Box Cities and Out-of-the-Box Lessons from CUBE

Our built environment starts with the home. It expands in ever-widening circles to neighborhoods, schools, churches, shops, services, farms, offices, factories, and civic and government institutions.

All of these kinds of buildings are arranged in patterns of development. They are overlaid road systems, utilities, parking, open space, and waterways. Cities function in many different ways due to decisions that have taken place for hundreds of years. This affects our everyday psyche. Neighborhoods planned with beauty, proportion, scale, appreciation for nature, and efficiency are better places to live, work and play.

How Did We Get Here?

Our typical educational system [K-12] does not prepare us to think about how the built environment is created or how we should/could function in it. We think architects just draw a building on paper and a contractor builds it.

The long history of architecture is glossed over. What is architecture? What is design? What is structure? What emotions, functions, and activities do buildings provide? How did our neighborhood, town, and city get designed and built? How does it function?

The role of planners, politicians, bankers, and citizens makes for a rich mixture of creativity and possibility. Engaged citizens wield a large influence on our communities.

"The Terrace Town Goes Green" (left) project received Jury Special Recognition in 2011 at the Architecture & Children Golden Cubes Awards. At right, Preethi Kesavan and Kara Kitze), dual-mayors of Box City assemble the historic downtown district of their miniature "green" city. Photos courtesy CUBE.

What is CUBE?

The Center for Understanding the Built Environment (CUBE) was invented more than 45 years ago by Ginny Graves, HAIA. As a teacher, she saw the need for a more holistic pedagogy. The built environment provides the platform for reading, writing, math, science, art, and technology.

Ginny and her unbelievable cadre of volunteer teachers developed CUBE to teach other teachers to teach students these fundamental concepts. Box City, Walk Around the Block, Picture This! and other curricula have found their way into city offices, schools, and community centers all over the world — reaching an estimated 600,000 students over the years.

How CUBE Works

CUBE provides tools for learning the fundamental concepts of how our built world has been designed. Active involvement from design to politics can make a difference in the outcomes. Some of the CUBE tools:

Walk Around the Block teaches students how to see and experience their local neighborhood with new eyes. Design, patterns, color, integration with nature, and history help us "read" and understand the built environment.

Instructions for creating your box city. Photo courtesy CUBE.

Box City engages teachers and students in the act of design and the formation of our towns by decorating box shapes and placing them in strategic locations on a room-sized 'map' of a neighborhood. Teamwork and negotiation are required as the various buildings in a group setting are placed on the "map."

There are many individual activities and curricula designed and developed by CUBE that are available for teachers, planners, and community activists.

If you would like to learn more about CUBE, lesson plans, or ways to get involved, visit

Top image: The Chesterfield County (Virginia) Planning Department worked with third graders on a Box City project, and discussed architecture, development, economics, politics, environment, and planning. Photo courtesy CUBE.

About the Author
Kirk Gastinger, FAIA, is a principal at Gastinger & Walker Inc.

July 25, 2016