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Urban Design

The story of civilization has been the story of its cities. Jericho Turkey, considered to be the first organized settlement of humans, dates back to 8000 B.C.. From ancient Egypt, China and Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean world of Greece and Rome to the Mayan and the Aztecan, people are drawn to come together. Today's rapidly growing metropolises are considered to hold the highest forms of social organization, yet in their complexity and constant movement, they also hold civilization’s failings. People of all backgrounds and income levels live, work, learn and play in cities, towns and villages. Cities consist of streets, parks, rivers and lakes, people, places and things! Cities are in constant motion and often constant change, always building and rebuilding. Our cities shape the way we live in a very profound way.

A city is a place where people go and live, learn, work and play…..visit and grow up……hope and dream!

Activity 1 Public and Private Urban Space

Architecture, buildings and cities, form a second skin on the earth. What kind of patterns do our cities make? Those of us who like to study maps can tell a lot about a city from looking at maps of cities. Google city maps and spend some time locating rivers in cities. See if you can determine where the 'Centreville' or downtown of the city is. Can you read residential areas in different degrees of density? Cities are dense collections of people living, working, learning and playing, Using Google Map, take a bird's eye view of your very own city. Print off or copy from the computer a map of your city that shows 1 mile wide by 1 mile tall. Carefully draw the different black shapes and sizes. Now color in all of the privates uses in black, leaving everything that is public white. For instance, most streets are public. Most parks are public. Public green spaces are public. Public Schools are ….public! Buildings of individuals and offices rented or owned by companies are private. Draw your city. Compare your city with two other cities. What differences can you see? What similarities are revealed. Learn to look at diversity in cities.

Activity 2 Remember Your City

Each of us was born, grew up and now live in a place. This exercise is intended to communicate the ‘sense of place’ where each of you came from. From pictures, memories and your imagination, make a drawing comprising ideas about where you originated and/or grew up. This ‘urban self-portrait’ will communicate location, character, and imagery of where you came from.

Include a location map, block layout, house facade and any essential views that will visually portray the place in which you are living. If possible, locate important buildings in your neighborhood such as the school, church, library, grocery store, playground, park, etc. Make a copy of your drawing and paste it in your journal.

Activity 3 Add to Your Neighborhood

What is missing in the neighborhood where you live? You will need to start with a Google Earth image of your neighborhood. Are their blocks that are empty or filled with cars? Can you create an infill project? What catalytic function or use would you introduce into your neighborhood which is not currently there? Where would it go? How big does it need to be? What should it look like?

Be a developer. Imagine the future!

Activity 4 draw your city in 10 views

Cities are constantly changing, building, tearing down and rebuilding what exists. You will dissect your city by drawing 10 different systems that come together to create the places where people work, live , play and learn. You will use maps to find the systems and can interview people in your city government to find out more about what your city has to offer. Begin this exercise with a map of your city. You can use Google Earth, Google Maps or Mapquest to deliver an aerial view. You can do all of the maps yourself or get 10 people in your class to help you. You will need tracing paper and colored pencils and access to information about your city.

1 WATERSHED: show rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands in blue. 2 PUBLIC GREENS: show all public parks and greens in green 3 TRANSIT: show the train station, train lines, bus lines in black 4 PEDESTRIAN: show side walks in yellow. 5 CULTURAL: color all cultural institutions- schools, museums, theaters, performance halls, etc. in red. 6 ARTERIES: CORRIDORS: BOULEVARDS: STREETS: ALLEYS: ALLEES; show streets in gray 7 COMMERCIAL: show commercial in orange 8 OFFICES: show offices where people work in brown 9 INDUSTRIAL: show industrial areas in beige 10 RESIDENTIAL: show single family homes, apartments and high rise residential towers in purple

Pin your map up. Present the information about each system that you have gathered. Ask the city planner to come to your class after you have made your maps and find out what plans the city has for economic development. Most cities have ideas about where they would like to expand areas or densify areas or improve areas. Urban designers study city systems and neighborhoods and suggest strategies to improve living conditions for the future.

Activity 5 design a city

The age of the automobile has contributed to our current horizontal dominance over the land. Do you need to drive everywhere to get everything you need to live? Can you work, learn, and play in your community within a 15 minute walk? There are alternatives to sprawl which recognize the specificity of place, respond to the climate, vegetation and views, and offer mutli-generational mixed income living/working/learning/leisure opportunities. It is about choice. We have a choice about what to save and what to build.

Now it is your turn to envision a new community. Make a list of the things that you think are necessary in a community. Design, in plan and in two sections, your dream community. Color code and label the different functions: Commercial, Office, Educational, Recreational, Public Greens. Open Conserved Land, Single family Homes, Duplexes, Apartments, Senior Housing. Be sure to set destination points reachable via sidewalks, bike paths and hiking trails throughout your community. Can you create a new community with a school, medical building, library, post office, grocery store, public spaces, and conserved open lands?

class activity

Organize a city. As a class, choose a layout for your city. Decide if you would like a river or lake in your city. Now, lay out a grid pattern on a large table, using string or strips of paper. How does the river or lake affect the way your grid works? Arrange boxes as your buildings along the streets. Think about how the city you live in works. Is there a downtown area? Are there housing neighborhoods? Try to identify the highway, the corridor, the boulevard, the street and alleys. Is there a main street? Consider what the skyline looks like. Group taller buildings together then step down to the houses with medium tall and shorter buildings. Wherever possible use on-street parking. Parking garages or parking lots should be inside of the block with buildings at the street edge. Be sure to add parks and green squares. Think always about the pedestrian and range of city dwellers - young and old, rich and poor, visitor and resident. Think about what will make your city unique. Have fun! Building a city is as much fun as visiting a city.


  1. Which is the oldest inhabited city in this list?

  2. A grid is a good way to organize a community.

  3. Cities shape our daily lives.

  4. Cities are made of:

  5. People move to cities to find:


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