George Lucas Educational Foundation

Developing Minds: Learning How to Rebuild a Town

The UrbanPlan curriculum is an academically challenging, classroom-based, fifteen-hour study unit. Teams of high school juniors and seniors compete to win the redevelopment contract for a decaying neighborhood in the fictitious city of Yorktown. Read the article.
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Developing Minds: Learning How to Rebuild a Town with UrbanPlan (Transcript)

Eddy: Hi, my name is Eddy Kim. I'm the site planner, and thank you for letting us propose the plan, on behalf of the city council--

Narrator: The city of Yorktown is considering proposals from several real estate developers for plans to revitalize the blighted neighborhood of Elmwood.

Eddy: We plan on putting a lake or big kind of like pond in the middle as our focal point.

Narrator: Elmwood is a fictional place, but many communities across the country face similar problems.

Student: Actually, the number's going to be about one point five million.

Narrator: These students from Alameda High School in northern California are presenting solutions at the culmination of a three week project based learning exercise called Urban Plan.

Paula: Urban Plan was designed to take required economics and required government classes out of their silos and put them together in a way that students of a sudden had that, "Oh, I get it. So I aced my standardized tests. I know how to write an answer about supply and demand. But when I do Urban Plan, now I understand why I can't afford to live in the town I grew up in.”

Teacher: And so I just want to reiterate that there isn't like, "Oh yeah, you have to put in tons of parks, or you have to put in skyscrapers to generate all this money." There are many possible answers. That's the point of reality.

Narrator: Developed at UC Berkeley, the Urban Land Project is available to schools in many cities through the Urban Land Institute's district councils.

Teacher: And then you've got neighborhood letters, which are the interest groups that have so far stepped forward and said, "Hey, this is what we want here.”

Narrator: It is a rigorous project that addresses most of the state economics curriculum standards, like marginal cost benefit, allocation of goods and services, and the role of incentives.

Teacher: The dry goods building, it's a historic building, and you can read a little bit about it and what kind of uses you can do with it. There are limits on this building, you have to do this. This building, you can do whatever you want.

Narrator: To make it easy on teachers, the Land Institute provides everything they need for the project, from outside expert volunteers to laptops and Legos.

Paula: All the materials are paid for, the Lego kits, the teacher's guide and lesson plans, the curriculum handbooks, the site plans, everything, delivered to the teacher.

Teacher: The idea that you can't really be entirely creative, and there are these rigid requirements on building heights, appearances, locations, is realistic. So you're thinking creatively, and you've just got to think differently.

Narrator: Students use the Legos to create a model of their new neighborhood. The computers are loaded with the sophisticated software they need to solve complex dilemmas.

It's too high.

Yeah, it's way too high.

Student: How do we kill our percent but still make the city go up?

Narrator: They are broken into teams of five and teach student serves in a specific role, like site planner, director of marketing, or neighborhood liaison.

Student: My role as the financial advisor was basically just to make profit for both the investors and the city, so that's--

Narrator: They must become experts in their individual roles and share their ideas with the group.

Rob: This project has things that are going to stick with the students more in their life, working with different people that they didn't like, speaking in front of strangers, thinking about something from a different point of view. You know, thinking about design, appreciating the world that they live in, politically, aesthetically, working on a spreadsheet.

Student: It's a neighborhood retail, for example, the absorption rate is two point eight six, which is pretty close to our upper limit, 'cause the optimum absorption rate is three, and midrise office building, we actually went over that, so it's a problem we need to solve.

Narrator: Students must deal with all kinds of problems, like balancing parking lots with open space.

Student: I think we could make this park smaller. This park is really big.

Narrator: Generating sufficient returns.

Student: We're making ten million, six hundred and fifty-six thousand and losing three million--

Narrator: And addressing the conflicting priorities of neighborhood interest groups.

Student: I don't know, if we put in a homeless shelter, and the neighborhood alliance gets mad, then they're just going to be bothering city council to death, you know. They're just going to be knocking on the door, "What are all these homeless people doing here?”

Narrator: In the second week, real estate professionals who serve as facilitators come to class to discuss the initial designs, sometimes providing a harsh reality check.

Student: Affordable housing, right now it's fifty-fifty for one building.

Marisita: Fifty-fifty, okay.

I don't like to tell them what to do ever. I really would like to ask hard questions. If they have the homeless shelter, I immediately say, "What difficulties would that pose to you?”

If they don't have it, I ask them immediately, "Oh, so you moved the homeless shelter. Where are the homeless going to be?”

