Starting from scratch: How 7th graders learn to plan

WELCOME TO PLANNING DAY: This team explains their proposed project to the class.  Photo by Paula Farley.

WELCOME TO PLANNING DAY: This team explains their proposed project to the class.  Photo by Paula Farley.

by Jayna Watson, Spearfish, SD

They slowly trickle in to class, this chattering bunch of adolescents.  Their desks have all been bunched together into groups so nobody has a clue which one is theirs.  One of the kids is clearly taken off guard.  “Whoa,” she mutters when she walks in and sees groups of kids already huddled over the aerial maps looking for places and buildings they recognize.  One student shouts that he has found his house on the map as he bounces up and down on his ball-chair (the four legged ones are stacked in the corner of the room).  Welcome to City Planning Day in Mrs. Paula Farley’s seventh grade class in Spearfish, SD.  

As planners, we are often involved in heated discussions over development proposals and we scratch our heads as to why nobody understands that open and undeveloped land is often a holding pattern until something gets built on it.  Of course, there is lots of debate on what that something ought to be.  However, the profession eventually has to own some of the responsibility for not having shown our citizens at an early age, that unless they are prepared to be 100 percent self-sufficient in this world, our communities need to contain all different kinds of homes, businesses, public utilities, and open spaces in order for basic needs of life to be met, as well as for life to be enjoyable in our communities.

Somewhere between seventh grade and mid-life, we lose sight of what it takes to create a community and the diversity required to have a truly thriving community.
— Jayna Watson

This is about an idea to introduce kids to the fact that there are many forces at play in the development of a community.   The introduction to this planning project is designed around three goals: to show kids how to read maps and recognize landmarks in their community; to allow them to understand that it takes more than people living in houses to make a community work; and to realize that changes take place in a setting where lots of opinions are given and ultimately decided on by a group of citizens that are elected into leadership.  

First, the students gathered into groups with five to six kids on a team.  Each team was given a copy of the city’s aerial photograph along with some streets and major landmarks labeled.  The exercise was started with a game about to street name recognition.  First, a local landmark or business was described and then the students were asked to name the adjacent streets.  Most of the students didn’t know the names of many common streets.  I attribute this to fact that seventh graders are not drivers, and it seems that street directions and names only become important when going from point A to B in a car.  From purely a safety point of view, this overlooked piece of education should be provided to children, and parents can play an important role here. 

PLANNING AHEAD: This team huddled around their map and discussed the best location for their project.   Photo by Paula Farley.

PLANNING AHEAD: This team huddled around their map and discussed the best location for their project.   Photo by Paula Farley.

After the street name game, each team was given a different assignment to find a suitable location for a land use, described in detail on a written handout, that they were given.  The five different teams were supposed to identify a good place to put the following:  a motorcycle manufacturing plant,  a regional shopping mall,  a performing arts complex, a bicycle motocross track, and a new affordable housing project.  Notice how the land use choices center around three essential needs (employment, goods and services, and shelter) and two quality of life improvements (recreation and the arts).

After spending about five minutes reading their project descriptions, the students launched into heated discussions about what were good and not so good locations for their pretend land use.  Some had to find convenient Interstate highway access, while others had to find a place where a new neighborhood could be connected to the bike path.  Another team had to figure out where their noisy, dusty project (the BMX track) could be placed without harm or upset to surrounding land owners.  After the teams worked through their project description and agreed on a location, each group went before the class, held up their map, picked a team member to read their assignment out loud to the class, and identified the spot they picked for the project they were given.

Then it got really interesting…….A beautiful location for a new neighborhood was chosen by one team, but there suddenly was a debate over whether or not the person that owned the property in real life could be counted on to be a cooperative seller - and possibly scuttle the deal at the last minute, and send the pretend developers looking for a different place to build the housing project.  Another team debated with the rest of the class about whether or not the road they had located their manufacturing use on was indeed wide enough, and if it was fair to require their team to fix the street.  The group assigned to find a place for a regional shopping mall faced a tough challenge to their site pick as the class debated if the regional mall would be economically successful with Wal-Mart so close by.  The suggested change was to locate it on the other side of town. One by one, the teams presented their case and the ‘whys’ of their choices.  Each presentation was followed by a vote up or down, depending if the rest of the class felt they had adequately followed the directions given.

Observations and conclusions

Kids have a tremendous capacity for separating facts from perception.  As we explored the various solutions to each planning project, the kids debated concerns and either affirmed that the project impact was real, or not.   They did not shy away from challenging others to think about their choices and to ask for site development techniques that would minimize impacts to the community.   Many students recognized the need and desire to have fun and vibrant things happening in our cities as well as keep our rural lands quiet and protected from unwanted city encroachment.  Throughout the discussions that were going on, this same comment could be heard: “could this really happen?” as many of the girls talked about how fun a mall would be and the boys ventured they’d be at the BMX track all the time.

Somewhere between seventh grade and mid-life, we lose sight of what it takes to create a community and the diversity required to have a truly thriving community.  This is especially true when that diversity is threatening what we believe to be our own personal slice of heaven in whatever way we have defined it.

Integrating the planning profession into the minds of seventh graders is by no means the start of a revolution to combat the NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), CAVEs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) or BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).  However, it is possible through projects like this that we can indeed broaden the minds of our future citizenry on what their backyard really needs to contain.


Jayna Watson serves as the city planner for Spearfish, SD. She serves on The Western Planner Editorial Board. She has also served in a variety of planning roles in the private and public sector in Arizona.

Published in the October/November 2012 The Western Planner

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