APA Ambassador Tells the Planning Story With Box City Denver

In April, I had the opportunity to participate in an exceptionally rewarding event — Box City Denver 2017.

This year, I was honored to serve as co-chair for the event after having participated as a volunteer in 2016, and I am already excited about the chatter surrounding Box City 2018.

Box City is a very special part of an annual event held in Denver called Doors Open Denver.

Doors Open Denver is presented by the Denver Architectural Foundation and is a two-day event that provides opportunities for residents and visitors to explore some of Denver's unique and historic spaces, including high-profile sites known for their feats of architecture and design. Typically, there are about 65 locations where both self-guided and expert guided (fee-based) tours are available.

By the end of the day, a full range of street types was on display, with the skyscraper district in the background. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

One of the featured events is Box City, which is a free event for children — grades K-5 — where they learn about the process of urban development and the principles that make for sound architecture, design and planning.

In a nutshell, the children:

  1. Start with a building permit for their desired building (house, restaurant, office, etc.)
  2. Make a draft sketch of their building in the design studio
  3. Stop at the hardware store to get their cardboard boxes and paper/construction supplies
  4. Construct their building in the construction zone with help from their guardians and volunteers
  5. Obtain a certificate of occupancy after the building inspection process
  6. 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

Each child is photographed with their picture appearing on their certificate of occupancy and, finally, dubbed a "MASTER BUILDER." How cool is that?!

In addition to assisting volunteers and ensuring that the process outlined above was running smoothly, I would often check-in with kids at the construction zone to get a better understanding of their thought process as well as lend a helping hand.

Parcels throughout Box City are zoned either for residential, commercial, mixed-use, civic, or recreational uses. Therefore, I would talk to the children about the scale of their building as well as the building's proximity to transportation, natural features, and other uses, etc. I would encourage them to think about the small things as well, such as windows, doors, trees and plaza space.

APA Ambassador Jason Morrisson with Box City volunteers. Approximately 30 volunteers helped to make the event a success, including students from the nearby University of Colorado-Denver College of Architecture and Planning, as well as volunteers from the community. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

Their 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.

Despite the soggy, snowy weather that weekend, more than 130 children participated in this year's Box City program, making it one of the largest in quite some time. Just like Denver itself, Box City Denver is getting denser and more vibrant every year!

Top image: An aerial view of APA Ambassador Jason Morrison's completed Box City. Photo by Ryan Dravitz.

About the Author

Jason Morrison, AICP

Jason Morrison is an associate city planner with the City and County of Denver.

June 28, 2017

By Jason Morrison, AICP