Can A Graphic Novel Teach Teens To Care About Urban Design?

The new book No Small Plans is designed to close the civic education gap by encouraging young people to get involved in their communities.

In 1911, the businessman Charles H. Wacker published a children’s textbook based on the 1909 Plan of Chicago, which proposed a set of urban design projects to improve civic space. For decades, the textbook, known as Wacker’s Manual, was required reading for eighth graders in the city.


Inspired by Wacker’s Manual, the Chicago Architecture Foundation has now created a graphic novel about the past, present, and future of the city. The goal: to help teach Chicago area teens about what role urban design plays in their lives–and the role they play in shaping their neighborhoods. The three-part graphic novel, called No Small Plans, follows teenage characters as they discover how they can influence city planning in 1928, 2017, and 2211. With art by the studio Eyes of the Cat Illustration, each mini story is divided by historical interludes about the urban planner Daniel Burnham, who wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. At the end of each chapter, there is a map of all the places that the characters visit–all real locations in the city.

[Photos: courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation]
The idea is to inspire today’s teens to consider why the city is the way it is and how it has influenced their lives, asking questions like: Who is this city for? Where is development coming from and how does it shape neighborhoods? Most importantly–how do I get involved and make my voice heard?

“If you read it, and asked that question, we would have already been successful,” says Gabrielle Lyon, the vice president for education and experience at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and coauthor and creative director of the No Small Plans project. “The first thing that has to happen is somebody has to wonder, ‘What can I do?'”

[Image: courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation]
Lyon hopes to get the graphic novel into the hands of 30,000 young people in Chicago over the next three years–about the number of eighth graders in the city. An already overfunded Kickstarter has proven there’s enough energy to get the project rolling, with backers coming not only from the Chicago area but from as far away as London and Singapore. If the foundation reaches its stretch goal of $50,000, it’ll be able to provide free books for 5,000 teens this year, with the novel being published in July and launched in schools this September.

Fundamentally, Lyon says that No Small Plans is combatting a lack of access to civic education in school. She points to research that suggests that a dearth of civic education can be just as profound as a lack of access to high-quality math and reading instruction. While the state of Illinois mandates some kind of civics education in public schools, it’s often left until the end of schooling, and focuses primarily on government: how laws are made, and systems of checks and balances. For Lyon, No Small Plans is a tool to help teachers both discuss how local government works and engender a sense of community responsibility–caring about the common good and believing that it’s possible to make change.

“When you have young people of color, kids that are poor, who don’t have access to discussions, access to activities, they don’t vote as much, they’re less likely to contact any representatives about issues that actually affect their lives,” she says. “Young people are already urban planners. They understand what works and what doesn’t. They just don’t have the language for it, and they don’t have the platform for meaningful work.”


[Image: courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation]
The other part of the initiative is a series of workshops with teachers, starting with a pilot program of 20 to 30 teachers in the Chicago school district and 80 public libraries. Lyon plans to develop an extensive teacher tool kit to go along with the thousands of free books they hope to give out.

The project began in earnest in January of 2016, before Trump’s election, and the themes of the project weren’t influenced by the changing political landscape. But Lyon believes that No Small Plans is even more relevant under the new administration.

“The context has changed in a lot of ways. But if you’re young and black and living in a city, it may not have changed that much at all,” she says. “We need this now more than ever–equipping young people to ask questions about who decides and who gets to decide.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.