Next City: Fifth and Sixth Grade Students Learn How to Plan a City as part of the University of Washington’s Summer Challenge Program

By Stephanie Velasco

Have you ever wondered how cities get built? Who decides where houses, parks, shops, and schools go and what they look like? Who makes sure people are able to get around the city safely and easily? In Next City, students took on the roles of urban planners, architects, and landscape architects, as they answered these questions, played city-related games, and honed their drawing, modeling, and group discussion skills. Weekly field trips took students out into Seattle to observe the city up close. Finally, students drew inspiration from cities around the world as they planned, designed, and built their very own Next City from scratch.

Each week focused on specific learning and skill building goals with classroom activities and a field trips to match, as outlined below:

Week One

  • Learning goals: What do urban planners, architects, and landscape architects do? What do different cities around the world look like? How are they similar, and how are they different? What is placemaking?
  • Skill-building: Architectural drawing (plan, elevation), Lynchian diagramming and mental mapping, presentation/public speaking
  • Classroom activities: Icebreakers/name games that get students sharing about their different experiences in cities, instructor-led drawing workshops, sketching buildings around UW’s campus, diagramming exercise using UW campus map, group presentations on different world cities
  • Field trip: Center for Architecture & Design in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. On the way back to campus, we rode the bus through the South Lake Union neighborhood, and students were asked to describe the differences they observed between these two neighborhoods.

Week Two

  • Learning goals: What is zoning? What is the relationship between land use and transportation? What does sustainability mean? What does walkability mean?
  • Skill-building: Architectural drawing (building and street sections), SketchUp (3D digital modeling), collaborative decision-making/consensus building, presentation/public speaking
  • Classroom activities: Using the world cities from Week One, students examined the differences in urban form and walkability, instructor-led drawing workshops, sketching ideas for development around the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station Area, street design using Streetmix, neighborhood planning simulation using Blocks & Lots, individual/small group/full group activities to determine the class’ land use map for the final project, Sketchup workshop
  • Field trips:
  • Bullitt Center & Capitol Hill – Guided tour of the Bullitt Center and outdoor activities at Cal Anderson Park
  • LINK Light Rail Adventure – Ride LINK Light Rail, with stops along the way to compare land uses and development intensities around different stations, as well as observe different station types (underground, at-grade, and elevated)

Week Three

  • Learning goals: How do we balance the Three P’s (People, Planet, Profit) as we shape our city’s vision? What are some different ways—both two-dimensional and three-dimensional—we can visually represent the ideas we have for our city?
  • Skill-building: Collaborative decision-making/consensus building, physical model building, presentation/public speaking
  • Classroom activities: Model building, guest speakers—professionals from the planning and architecture fields, individual/small group/full group activities to make decisions about the city’s name, vision, land use map, transportation network, energy sources, height limits, and other aspects of zoning
  • Field trip: South Lake Union neighborhood, the site for the final project. We viewed the currently under-construction Amazon biospheres, visited various mixed-use buildings and Privately Owned Publicly Open spaces, rode the South Lake Union Streetcar, and spent some time in Lake Union Park reflecting on our three previous field trips.

The Final Project

As a class, students were asked to plan, design, and build a city – all in less than three weeks! We started with a simple 21-block site based roughly on Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. The size of the site (21 blocks) was chosen based on the size of the class (21 students). After a few impassioned and thoughtful full-group discussions—along with a few some teacher-imposed restrictions—the class agreed upon their city’s final land use map. Each of the 21 blocks was numbered and assigned a land use according to our simplified zoning code, which included: Residential (yellow), Commercial (yellow), Parks/Open Space (green), and Institutional/Industrial/Governmental (blue).

We then gave students some time to think about the types of buildings they would like to model on their individual city blocks. Once everyone had an idea of the type of building they wanted to build, we asked students to split into groups based on their proposed building’s land use type. For example, if Student A was interested in building a library (Institutional/Industrial/Governmental land use designation), then they would get into a group with other students proposing Institutional/Industrial/Governmental buildings. Each land use group was then asked to divide up their assigned blocks amongst the group members. After some negotiation within and across groups, students signed up for their individual blocks, each with their own unique zoning restrictions. For instance, the Institutional/Industrial/Governmental group, according to the previously agreed-upon land use map, “controlled” Blocks 3, 8, and 11. In the end, Student A ended up negotiating for Block 11 as the site for their proposed library.

Before students could start building their models, the class also agreed upon a street hierarchy and transportation network, which would determine how much of each block would be dedicated public right of way. Finally, students worked for two full days to build their three-dimensional models using a variety of craft supplies and recycled materials. Each student even modeled the topography of their block, using layers of cardboard cut into contours modeled in SketchUp.

On the final day of camp, parents and family members were invited to visit the classroom to see students present their individual models, as well as the work completed by the entire class.

Supporting materials include:

For more information, contact: Stephanie Velasco, recent graduate from the Master of Urban Planning program at the University of Washington.

Image: Students and their final projects, Summer of 2017, courtesy of Stephanie Velasco.

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