MOBILITY, A Green City: Past, Present and Future

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Urban Planning

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Technology

Lesson Time

2 hours


The development and design of North American cities have influenced our mobility and interaction with urban spaces for centuries. From the horse drawn carriage, to the trolley car and modern subway system, transportation has played an integral role in our lives and societal development. But how has the development of the modern city and its transportation systems influenced our local and regional environment? What are some past and current trends that we can look to as solutions for congestion, air pollution and inefficient automobile technologies?
Subway cars developed a lot over the twentieth century.  In the images above, one can contrast the differences between a car produced ca. 1910 (left) and one that was produced within the last decade.
Designers, architects and urban planners are facing unprecedented challenges to efficient public transportation, expanded highway infrastructure and new urban planning designs that are bike and pedestrian friendly. Oftentimes constrained by cost, size and material choices, designers are looking to the past and to future innovations to help address some of the challenges that congest our cities and make it hard to get around. In this lesson, students will consider some historical perspectives of city development and planning alongside an analysis of transportation systems past and present. Students will be encouraged to reflect on designs from the past and create new designs for the future.  They will use design-thinking strategies to creatively problem-solve and communicate new ideas for the future of transportation in city settings. This lesson compliments Social Studies standards that include US History and Geography.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects Strand  Reading for History/Social Studies Grades 6-8
United States History Level III (Grade 7-8)
Standard 16. Understands how the rise of corporations, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed American society Benchmark 4. Understands differences in commercial farming in various regions of the United States (e.g., crop production, farm labor, financing, and transportation in the Northeast, South, Great Plains, West; the significance of farm organizations) Benchmark 5. Understands various influences on the scenic and urban environment (e.g., how rapid industrialization, extractive mining techniques, and the "gridiron pattern" of urban growth influenced the city and countryside; environmentalism and the conservation movement in the late 19th century) Standard 26. Understands the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II United States Benchmark 2. Understands the immediate social, political, and economic impacts on America after World War II (e.g., the economic and political effects of demobilization and reconversion; the growth and impact of opportunities in the service, white collar, and professional sectors in government and business; the growth of the middle class) Geography Level III (Grade 6-8) Standard 18. Understands global development and environmental issues  Benchmark 3. Knows how the quality of environments in large cities can be improved (e.g., greenways, transportation corridors, pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes) Science Level III (Grade 6-8) Standard 9. Understands the sources and properties of energy Benchmark 11. Understands the origins and environmental impacts of renewable and nonrenewable resources, including energy sources like fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas)  ays, bicycle lanes)
Technology Level III (Grade 6-8)


• Students will explore transportation and mobility in cities throughout history.
• Students will consider how various modes of transportation in cities affect human health, the functionality of daily life and the local environment.
• Students will integrate urban design, city planning and innovation into a new vision of transportation infrastructure for the future.



Pencil, scrap paper, poster paper, markers, glue, scissors, maps


• Sustainable transport (or green transport) - A concept, an ideology and, in some countries, a governmental policy that consists of strengthening or replacing the current transport systems of urban or suburban areas with more fuel-efficient, space-saving and healthy lifestyle-promoting alternatives.
• Urban, city and town planning - Integrates land use planning and transport planning to improve the built and social environments of communities.
• Personal rapid transit (PRT), also called personal automated transport (PAT) or podcar - A public transportation concept that offers on-demand, non-stop transportation, using small, automated vehicles on a network of specially-built guideways.
• Fuel Efficiency - The number of miles a vehicle gets per gallon.
• Eco-Driving - Practices that drivers can adapt to optimize their automobile fuel efficiency.
• Clean Energy Vehicle - A vehicle that uses efficient fuel sources that produce little or no exhaust emissions.
• Emissions - Waste substances released into the air or water, most commonly greenhouse gases such as CO2.
• Biodiesel - Fuels made from plant-based materials such as soy and corn.
• Congestion Pricing - A policy used by most major cities to reduce traffic and congestion in the center of cities by taxing those who use cars in designated areas.


