Planning a City

Planning a City challenges students to use historical maps, coupled with their own ingenuity, to put together a well-designed city modeled on turn-of-the- century Birmingham. After completing Planning a City, students will be able to map out a city with a reasonable design, use historical and modern-day maps as resources, and persuade others that their city is well-designed. Recommended completion time is three 45-minute sessions.



Session 1: Brainstorming

Paint a picture by asking students to imagine that it’s Birmingham in the 1900s. Help students envision an urban environment past the days of makeshift mining camps and ramshackle company housing, when Birmingham’s commercial, entertainment, residential districts were emerging. Ask students to imagine what people do for work
and fun, where they buy food and what moms, dads and children do. Talk about days of the week. What do people do on Saturdays and Sundays that they might not do on weekdays? Your role will be to ask lots of open-ended questions and be prepared to shape all sorts of answers into an accurate snapshot of the Magic City.

As you help students form their mental picture, you may need to remind them that no one drove cars in 1900. Children walked to school. Families walked to church. Moms walked to corner markets. Everyone traveled by streetcar to more distant places. 

Once you are satisfied that students have a vivid picture, it’s time to ask them to think about design principles that underlie successful city planning. Divide your students into groups of four or five and have them discuss the features of a well-designed city. Encourage students to consider residential, commercial, recreational, educational and civic functions. What types of transportation did people use?


Session 2: Research

If you were on a team of city planners, how would you lay out the city of Birmingham? This question will guide students as they move onto the research phase.

Direct students, still working in groups, to Birmingham Public Library’s online collection of historical maps, where they can access maps drafted by Beers Ellis & Co. The Beers Ellis maps depict Birmingham and surrounding suburbs as they existed in the late 1880s. Because insurance companies used them to access risk, the Beers Ellis maps show not only streets and landmarks, but every building in Birmingham – schools, churches, government buildings, houses and shops – in meticulous detail. The maps will be a valuable resource. Be sure to brag to your principal that your students are conducting research using primary documents.

The research phase is a good time to remind students of an important aspect of cities: that they are always changing. Though modified over the years, the streetcar lines of the 1880s stayed more or less in tact until the 1950s. The city’s system of streets and the location of its parks and railroads have stayed the same. Perhaps the biggest change was in function. For example, the area around Linn Park (known at one time as Capitol Park) was, for many years, residential. Today, the park is surrounded by municipal buildings. Ask students to consider what might have caused the change.


Session 3: Charting the City

Using poster board and markers, students apply what they’ve learned about cities and Birmingham in particular to chart their own ideal city. Students could start with a grid of streets and avenues. A grid of 16 or 25 blocks will suffice. (Wouldn’t this be an ideal opportunity to slip in a provocative comment about square roots?)

Students should zone their grids according to such categories as residential, civic, commercial, entertainment and educational. Keeping these functions distinct is known as Euclidean zoning, after Euclid, Ohio. It’s not the only way. A mixed-use approach allows people to live in apartments over shops. (This is how American Girl Julie Albright lived, fans might note.) Whichever approach they take, students should consider how often residents will need to go to school and work, how close they’d like houses to factories and busy commercial districts and how many people live in the proscribed area.

There are a number of methods students could use to create their model cities, depending on how much time you can devote to this project. We’ve suggested poster board and markers in part because it’s probably the fastest, most accessible method, but three-dimensional models (using, say, shoeboxes for buildings) are also possible.

                                                 View this activity on Flickr!