The geography of cities, particularly planned cities and capitals, are valuable historical documents that can be read to reveal what was important to a society, how the society saw itself in the world, what its priorities were and what it feared. This information can be seen both in the location chosen for cities and in the actual layout of the city plan.

Cities are created by humans. Therefore cities possess in human logic in their location and design of their buildings and streets. Decoding a city's logic gives powerful insight into the minds of the people who built it.

This unit explores methods of reading cities that are applicable to ancient Rome, imperial China, modern Boston or any city of any time or place.

Essential Questions

  • How is the location of a city chosen, particularly capital cities?
  • What expressions of culture can be "read" from city plans?

Learning Outcomes

  • Students will use historical and geographic data to determine the reasons behind capital locations;
  • Students will derive cultural information from city plans;
  • Students will compare cultures based upon information derived from city plans.

Unit Plan

  • Modules, Set A: Reading City Location
    1. Terracotta Clues: guided investigation into the logic of capital location. (1 day)
    2. The Migrating Jing: an illustrated essay employing several map forms and addressing the question "What is the relationship between capital location, political boundaries and population distribution?"(5 days)
  • Modules, Set B: Reading City Plans
    1. seeing CITY: i) guided questioning into the cultural content of city plans, ii) the creation of a schematic representation of cultural institutions based upon information derived from city plans and readings.(5 days)
    2. Building Chang'an: building a clay model of Chang'an from written descriptions of the city. (3 days)
    3. Reading Chang'an: guided investigation comparing Chinese and Roman cities. (2 days)
    4. Cities Alive: the Qing Ming scroll: guided investigation into the daily life of urban Chinese using artwork as a primary source.(2 days)
    5. City Planner: You: i) creating city plans as representations of a culture ii) comparing and contrasting cultural values by critiquing the city plans created in i) from the perspective of another culture.(2 days)


Imagine the year 5000 CE when archeologists begin to uncover the ancient city of Washington DC. Will they believe that every American community was built of bare, white marble and columns? Or will they assume that a colony of Romans migrated to North America and established a city-state here, surrounded by some other culture that lived in very different buildings?

Washington DC is unlike any other American city. But at the same time it is the most "American" of cities; it is the capital of the nation.

Cities, particularly cities like Washington DC (a planned city, a capital), are much more than simply places where people live and work. Washington DC was built to communicate. In its marble columns, its domes, its statues, even in the layout of its streets, and the land on which it was built, every detail was part of a giant symbolic language. In its stone and wood, Washington DC communicated what its planners believed America was about. It communicated the ideals of the nation.

  • For example, why is it decreed by law that no building in Washington DC can be taller than the Capitol Building? (examine a painting of old DC to see for yourself)
  • Look at a map of Washington DC. What building is at the center of the city? (This could be a trick question.) Look carefully, and think about the statement that the city planners were trying to make?
  • Look at a map of the United States. Why was the area along the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia chosen as the site for Washington DC? In fact, the site on which Washington DC was built was a swampy wasteland, overrun with malaria-carrying mosquitoes that no one had previously settled on because it was so unappealing.

In this unit, you will explore two methods of "reading" cities; looking at their geographic location in a country and looking at the layout of their streets. You will focus on cities of the Roman Empire and of Chinese empires. In particular you will look at Chang'an, the capital of imperial China for over 1100 years. By the end of the unit, you will have developed the skills to allow you to "read" cities from any culture and any time period, from ancient India to modern Boston.

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Maine Learning Result Analysis

The Maine Learning Results Social Studies standards contain three major areas in which the analysis of city geography is an appropriate and effective means for meeting the requirements of the Learning Results:

  • History C: Historical Inquiry, Analysis, and Interpretation
    Students will learn to evaluate source material such as documents, artifacts, maps, artworks and literature, and to make judgements about the perspectives of the authors...
  • Geography A: Skills and Tools
    Students will know how to construct and interpret locate and derive information about people, places, regions and environments.
  • Geography B: Human Interactions with Environments
    Students will understand and analyze the relationship among people and their physical environments.

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