The History of U.S. Cities (Review - 10 minutes)
Choose a historical starting point to discuss the relationships between urban planning, transportation and the development of modern cities. This can be looked at through historical markers in World or U.S. History. For example:
• From Trails to Roads – Discuss the development of road infrastructure between the 13 colonies and the mid- and late-1600s.
• The Horse Drawn Carriage – When was the horse drawn carriage used primarily in the United States? What kinds of road modifications were necessary for these new vehicles. How long did it take to travel between major cities like Boston and New York in a carriage?
• The Locomotive and Manifest Destiny - At the beginning of the 19th century, rivers, canals and horse-drawn coaches were the options for moving people and goods within the country. Railroads enabled an efficiency and carrying capacity that had never been seen before. They linked different parts of the nation, carrying people, raw materials and agricultural products. The "Best Friend of Charleston," the first steam powered train, carried 141 people six miles on its initial run in 1830.
• Robert Fulton’s Steamboat – The Steamboat changed how waterways were used. Rivers like the Hudson became transport and trade corridors allowing people to travel longer distances in a shorter amount of time.
• The Model T – By the early 1900s, Ford’s Model T had changed the transportation industry making the ownership of a car affordable and possible for many Americans.
• The Highway – By the 1950s, highways had stretched across all 50 states. How did the highway system increase and encourage car usage?
Choose some historical events to discuss and help students better understand the roles of urban planners and designers. Urban, city, and town planning integrates land use planning and transport planning to improve the built and social environments of communities. If possible, ask a local urban planner to come visit your classroom and talk about what he/she does.
Discuss the urban planner’s role as a designer and as a liaison between architects, city officials and citizens. What kinds of issues do you think they deal with on a daily basis and throughout their service to a town or city? In many ways, urban planners must be excellent listeners, considering the needs of local citizens while balancing the needs of businesses, industry and our environment.
End your discussion by asking how urban planning is connected to the word sustainability or the environment? How do these two concepts intersect? Explain that urban planning is intimately concerned with the natural and built (or man-made) environment. In many ways, almost all of the decisions a city or urban planner makes are related to the environment because our roads affect water quality, air quality, climate change and land-use among many other environmental issues. For instance, every time we use a car that needs gasoline or other fossil fuels, we are discharging emissions and greenhouse gases into the air. When new roads and highways are built, vast amounts of natural resources are consumed and habitats are compromised.
To enrich this lesson, look at the Smithsonian’s past exhibition, “On the Move” which chronicles the history of transportation in the United States, complete with excellent online learning resources that provide activity ideas and images for students to look through.
Inside the exhibitions online portal, you will see the Smithsonian’s cycle collection, which began in 1889 when J. Elfreth Watkins, curator of transportation, accessioned a velocipede.
As a great research extension, assign teams of students to investigate one time period covered by the exhibition:
1. Transportation in America: Before 1876
2. Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876
3. Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895
4. A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900
5. People on the Move
6. The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s
7. Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903
8. Americans Adopt the Auto
9. Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927
10. The People’s Highway: Route 66, 1930s–1940
11. Roadside Communities: Ring’s Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s
12. Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s
13. On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939
14. Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949
15. City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s
16. On the Interstate: I-10, 1956–1990
17. Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960–1970
18. Going Global: Los Angeles, 2000
Making it Local (10 minutes – Investigate)
After discussing some historical connections, investigate local urban planning and design initiatives in your area. "What is the history of the road and transportation infrastructure in the area?"  "Is there a train station nearby? Subways? Just highways?"  "Are there any future plans?"
Use local maps to discuss how design and transportation affects your local community. Make sure to present this from the student’s perspective – perhaps as a passenger in a vehicle, as a bike rider or pedestrian. "Is it easy for you to walk from home to school? To downtown or a local market?" "Why or why not?"
Make a list of local transportation concerns on the board. Encourage each student to write down a story about getting around the local neighborhood or community. What is it like traveling to and from school, from sporting practices to friends' homes? Have each student write down one story about traveling. Ask each student to share their stories by talking with a partner and creating maps of their journey that help to illustrate the story.
As a research extension, ask each student to conduct some individual research about the region. Each student or group of students should begin by investigating local information about major transportation projects and considering the modes and needs for transportation in the area (ie. local access roads, farm to market roads, interstates, public transportation for commuting, bike lanes, etc.).
Environmental Impacts (5-10 minutes - Frame/Reframe)
After delving into local issues, take this opportunity to divide students into design teams. Have each team begin thinking about their findings from the previous discussion or research they conducted. Discuss with students some of their stories about moving around the region. "Can you begin to see any patterns or relationships emerge?" "Are there problems with, or potential solutions to, the transportation system in your area?"
Ask students to consider some environmental impacts that are current problems facing many communities around the country:
• Air Quality – Cars contribute a great deal of air pollution to a community.
• Greenhouse Gases/Climate Change – Most cars use petroleum based fuels which consume fossil fuels and release greenhouse gas emissions into the air.
• Land Footprint – Roads, highways and other infrastructure fragment habitats and natural areas like swamps, meadowlands and other fragile ecosystems.
