Planning at a third grade level

Activity books seeks to make urban planning accessible to kids


Westminster City Urban Planner Sean McCartney’s latest creation had two sources of inspiration: Spongebob Squarepants and the National Park Service.

A few years ago, when he was working for the City of Louisville but living in Arvada, McCartney was asked to give a presentation to his daughter’s third grade class about what he, as a City Planner, did.

He relied on the goofy yellow cartoon character to make his point.

“I used him to show how a city grows, because I knew they could relate to that,” he said. “And it just blew them away. I had a flip chart that showed them how the city grows. I started with the eyes being the city center and it kept growing out and eventually it became Spongebob. The outline of Spongbob was the boundary, the eyes were the city center and the mouth was a drive up into the mountains.”

His talk was a hit with the kids and the teacher, and he’s been invited back each year since.

“I began thinking I really needed some characters of my own,” he said.

A few years later, he and his family visited the Grand Canyon and he took notice of the Park Service’s Junior Ranger program.

“While they are visiting, they get an activity book, you go through and learn things and then you get to be a Junior Ranger,” McCartney said.

He presented his idea to his new bosses at the City of Westminster and they gave him the green light. And the City of Westminster’s Junior Planner program was born.

The program consists of a 16 page coloring and activity book featuring two characters, Cleo Cow — “COW” is city planner shorthand for the City of Westminster — and Sam the Squirrel.

“A squirrel is always moving and always storing and planning for the future,” he said. “It seems to be one step ahead of everything else — except for a car, I guess — but they are always moving and reacting quickly and that’s how I think of my planning career.”

It covers the gist of what a planner does from an elementary school perspective, from reading maps to designing and using site plans and growth. It also covers issues planners must consider, like transportation, signs, landscaping and storm water drainage.

“What a city planner does involves a lot, so we have to know a little about a lot,” he said. “Whatever development comes into the city, we have to understand transportation, we have to understand drainage and we have to understand the impacts on all the existing uses.”

It also includes a glossary of urban planning terms and definitions useful for adult residents as well.

“I wanted to get them using the right terminology,” he said. “I was thinking I wish there was a way we could start them earlier in the process and show them what it is a planner really does.”

It ends up encouraging the kids to create a flyer to promote some aspect of community service, from raking leaves to shoveling snow.

Finally, it ask the kids to take an oath as a Junior City Planner.

“Once the book is completed, they give it to their parents, and then they get a sticker based on the shield you see on the front cover,” he said.

He passed the book around his colleagues in Westminster’s planning department as well as a few elementary school teachers for opinions, advice and suggestions.

McCartney said he initially printed 200 copies that were distributed to area schools or given out at Westminster City Hall. He’s eager to print more and also has a digital version and a teacher’s guide he can send to area schools who would like to include it in their curriculum. So far, Adams 12 schools, a Thornton STEM school and some home school parents have begun to use the book.

“I was originally thinking we could do an app, but then I started talking to the third grade teachers,” he said. “But we agreed that giving a kid a hard copy gave them a sense of ownership. This is theirs. And it gives everyone the opportunity. You don’t have to have internet to use it. We wanted it very much to be accessible to everybody.”

Educators in the Westminster area can contact McCartney at or 303 658-2095 for the teacher’s guide and information on incorporating the book into their curriculum.

He said he’d like to expand the book to older students next.

“We might have them do a development plan,” he said. “We could give them a raw piece land and give them as much information as we can — what the surrounding land uses are and what the city needs — have them design what they think would work there, with roadways, parks and land uses. That’s what I have in mind for middle schoolers.”

He said he’s also offered his services to other city divisions to help explain their services to Westminster students.

“Right now I’m working on place mat for our stormwater group that we could give to local restaurants,” he said. “It could give a little more information about what storm water is and how to protect our streams.”


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