And you can deal with the issues both ways, but the important things here is to deal with the issue, confront it.

Student: We're supposed to follow like the primary goals, and one of them is to remove the blighting influences, and we thought that the homeless shelter just brought everything down.

Jacqueline: Going into the project, we think, "Oh that's easy, you know. I can just put some Legos here. That represents a building and it's all good." But then you really have to think about the effects of what it's going to do.

Teacher: What's going to be in these stores? Have you thought about any of that? What's going to pull people down here?

Student: Restaurants.

Student: Boutiques.

Student: Coffee shops.

Jacqueline: Also we had the experts come in and question us. Some of them were harsh. Some of them were a lot nicer about it, but either way, we learned a lot from all of them, I'd say.

They got--see, this way--

Seventy-five percent.

We have less opposites--

Now it's eighty--

--is a lot smaller.

We also have a midrise, okay?

Student: Oh yeah, we had the midrise. Is it a midrise?

Dong-Jin: The project as a whole, it gets you ready for the real world. Just looking at the book, it gets very tedious, like you're just looking in a book. You're memorizing facts and stuff. But once you learn how to actually use those facts, you get a deeper understanding and you can better interpret questions, and so you build up really useful skills.

Student: Our group is called Mindsweepers Corporations, and our vision is to have a very diverse city that have a more suburban feel. In our first block, we have retail such as Macy's and Barnes & Noble's for the college students.

Narrator: Presentation time is limited to ten to twelve minutes, with each student speaking from the perspective of their individual role.

Student: All right, I'm the financial analyst. My name's Daniel--

Narrator: A question and answer period follows each proposal.

Paula: Is it going to be an animal shelter or an office?

Student: It's divided into two, and--

Paula: It's true that there's no right answer, so we may challenge or question a lot.

So a nonprofit office that acts as an animal shelter?

Student: The way that you say it, it makes it sound like there's going to be dogs jumping on the office tables.

Paula: Yup.

Student: We have nonprofit--

Paula: That's how council sees it.

Student: The nonprofit in one section and office in one section, so like--

Paula: Let me just stop you about the logistics of it. What I'm interested in is, so you're putting in an SPCA, which I don’t see either the city or the neighborhood requested, and you're not putting in a daycare center, a police substation, any of the things that we offered to subsidize or that the neighborhood requested. Is that correct?


Yeah, that would be correct.

Paula: That's correct, thank you.

Daniel: My group decided that it would be more important to include other things that weren't in the RFP. I was just sitting at the computer, typing in what they wanted. My job was to make sure that we made money.

The city liaison's job was to say, "You're not meeting all of the RFP requirements. That was a big problem with our plan.

Student: The retail, we think is a good mix, because we will have coffee shops and Laundromats and small businesses--

Paula: Because the students are assigned a specific role, the teacher can evaluate how well a student understands and has worked on this role by the input they're bringing into the class and the presentation they make.

So a good student on a weak team can still get an A.

Student: Victoria Row is forty percent nonprofit. Ten percent of that is going towards artists, which is one of the demands of the community.

Narrator: While students gain an appreciation for the challenges involved in development, teacher Rob Sultanan thinks the project offers even more valuable lessons.

Rob: From this project, there are all these non objective, nontraditional measure things that are curiosity, creativity, teamwork, passion. So I do it for those reasons, not because of the economics curriculum.

Student: We have a police substation, which will watch over the park.

Rob: I believe that to be educated is to be thoughtful, to be wise, to have perspective, to step out of your world view, and that the Urban Plan accomplishes all those things.

Student: We wanted to give people a sense of place, so we put the businesses near the businesses, as you can see here.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Field Producer:

  • Steve Gatlin

Associate Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Steve Gatlin
  • Brian Cardello
  • Caven Keith
  • Ken Ellis
  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Kris Welch

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas
  • © 2006
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • All rights reserved.

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Dara Taylor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

FLVS. Latin II. This was very interesting to see how a project like this could teach these students such important skills, aside from the subject area being taught, and make it real for them in terms that they can understand and apply in other situations later.

Megan Marshall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Incredible to see that this project incorporated so many different subject areas. You had to have scientific method, technology and math skills, creativity, art, research, and an element of language arts and speech in the final presentation. This project required many different skills and levels, which allowed the challenges of the assignment to keep them focused on the ultimate goal. Wow!

Lisa Liverman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This seems to be a real hands on approach to planning. The students seemed very interested. I feel that these students will be getting a large part of the benefit from presenting their ideas at the end.

Natascha Cox's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could see a version of this being used for a cross curricular project. Student engagement is again high!

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