• Water Quality – Runoff from roads impacts water quality nationwide.
After talking about these issues, relate them to your own community. What kinds of water and air quality issues may stem from how your transportation system is organized? What about land use and gas consumption?
Follow this up by ending with a discussion about some positive trends that are beginning to address these major issues including:
• Fuel Efficiency - To reduce CO2 emissions, automakers are continuously improving automotive fuel economy through the adoption of advanced technologies that ensure more efficient engines, drive systems, reduced air resistance and lighter vehicles.
• Smoother Traffic Flow - A measure that increases traffic flow by alleviating congestion and upgrading road infrastructure contribute greatly to CO2 reduction.
• Clean Energy Vehicles - Automakers are actively promoting the expansion of hybrids and other clean-energy vehicles that run on alternative fuels such as electricity, natural gas and liquid petroleum.
• Improving Air Quality - Automakers and manufacturers continuously develop new technologies for further reductions in tailpipe NOx emissions (that’s nitrogen and oxygen which equals nitrous oxides) and PM (particulate matter, i.e. small particles like dust and soot).
• Hazardous Materials - To reduce the environmental impact of automobiles by trying to use more water-based materials to replace the glues and paints used in most vehicles.
• Recycling - Cars have a lot of really useful parts, so before they get thrown away, sustainable designers are developing ways to recycle major parts of vehicles. The metals, glass and plastics of used vehicles are a great source of raw material that can be reused in any number of ways.
After presenting some of these environmental concerns and solutions, talk with students about a design challenge each team will have to complete. Each team will be presented with an urban planning and transportation scenario set in different areas around the country. Students must reflect on historical and future transportation issues in that region and come up with a design solution that addresses local environmental concerns while attending to the needs of the community.
Green City Design Lab: Part One (10 Minutes – Generate)
In this section, students will engage in a collaborative design lab to think about ideas for a green city that considers transportation issues in relationship to the local environment.
Before beginning your design lab, talk with students about an example of an innovative planning and transportation solution being developed by MIT from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum 2010 National Design Triennial.
MIT CityCar - Conceived by the Smart Cities group of MIT’s Media Lab, CityCar is a stackable, two-passenger electric vehicle for urban areas where users swipe a card and take the first fully charged vehicle at any charging station. Vehicles being returned are stacked and electrically recharged. When folded and parked, CityCar is only five feet long, and three to four cars can fit into a traditional parking space. It is designed for start-and-stop urban traffic, and the wheel robots allow the car to spin on the spot. A sophisticated electronic information and management system is envisaged to control the supply and demand of cars in its network of sites. Although the CityCar must still operate on congested urban streets, the vehicle provides a non-polluting, noise-free, energy-efficient, and convenient alternative to current modes of short-distance travel.
After discussing this example, ask students to identify some of the environmental problems being addressed by this new system and concept.
Now break into design teams. Discuss the role of a transportation planner in this design challenge. How can a transportation planner use design to engineer and motivate solutions that will impact your community and larger region?
Talk about some of the potential solutions that transportation engineers and designers are using today:
• Planners can choose more environmentally-friendly materials for infrastructure
• Planners can be inclusive of pedestrians and bicyclists when redesigning roadways
• Planners can think more critically about multi-use corridors and spaces that are not just for cars but also people
• Livable streets – planners can integrate road architecture that slows down traffic and improves the quality of street life
• Buffer zones – planners can create buffer zones with trees and native plants to absorb air emissions and runoff areas that help to filter runoff from road surfaces.
Each team will be presented with a scenario. For example:
New York City
• Past – NYC has been a leader in public transport for centuries, but in the 1950s a man named Robert Moses proposed many controversial road projects that fragmented and transformed many NYC neighborhoods and landscapes.
• Present – NYC has nearly 9 million residents. Subway, roads and pedestrian ways are at full capacity, yet more people are expected to move to the city’s already crowded island. The city also has the 2nd poorest air quality in the country and very few incentives for bicyclists or public transportation users.
• Future – How can NYC become more bike-friendly or expand the capacity of its public transportation system? How can the city reduce the number of cars and commuters that clog its streets?
Birmingham, AL
• Past – Birmingham used to be an industrial city with lots of trade. Many roads however would flood because of major storms and their proximity to nearby rivers.
• Present – Because of disrepair, many roads have large potholes and roadways near the river basin have been closed.
• Future – How can Birmingham reclaim space along riverfronts around the city? Can native plantings and ecological planning help? What would a redesigned riverfront look like for bicyclists, pedestrians or cars?
Sheldon, Ohio
• Past – Sheldon was once a farming town of 3,500 residents. Most of the roads were state funded county roads and farming byways.
• Present – Now a suburban center outside of downtown Cleveland, Sheldon’s population has tripled in the past 20 years. The city has not been able to plan for proper flow of traffic, pedestrians or for bikes. Traffic jams, congestion and many parking lots fill the city.
• Future –  Citizens of Sheldon want to make their city walkable and bike friendly. What would a transportation plan look like to help Sheldon achieve this?
Green City Design Lab: Part Two (10 minutes - Edit and Develop)
Allow each team to brainstorm, sketch and think through solutions to their scenario. Encourage students to think about historical and contemporary issues in transportation to help them with their designs.
After brainstorming, allow each team to draw a map and description of their transportation plan re-design on a larger piece of poster paper.
Each team should present their ideas in addressing their scenario to the class. If time permits, set up a community board in the classroom to evaluate each design. (Share and Evaluate)


