Design a Town

Let’s give your students the opportunity to create a town from scratch.  This idea started with the simple-enough task of drawing a map, and I thought, “How could we expand this?”  Drawing maps is a nice activity for younger students who are learning directions and/or places in town, but how could we give older and more advanced students more to do?  So I started moving backward.  How do students know what to include in the first place?  How do they know what to include and how many of each type of place to include?  (Unlike kids’ maps, towns generally don’t have precisely one of everything.)  So we’ll start at the beginning.

This project is best done in groups of three or four.


Start off with a class discussion on the differences between towns based on their location.  How do towns on hilltops contrast with those in valleys or those on plains?  What’s the difference between coastal towns, lakeside towns, towns with a river running beside/through them, and towns with no body of water?  How do towns in warm climates differ from towns in cool climates?

Discuss how the layout, industry, agriculture, trade, architecture, customs, and whatever else might be effected by these features.  After this discussion, each group should choose where their town is located in terms of land, water, and climate.


Next, each group should decide the population of their town.  I’d recommend somewhere between 3,000 and 30,000 people (too small and you don’t have much to work with; too large and the logistics can be overwhelming).

Commerce Specialty

These towns aren’t metropolitan areas that can do a bit of everything; many such towns have something that they’re known for (in fact, it may be why that town became a town in the first place).  Likewise, each group should choose 1-3 things that their town specializes in.

At least one of the things would most likely be raw goods – probably something that is harvested, caught, or mined.  An option for a second or third thing could be crafts or manufactured goods (pick something specific, as a small town wouldn’t likely be capable of supporting too many factories).  Another option for a second or third thing could be a service, most likely something with entertainment.  Students can do any combination of these they like, so long as at least one of the things is raw good (an exception could be if the town specializes in trade).

bonus: History

How and why was this town founded?  Where did its people come from?  How did it get started in its commerce specialty?  Who are some of its important historical figures?  What role, if any, did it play in major events on its continent?

This section could be a lot of fun for some students and could add some interesting depth to the project.  However, other students won’t be interested, and frankly, it’s not necessary for the project as a whole.  This section could be quite time-consuming, so only do it if your students are really excited about it.


Every town needs a name, of course.  Students can choose one based on location, commerce specialty, or history.  Alternately, you may choose to let them come up with fun names.


Next, we get to the places-in-town portion of the project.  But before drawing anything on a map, the students need to figure out how many of each building they need.  Let’s run through a couple examples.

Schools – Suppose around 20% of the population is of schooling age.  Multiply that percent by your population, then divide that by the average school size (you can use your own school as an example).  The result will tell you how many schools you need.  Each group can increase the number of schools just a bit if they want the schools to be smaller, or decrease the number of schools for larger ones.

Restaurants – How often does the average family in your village go out to eat?  Students can consider their own family’s habits, but let’s say 1/4 of the time for this example.  And how many people fill a restaurant per mealtime on average?  Let’s say 100 for this example.  A town of 10,000 would then need 25 restaurants.  You could then suppose that the town might want a bit more variety, and that not every restaurant is doing well, and give the town 30 or 35 restaurants.

Math is not the point of this project; reasoning is.  The numbers just give you a place to start, but they don’t have to be exact, and you don’t have to stick to them, so long as you can defend your decision.

Other places in town may include hospitals, theaters. grocery stores, convenience stores, clothing shops, appliance stores, …, police stations, train/bus stations, ports/docks, parks, religious centers, hotels, and of course houses and apartments.  Towns on the larger side might also include a mall and/or a sports arena.  Include whatever the students are familiar with and what makes sense for their town.  For each type of building, the groups should go through the same process of determining how many to include.

Finally, don’t forget to include whatever buildings support your primary industry / commerce specialty.  You might need to include certain farms, vineyards, mines, logging centers, factories, markets, etc. that other groups won’t include in theirs.


The part everyone has been waiting for!  Now that you know what to draw, it’s time to draw it!  Start off with the biggest features, like landmarks, rivers, coastlines, etc.  Then work on zones, then blocks, then finally buildings.  Buildings, by the way don’t need any details.  Just a simple rectangle (or whatever basic shape you choose) will suffice.  If there’s a lot of something – houses, for instance – don’t draw individual ones.  Just draw one shape for a whole neighborhood or complex.  For unique buildings, you should label them.  Everything in the middle (if you have multiple ones, but not too many) should probably be color-coded.  A legend off to the side will tell everyone that the green blocks are grocery stores, for example.

Consider including zones.  There will be several residential zones (these won’t have many details).  Much of the middle will be commercial zones.  You might have one industrial zone on the side.  And where’s the ‘downtown’ section of the map?  That would probably include government buildings, some entertainment centers, and a few popular restaurants (maybe a few popular stores as well).  At the very least, the separation between zones will tell you where some of the major roads lie.

