Intersection in Chicago

Meet Your City: Read an Intersection

A person can learn how to "read" the built environment – including intersections – just like they can learn how to read a book. This activity guides you to observe details about an intersection of two roads, ask questions about the intersection, and consider the decisions impacting the way the intersection has been designed. Finally, this challenge gives you the opportunity to modify or redesign the intersection.

For more related activities check out the No Small Plans Educator Toolkit


How might you redesign an intersection to better meet the needs of the surrounding community?

In this design challenge you will observe an intersection of two roads, ask questions about the design of the intersection, interpret your observations and consider ways it could be designed differently.

Pick an intersection and define your unique problem to solve.

Collect Info

Go outside and observe an intersection. Any intersection of two roads will work for this challenge. Observe and document as much information as you can about what you see and how the space is being used.


Take 5-10 minutes to just look at the intersection. Work through the observation guide questions below. Talk about it with others to see what they noticed. Don’t forget to take notes!


  • How many people can you count at this intersection right now?
  • Is the intersection loud/busy or quiet/calm?
  • How many lanes of traffic run in each direction?
  • Is the intersection "labeled?" