Progressive City Planners

In this middle school lesson, students will create their own imaginary cities, deciding where to place amenities such as parks and libraries, as well drawbacks such as environmental hazards. Then they will compare their cities to the real world – where resources and hazards often aren't distributed fairly.
Grade Level


Students will:

  • Consider how our society is divided by race and class and consider the stark differences in treatment within communities
  • Evaluate previous biases against people of color and working-class communities.
  • Analyze the impact of environmental racism on the health and well-being of communities of color
  • Create a vision of a more just and equitable society
  • 2 class periods
  • Several paper grocery store bags
  • Markers
  • Glue
  • Crayons
  • Colored Pencils
  • Scissors
  • Copies of the City Building Kit handout from Teaching Tolerance
  • Rulers


Environmental and civil rights activists discovered more than two decades ago that, in comparison with affluent white communities, people of color and working-class communities are disproportionately subjected to toxic waste, resource depletion, waste disposal sites, pollution of air and water, and natural disasters. (See Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987—2007 for an in-depth analysis.)

Day One of this lesson will introduce students to the ways in which people of color often suffer disproportionately from environmental burdens. Day Two empowers students by asking them to propose solutions to issues of environmental racism.



Print several copies of the City Building Kit Handout. The handout includes tiles for each of the following urban elements:

Library Mansions A forest Trash Incinerator
Freeway Houses Nature trail Power Plant
Polluting businesses Apartments Prison A Plaza
People (male and female) Schools Landfill Gourmet food store
Universities A casino Liquor Store Police Cars
Big Cars Little Cars Bicycles Supercenter

Cut each handout into individual tiles, and put the tiles from a single handout into a grocery bag. This bag will become a City Building Kit. Fill the bag with other supplies – glue, markers, scissors, colored pencils, etc. Assemble enough City Building Kits to give one to each group, assuming your class is divided into groups of three or four.



Day One

Divide the class into small groups. Provide each group with the grocery bag and materials. Students should cut open the bag in any way they like to form the area of their "city." Using the materials provided, students are to create a city that includes all of the city components on the tiles inside the bag.

There is one caveat: students must divide the territory of their city into three areas. Students should designate one area of the city for "the people who run the city." Students should designate a second area for "the people who clean the city." A third area will be for "other workers" who do jobs other than running or cleaning the city. Students can mark the division any way they wish: by folding the bag, using markers, or any other way they can imagine.

As students go to task, take note of the discussions groups are having about how to arrange their cities. Record phrases and statements students may make that relate to environmental racism. Allow students to exhibit their own biases without judgment, and allow them to exhibit their awareness and activism as well should it occur. Place all decision-making in the hands of students. Don't comment on what students are saying – just make notes.

When the groups have finished, have each group leave their "city" on their group table. Rotate the students in their respective groups through each table to see how other student chose to design their cities. Again, record any discussion, comments, or realizations students may have. Students can reflect on their designs in writing or by discussion.

Students' cities may reflect the biases we see in zoning and planning of actual urban areas – or they may reflect an admirable effort to distribute amenities and polluters fairly.

Lead a discussion based on their work. Use any of the following questions or sentence starters:

  • I noticed that certain neighborhoods in our city…
  • I noticed while your groups were talking about what to do, some of you said the following:
  • How will the health of the "people who clean the city" be affected based on the set-up you created? What about the "people who run the city" or the "other workers."
  • Are your cities set up fairly and justly?
  • Which cities seemed to be set up most fairly? In what way?
  • What were the biggest obstacles you faced in trying to create a city where everyone was treated fairly?
  • Do the cities your groups created seem any different than our cities or areas we know of?

Allow students to converse and explore these ideas. After the conversation has had time to develop, write the phrases "environmental racism" and "environmental justice" on the board. Ask students if they can describe, explain, or guess what these terms mean.

If time allows, introduce students to some of the facts in Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987—2007. Explain that American cities in the 21st century are often divided along lines of race, income or political power. When polluting industries or businesses are proposed for a town, people in wealthy or empowered neighborhoods are often able to successfully campaign to have those industries located elsewhere. Poor communities, and mostly-minority neighborhoods, often have less success in warding off polluters. As a result, across America, poor people and people of color are more likely to live near environmental hazards.


Day Two

You may choose to begin the lesson with facts from Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987—2007. See the "Executive Summary" on pages 10-11 for general facts that clearly document environmental racism. Some statements from the work you may need to paraphrase are,

  • In 1987, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States found race to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities.
  • Racial disparities for people of color as a whole exist in nine out of 10 U.S. EPA regions (all except Region 3).
  • Forty of the 44 states (90%) with hazardous waste facilities have disproportionately high percentages of people of color in neighborhoods within 3 kilometers of the facilities.

If you have access to an LCD projector you may choose to show a CNN report that features researcher Robert Bullard in communities where environmental racism exists. The images and "real people" aspect of this short clip add great value to student understanding of the real losses that exist because of environmental racism.

Ask students to turn over their cities from the day before. On the back of their unjust city model they are to create a more just city. They will need to incorporate all of the same elements of a city that were provided on Day One. However, for this city model students do not have to set-up three exclusive neighborhoods, but can create heterogeneous ones if they like. You may choose to include additional tiles such as wind farms, solar energy fields and community gardens to represent a change in thinking about energy.

As you work the room, seize opportunities to discuss environmental justice for people of color and the environment itself. Encourage small group conversations about environmental racism. Day Two's lesson will also encourage reflection about clean energy, community gardens, local living economies, or other ways in which we can make our communities more just for all of our citizens.

Complete the lesson by having students name their cities. Then have them pin them together on a bulletin board or tape them together to hang on a wall like a map of a region. This may create entirely new points for discussion and reflection.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

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