  Reflection Questions
  • "Do you think large cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles could exist without systems for mass transportation?" " Why or why not?"
  • "Can you think of any materials that might be more environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional black top road pavement?"
  • "Based on what you’ve learned today, what methods could you use to make local transportation cleaner?"

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • Use the America On the Move Classroom Activity Guides to help students better understand how transportation shaped America in the 1880s, 1920s, 1930-1940s, 1950- 1960s, and 1970-2000s. The guides include photography, maps, activities, primary sources, and guiding questions.
  • For hands-on learning fun, students can play the America On the Move online games while discovering the history of American transportation.
  • Ask student groups to write stories, poems or skits about transportation challenges they are familiar with in their own community. These transportation challenges can become the catalysts or scenerios for their design challenge. Groups should present their stories, poems or skits along with their design solutions to the class.
Differentiation for High School:
  • Students can do individual or group research on one of the different environmental problems communities are currently facing related to transportation–air quality, greenhouse gases/climate change, land footprint, water quality–as well as some potential solutions. This research should be presented to the class and made available to classmates through an online blog.
  • As part of their design solution, each design group should address at least three of these four environmental challenge categories.
  • Recruit three adults to act as city mayors for each of the design scenerios. They can act as the "clients," conducting interviews with the design teams, and listing more specific needs and constrains for their cities. Design teams must address their client's needs and constraints in their design solutions.
  1. This is actually a current topic of public concern in my area as public bus stops running at 6pm. To have a lesson that frames the topic is helpful for teaching students.

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