Metropolis: A Green City of Your Own!

By John Martoni



APA and John Martoni are pleased to make this curriculum available to all — free of charge — in a downloadable file format. (Copyright John Martoni. All rights reserved.)

Metropolis is a curriculum developed by John Martoni, a planner and third-grade teacher in the Bay Area. It is a standards-based, interdisciplinary unit of study for grades three through six, although it could be adapted for any grade level.

Elementary classroom teachers and other adults can use its text and many illustrations and exercises to expose children to a variety of urban forms from around the world. The city elements presented — edges, districts, public spaces, landmarks, and transportation — were taken from Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. They provide organizing mechanisms for children to design their own ideal cities.

The lessons increase students' awareness of planning issues — such as sustainability and sprawl — while offering an opportunity to use a creative design process to express their heritage, interests, and ideas.

Metropolis is a multidisciplinary curriculum that embeds language arts, mathematics, health, art, science, and social studies throughout the unit. It can stand alone or as part of a neighborhood improvement curriculum.

Contact John Martoni at

A Q&A With John Martoni

John Martoni describes the creation and design of Metropolis, recounts lessons learned, and outlines plans for upcoming editions.

How did you come to your position as a teacher from the planning profession, or are you doing both?

When I finished my studies (I have a BA and a Master's in urban planning), I took advantage of a teaching internship program in Los Angeles Unified School District. I was able to work as a full-time teacher while earning a teaching credential. The original plan was to teach for a few years; taking advantage of the summer breaks to travel and explore the world. That was 20-plus years ago!

Though I still enjoy traveling, the main reason I have stuck with teaching is because it really is a rewarding job. I work with immigrant youth in a public school that is underfunded and overcrowded, but full of passion. The families I work with are humble, appreciative, and hard-working. It might sound cliche, but it really is important to welcome them as valued members of the community and equip them with skills for a successful future.

Almost a decade after the release of Metropolis, what have you learned from the experience and how has the learning process shaped your new ideas?

I am constantly learning from my experiences and I am constantly modifying Metropolis.

The very first time I had my students design a city of the future, it didn't work out as I had expected. My third-grade class created a city of malls, big-box stores, fast-food restaurants, and parking lots! They copied what they saw around them.

I tried again the following year ... but I knew I would have to provide more structure and explicit instruction. I decided to break the city down into its most basic elements and create lessons about each one. Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City kept coming to mind. I created five posters based on the elements Lynch describes in his book: edges, districts, landmarks, nodes, and paths. I cut out pictures from travel magazines to show examples of each concept.

Over the next few years I added a little bit here and there: clearer instructions, additional images, more explanatory text, vocabulary lists, and writing assignments. Eventually, I ended up with the complete unit that is currently on APA's website.

Metropolis has continued to evolve in my classroom since its publication on APA's website. I teach Metropolis once a year, as an end-of-the-school-year social studies/history unit for my class. It is a perfect bridge linking our history curriculum with the present and future.

I made some tweaks when the Common Core standards were adopted. I also added some pictures from Mexico to reflect the heritage of most of my students, and changed some of the directions and procedures to make them more kid-friendly.

The biggest change, however, was initiated by a 10-year-old student! He asked if he could fill in his district with houses and stores. Of course, I said yes (wondering why I had never thought of that!).

The fine-grained "infill" was stunning. I knew immediately that I wanted to incorporate this into the curriculum.

I developed an "infill" planning worksheet as part of the chapter about districts. Students brainstorm a list of buildings/land uses they will put in each district and draw prototypes that would fit in with their districts' identities.

How is your creative workflow in regard to the actual production of new content different from before?

When I came up with Metropolis I started from scratch. I had to make up everything. I had several goals:

  • Expose students (especially students of color) to the design professions
  • Teach state standards in required subject areas (math, language arts, social studies, science, and art) using urban design projects
  • Use my passion and expertise in urban planning to make learning novel and fun for children (I thought this was especially important in the era of high-stakes standardized testing)
  • Give children an opportunity to be creative and artistic
  • Showcase multiculturalism
  • Introduce sustainability

Now that I have finished the first version of Metropolis, my workflow in regard to the actual production of new content has been more focused on creating complementary units of study. Our school year is divided into trimesters and I have decided to do one design-based project per trimester, linking them together into a yearlong theme ("California: Past, Present & Future"). The yearlong theme culminates with Metropolis ("California's Future"). Each of the units includes standards-based components such as vocabulary, research, informational writing, presentations, math skills, and social studies concepts.

Do you have any advice or last thoughts for educators who are teaching Metropolis in their schools or organizations?

My advice is:

  • Do not paint wax-coated boxes. (The paint peels after it dries and it makes a mess!)
  • Teach kids your procedures for passing out supplies and cleaning up before you start. (You will avoid a lot of frustration!)
  • Modify the curriculum according to your goals, personality, and time frame. Add, delete, and/or change the activities to meet your needs. As a classroom teacher, I have to teach my students vocabulary and writing skills. If you are doing this as an after-school art activity, you might want to skip those components. If you have lots of time, you can do the project to scale. If you are short on time you probably won't want to do it to scale. Do what works for you!
  • The goal is to expose kids to urban planning; not to churn out mini urban planners. Create a fun/relaxed/non-threatening atmosphere where kids feel free to express their ideas, explore and experiment

California: Past, Present & Future

Unit 1: All About Me

The first project I developed is called "Object Project." It helps me get to know my new class at the beginning of the year (before we dive deeply into our grade-level studies), and teaches pre-requisite skills that will help them with Metropolis at the end of the year (including geometry, measurement and scale). I found the activity in Doreen Nelson's curriculum "City Building," and adapted it to the common core standards. Students bring in an object that represents their personality. They make exact-size, half-size and double-size replicas. The finale is making life-size replica big enough to wear!

Unit 2: The Past

The second project teaches about California history through its architecture. Students divide into groups and each group takes on a period of our state's history. The group does research about a historic landmark from their era. They estimate the measurements (using the approximation that one story is about ten feet). Then they make a scale model based on the estimated measurements.

Units 3 & 4: The Present and Future

This is where I do Metropolis!


Page Count
Date Published
May 1, 2010
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

About the Author

John Martoni

Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3
Public Spaces

Chapter 4

Chapter 5
Transportation Systems

Chapter 6
Putting It All Together

Chapter 7
Applying What You Have Learned

Appendix 1: Teacher’s Guide

Appendix 2: Handouts

Appendix 3: Paragraph Models

Appendix 4: 3rd Grade Standards

Appendix 5: 4th Grade Standards

Appendix 6: 5th Grade Standards

Bibliography & Resources