Students will need to think about what goes where.  Which businesses would benefit from being on the river front?  Which ones should be on the outskirts?  Which things go together?  Where are the best places for monuments?  What buildings should go next to parks?  This is another time you might want to have a general discussion with the whole class before you encourage the groups to discuss specifics among themselves.

The map is about the town itself, not what’s around it.  If farms, forests, mines, or lakes are instrumental to the commerce specialty, there should be some indicator on the map that those things are off to the side and out of view.  Maybe students could draw just a small portion of some farms along the edges of the city, but they don’t need to draw that entire area.  If they want to, they can have a second map that’s zoomed out and includes the surrounding area, but that should be optional.

The task should be weighted so that all groups of students are putting forth the same amount of work into their drawings, regardless of the size of their towns.  This means that the smaller towns are expected to have more details on their maps.  The larger towns might want to focus more on zones, then off to the side (or on another sheet), draw a blow-up of just one of the commercial zones that shows the buildings that are included (then presume the rest of the commercial zones are comparable to that one).

Of course, maps are meant to be seen.  Don’t draw these on 8.5″x11″ or A4 sized paper.  Give the students something large to work with.


Once everything is ready, the students should present their towns to the rest of the class.  This is more than just “hey, isn’t our map cool?”  Consider the boxes on the top right of Wikipedia pages about towns and cities; that type of information could be included in the presentation.

Students should talk about what makes their town special.  What did they decide to include, and why?  Why would other people want to visit or live in that town.  Other students can ask questions about what was included, or how much of something was included.  How did the geography, history, and industry affect the choices made for that city?


bonus: Survey

An optional final section of the project (after the presentation) is for students to find out information about each other’s towns.  (This task could be done individually or in their groups.)  To do this, each town should come with an info sheet displaying all the things its group decided upon and included for each part of the project.  The maps and info sheets could then be spread out on tables around the room, if they’re not already up on the walls.

Give everyone a sheet with questions.  Their task is simply to find the answers by looking at all of the towns, then write down those answers and turn in that sheet.  Easy as that.  You could make it a race, or not.  You could make it a competition to see who got the most right answers (for the objective questions), or not.

The ones you include might be dependent on your class and the towns they made.  I recommend mostly objective questions, but you can include a few subjective ones if you like.  Here are some example questions:

  • Which town has the most apartments?

  • How many towns lie on a river?

  • Which town has the smallest population?

  • How many towns have farms around them?

  • Which towns are known for their entertainment centers (sports, performing arts, etc.)?

  • etc.


  • Students should be creative wherever they can, including when deciding their commerce specialty. Don’t just say your city harvests apples and manufactures smartphones. Try to think of something that’s unique and not overly popular. Maybe your town has a cool glass-blowing industry. Maybe they catch fish that are unique to their lake. OR maybe it’s the only town in the country that grows a significant amount of broccoli. Whatever it is, it should be something other students probably wouldn’t think about.

  • The town students create can certainly be inspired by the town they live in now and/or the towns they group up in. But it should be far from a replica; if you can easily identify the town it’s based on, it needs to be altered some more.

  • You could do a lot of research for this project, especially if you want your town to be more realistic. This could improve your classes researching skills, and they could really take pride in it once it’s finished. However, that will significantly increase the time spent on this project, and you may not decide it’s worth it. Maybe the students just aren’t excited enough to commit to it, or they’ll get bored too easily. So if you choose, your class can just come up with ideas and numbers on their own. But don’t let them go way off the mark or just be silly; again, they should be able to stand by whatever decisions they make.

  • As for determining the number of each type of building you need, that’s going to take more time than students are used to for map-based projects. But that’s okay, because this is meant to be a little different. If students are coming up with the numbers for each in just twenty seconds, they’re probably not taking it seriously. On the other hand, we don’t want them to take forever on a single building type. Once they get a feel for how to estimate the numbers, I’d recommend taking 3-5 minutes for each building type.

  • Needless to say, this project will take a while. This is why it’s a project and not just a map-drawing activity that lasts a lesson or two. Give your students time to do what they need to (but set benchmark deadlines to keep them moving).

  • Which aspects of this project require reasoning? Do those parts in class. That’s where their English skills are going to be used the most. Which aspects are more creative? Those can be done as homework.

An Alternate Twist

You’ve probably assumed that the towns should be modern ones.  That would make sense for most classes.  However, if it’s a part of your curriculum to study history and/or cultures, or if your students are simply interested in that, you can create historical towns instead.  It may be ancient, feudal, Elizabethan, or whatever.

Which places in town should you remove?  What are some ones you should add that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise?  How might your industry and commerce specialty be different?

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