this is becoming more and more apparent to planners. I keep my eyes open for similar programs and have found them popping up. CityStuff in San Diego and ULI's UrbanPlan are examples. These programs are not exactly what I have envisioned but they're getting us there. I think interactive workshops that are based on vision and broad planning concepts are key to holding students' interest. Let's face it, the intracacies of plan check really are boring.

Thanks for doing what you do.

Hear, Hear!

It should be "hear, hear."
It means: listen, listen to what this person is saying.

Charles Siegel

Future journalists need this stuff, too

My final semester as an undergrad journalism major, I took a class in Urban Geography, thinking I *might* find some of the stuff useful in covering planning and zoning board meetings. It was a terrific course, and I never forgot it. Now, 30 years later, I'm back in school part time, studying Cartography/GIS (that UG teacher is now my adviser!) in the hopes I can use the latest geographic knowledge in journalism.
I also am an adjunct prof in journalism at the same school, and I do what I can to instill some of this knowledge with my copy-editing students, since copy editors, while they can never know everything about everything, they can know a little something about everything.
DebW in NJ

There ARE programs out there

First off, I totally agree with Josh's implication that most K-12 students are unaware of planning and the forces that shape their city. A lot more should be done to introduce them to these elements of society and the built environment.

But there are many programs out there, and they extend well beyond the very indirect connection of Urban Geography. They are not only for HS students but also for K-8 students. ResourcesZine, which is maintained by APA, is a database that keeps track of a lot of these programs.

Far from no high school curriculums even mentioning planning, there is a high school in Brooklyn dedicated primarily to the topic - the Academy of Urban Planning. There is also a new architecture and urban planning high school opening its doors next fall in Milwaukee, the dream-come-true of profs in the UW-Milwaukee planning department.

One commenter actually did mention UrbanPlan, ULI's excellent simulation activity for HS students. But there are other disparate programs scattered around the nation (and some in Canada) that represent signs of hope for teaching kids planning. The next step, in my mind, is to coordinate some of these efforts and start getting standardized curriculums and classes into high schools and elementary schools.

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