Students Shape a City at Summer Planning Camp

I teach a planning summer camp called Next City for students who have completed the 5th or 6th grade, offered through the University of Washington's Robinson Center for Young Scholars.

Over the course of three weeks of meetings on the University of Washington's campus, we cover a broad range of urban planning and architecture concepts using interactive lectures, sketching and model-building exercises, group presentations, and field trips around Seattle.

On their field trip to Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, students visited various privately owned public open spaces (POPOs), including these biospheres under construction on Amazon's campus. Photo by Stephanie Velasco.

The camp's culminating project is a three-dimensional model of a small city made up of approximately two dozen blocks (one block per student). The students, through a series of facilitated debates and group activities, are tasked with:

  • Coming up with the city's name, vision statement, and planning priorities
  • Creating one unified zoning map and negotiating where proposed developments will be located within these zones
  • Defining the city's primary modes of transportation and outlining its street hierarchy

While we use the same site (roughly based on Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood) for our model city every year, each batch of students creates a completely different urban landscape.

The first summer I taught Next City, a quarter of the buildings created were mixed-use skyscrapers, connected by sky bridges which were taller than the students themselves. This past summer, the students' model city had several blocks of single-family homes, a high-end restaurant/casino, and a four-block long amusement park.

On the last day of camp, families are invited to see students present their final models. Photo by Stephanie Velasco.

When I ask students at the end of camp what their favorite activities are, these are some of the most common answers:

  • Riding light rail from the University of Washington to downtown Seattle. (Many of the students in our camp live in suburban or rural areas, so this is often their first experience riding public transit.)
  • Designing their own streets in Streetmix and on paper. (Streetmix is an online tool that allows users to easily build their own street sections using colorfully illustrated right-of-way elements, such as bus stops, bike lanes, and parklets.)
  • Debating with each other about the location of various zoning types and proposed developments throughout their model city. (Personally, this is my favorite part of the camp, and I am continually impressed by the insight and thoughtfulness students bring to these debates.)
On their field trip to Seattle's downtown waterfront area, students had a chance to see a number of ongoing large-scale environmental, transportation, public space, and infrastructure planning projects first hand. Photo by Stephanie Velasco.

You can read a more in-depth description of the Next City syllabus, which I wrote about in 2016, at the website of APA's Washington Chapter,

The chapter's Youth In Planning Task Force has a fantastic website, full of great resources for planners, teachers, youth, and anyone else interested in engaging youth in planning.

Each student is asked to create a zoning map for the city using four basic zoning types. After everyone has completed their individual maps, the class comes together to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the various proposed configurations. Photo by Stephanie Velasco.

Top image: Students discuss proposed changes to the class's draft zoning map. The unified zoning map goes through a few iterations, and a few hours of lively debate, before it is formally adopted by the entire class. Photo by Stephanie Velasco.

About the Author

Stephanie Velasco

Stephanie Velasco teaches urban planning summer camps for middle school students throughout the Seattle area. She received her Master of Urban Planning degree from the University of Washington in 2016.

October 31, 2017

By Stephanie Velasco, AICP Candidate