“Thank you for helping us make buildings and helping us know more about architecture. Also, thank you for showing us where our buildings should go in the community.” – Ronnie Kitchens, 7th grade, Drew Charter Middle School, Atlanta, Ga.

Kitchens participated in the Atlanta Preservation Center’s Box City program, a metro Atlanta staple for nearly 20 years. Box City teaches students about preservation through city planning and zoning.

School children grades 1-12 from Atlanta’s Fulton County and surrounding counties participate in the program, which consists of nearly two hours of instruction and activities at the preservation center, which was founded in 1979, to “promote the preservation of Atlanta’s architecturally, historically and culturally significant buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes through education and advocacy.”

The program is divided into three sections: discussion, construction and city planning.  Discussion includes “what makes a city,” focusing on the buildings needed for it to function successfully. The program examines many buildings children see in their own communities and breaks them into categories: residential, commercial, industrial and civic. Given a proper “breakdown” of category ratios, each student then chooses a building to construct. The instructor approves the choices, ensuring that the city as a whole will consist of an appropriate range of structures (and isn’t completely comprised of toy stores and fast food eateries). Students then prepare a building blue print that includes a façade and floor plan rendering.

After drawings are complete, building construction begins. Students are given a 5” square cardboard box, construction paper, glue, bottle caps, lids, coffee stirrers and other materials to create their respective buildings. Depending on age, students are given the freedom to create their buildings in any shape or fashion. Older students are encouraged to think literally “outside the box” to rethink/reshape the given materials to create their visions.  

The final section of the lesson is city planning and the civic process. Students surround a plastic tablecloth where a street grid has been drawn, with a railroad on one end and a river and trees on the other. The instructor explains that each person will have to stand and state his or her name and what he/she built. Each student is then instructed to place his/her building in the area deemed most suitable. The student then explains his/her reasons for selecting the particular location.

Students as a group then vote on each building’s location. If placement is denied, students share concerns and suggestions, thus aiding the creator in choosing a replacement location. Since the students populate their city with their own experiences of the built environment that surrounds them, the Box Cities often mirror students’ local communities. Students discuss how the patterns of the jointly-created city create certain problems and how to best address/solve those problems. In identifying problems in the model city and discussing solutions, the students are actually discussing ways to improve the community in which they live.  

City planning and zoning are components of successful preservation, but the program’s focus is fostering a sense of community. Knowledge encourages feelings of ownership and civic mindedness amongst citizenry. The Box City program provides this knowledge and experience for the city’s future leaders, many of whom reside in Atlanta’s lower income communities.  

Box City is funded by the Atlanta Department of Arts and Culture and the Fulton County Arts Council.