Growing Pains—and Plans

Growing Pains—and Plans

This set of classroom ideas addresses worldwide urban growth and how to plan for it.


6 - 9


Anthropology, Sociology, Geography, Social Studies

More people in the world are living in urban areas like Tokyo, Japan, which is one of the largest cities in the world.
Photograph by Getty Images

Cities are the future. According to the United Nations, about 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a number projected to rise to 68 percent by 2050. Natural population increases and the migration of people from rural areas to cities in search of economic opportunity are two reasons cities are growing. This rapid urbanization does not have to mean urban sprawl, however. The growth of the world’s cities comes with risk and challenges, but also tremendous opportunity, if it is managed correctly. Introduce students to the key role that urban planning by governments, city leaders, and active citizens plays in healthy and sustainable growth of cities with the lesson ideas below.

A model of a smart city shown at the Smartcity Expo, which showcased sustainable living and environmental projects.
Smarten Up, City

Introduce students to the idea of a smart city with this article. Have students research the top ten smart cities in the world according to the most recent IESE Cities in Motion Index, mapping their locations in National Geographic Mapmaker. Then have students attach a text label to each marker to briefly indicate what makes each city “smart.” Ask students: Is their city a smart city? If so, in what ways? If not, where is the closest one? One way cities can be made “smarter” is with improvements that enhance quality of life for people while minimizing negative impacts on the environment. Ask: How green is their city’s “smartness?” What additional smart measures could be taken to make their city more efficient and sustainable? Have students brainstorm five ways to make their city smarter.

Light rail is a possible solution to helping cities better manage congestion from automobile traffic. Light-rail trains enable more people to travel in tighter spaces, meaning less traffic, and use electricity instead of combustion engines.

Show students this photo of traffic congestion on I-35 in Austin, Texas. Question students about the human and environmental impacts of traffic congestion (wasted time, road rage, pollution, etc.), and then invite suggestions about alternatives to traveling by car on congested routes such as this one. Discuss light-rail transit as one public transportation option that has become popular in U.S. cities in recent years. Have students research the pros and cons of light-rail transit compared to other options like buses or subway systems. Inform students that they have been hired as traffic planners to fix Austin’s traffic problems by implementing a light rail in the city. Have students identify the city’s most congested routes using this list. Ask students if they should plan their light rail lines to complement the city’s single existing MetroRail line and service important business, recreation, and educational sectors of the city, and have them explain why or why not.

In 2002, Youngstown, Ohio, in partnership with Youngstown State University began a plan for the city called Youngstown 2010. Youngstown 2010 is a plan to make the city smaller and greener.
Operation Redesign

Provide students with an overview of urban planning with this article. Then introduce students to urban planner William D'Avignon for insight into a real-world application for this type of work. Discuss the city of Youngstown’s unique needs and D’Avignon’s ideas for revitalizing the city. Review the Youngstown 2010 Plan together. Discuss the major vision principles, or platforms for the urban plan, and ask students to compare the two maps depicting current and future city land use. Ask students: What changes have urban planners like D’Avignon proposed? How will these changes help meet the city’s evolving needs? Next, inform students that they, like D’Avignon, have been hired as urban planners for their own city or town. Their first task is to evaluate the physical layout of their city and assess the physical, social, and economic needs of the population using maps and resources available on their city or town website. Instruct students to use their research to inform their ideas in order to create their own four “vision principles” for a redesign of their city and a map illustrating their plans for improving the city layout and land or resource use. Make sure that the students’ plans address improvements in city services, recreational and “green” space, housing, and roads and transportation.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

April 22, 2024

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