Ambassador Spotlight — Jason Morrison, AICP

The Activity

This year I was honored to serve as cochair for an exceptionally rewarding event — Box City Denver 2017. Box City is a free event for children in grades K–5 to learn about the process of urban development and the principles that make for sound architecture, design, and planning. The children are invited to construct buildings/uses of their choice out of cardboard and are then directed to the official Box City street grid. From there, they place their buildings on color-coded parcels zoned for residential, commercial, mixed use, civic, or recreational uses.

The children are encouraged to discuss things like the scale of their building as well as the building's proximity to transportation, natural features, and other uses. More than 130 children participated in this year's Box City program, making it one of the largest in quite some time.

Goals

What was the goal of your activity? What did you want participants to come away with?

The goal of the event is to provide an opportunity for children from all walks of life to learn about the process of city building through creativity, planning, and collaboration. As volunteers, we wanted children to come away with a greater understanding of why certain buildings are located where they are as well as how those specific uses interact with both the natural and built environments.

Structure and Flow

Children begin the Box City experience by checking in with a volunteer at the welcome desk. Prior to the event, the children are encouraged to register online, but we also accommodate walk-ins. The event has several stations and each station builds off of the previous station through an intuitive layout.

Children start with a building permit for their desired building (house, restaurant, office, etc.)

The children then make a draft sketch of their building in the design studio. Then they stop at the hardware store to get their cardboard boxes and paper and construction supplies. Here, the design of their creation determines the type and size of boxes they get. For instance, a "stadium" design would prompt the volunteer to give the child a larger box. At this point, the children are ready to erect their buildings in the construction zone with help from guardians and volunteers.

Next, the children go through a building inspection process. Then the children obtain a certificate of occupancy. Here, each child is photographed with their picture appearing on their certificate of occupancy and dubbed a "Master Builder."

Finally, children meet a city planner on the official Box City street grid where they are directed to an appropriate building site to place and admire their creation.

Challenges

What challenges did you face during your activity? What were your learning moments?

The children's ideas for buildings were fascinating and ranged from castles and apartments to factories, museums, and skyscrapers. More importantly, their awareness of what's going on in the surrounding built environment was incredible.

The children recognized the need for grocery stores and homeless shelters as well as parks and train stations. Some of them even understood the concept of transit-oriented development and often spoke of the effects of gentrification. Like all of us in the planning profession, these children hear the news and read the stories pertaining to Denver's growth and witness the transformative forces shaping our city. Many of their creations reflected this phenomenon.

While it was great to see the creativity on full display during this event, it was often challenging to explain some of the principles of planning to the youngest children.

How do you explain zoning to a 2nd grader? Oftentimes they just wanted to build the tallest skyscraper or the most elaborate waterpark and once they were finished, they were out the door and their attention was elsewhere.

As volunteers, however, we did our best to bring the conversation "full circle" and encouraged the children to talk about their design and why they built something the way they did.

Tips for Other Ambassadors

What advice do you have for the Ambassadors who may be reading this information as a source of reference? Tips for starting or executing this type of activity?

My advice for other Ambassadors considering a similar activity is to start the planning process early and recruit an appropriate number of volunteers based on the number of anticipated participants. We had about 30 volunteers at 11 different stations, as well as floaters, to make sure the process was running smoothly.

Planning for an event like this should be done months in advance. In addition to forming a smaller, specialized "committee," there were dozens of coordination calls with the security and janitorial staff of the building venue and to other companies like Waste Management to come recycle the boxes on the Monday after the event.

In addition to recruiting a dedicated group of volunteers, I'd encourage interested Ambassadors to utilize other resources and volunteers in the community, such as colleges and high schools. Don't be afraid to ask for donations, as you'd be surprised how much support you can receive for an event like Box City.

It's also important to get the word out and to tap into some of the social media outlets to promote the event. The more you get the word out and the easier you make the registration process, the more participants you will have during the event.