Young Campers Design Their Own City

Authored by: Gabriel Hurley on August 7, 2012

At our Construction Zone camp, we had a unique opportunity to spend a week talking with children about cities and architecture. We visited the many unique buildings in Winnipeg including Manitoba Hydro Place, the Legislative Building, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, and the historic Vaughan Street Jail (where our campers asked us if they were going to meet any criminals!). We wanted to be inspired by a wide variety of buildings, because the campers had an important mission to fulfil: to design their own buildings and arrange them into a beautiful city. Or at least a beautiful neighbourhood. After all, we only had a week.

Luckily, we are not inventing the city from scratch; we have a working model called Winnipeg, so we spent some time walking through the city to identify what worked for them – and what did not. After our observations, we recorded everything into a table that divided our observations into categories. These were our results:

We want our city to have: pools, splah pads, jail, museums/galleries, parks, banks, restaurants, churches.

We don't want our city to have: schools (what can we replace them with?) and pollution (how can we reduce it?)

Although the campers weren’t able to figure out how children might learn without it, they were adamant that their city should not have a single school. We also talked about how we might plan a city to reduce pollution. One camper suggested city-wide bike paths, but I imagine that the monorail system suggested by another student would help too. Of course, a city also needs places  for people to work, so the campers decided that we should have a toy factory, a candy factory, and a paint factory.Marianne, our art instructor, helped the campers make buildings from boxes, egg cartons, and all sorts of other discarded packaging. Some of the kids used popsicle sticks to make fantastic balconies on their apartment buildings. The camper who made the church added some lovely stained glass windows that extend from the floor to the ceiling. Once we had a pile of buildings, we needed to arrange them. Before we assembled our city, I wanted the campers to understand how people interact with city space. The next step, therefore, was to watch people. The campers sat down on planters along Portage Avenue and watched people as they passed by: people carrying sandwich boards, people with tattoos, people talking on their phones, people being dragged by their dogs... all sorts of people! We also sketched the people as they walked by, because we would eventually sculpt miniature pedestrians to put in our cities.

Of course, we did not actually have a city at that point, so we took an inventory of all the buildings the campers had made: apartments, factories, monorail stations, and so on. Then we had a chat about the best places to put things. Should the hotel be closer to the museum or to the paint factory? Why?

Meanwhile, our city still needed people, so we hauled out the slabs of modelling clay, and the campers set to work making people based on their sketches. I was surprised to discover that one camper had seen a penguin on Portage Ave and another had spotted Yoda! Once the clay figurines were finished, we brought them to our city-in-progress, assembled the buildings and streets, and placed the walkers on the sidewalks. We had some cameras and tripods lying around, so the next logical step was to make a stop-frame animation of the mini people walking around the city. I will be uploading our finished video in a blog post later this month.

So we had our city, complete with a monorail system and toy factory – and conspicuously without a school. Within five days, the campers were thinking about what make cities tick and how they might design better ones. These kids have lots of ideas on how to improve Winnipeg. The city planners need only ask.

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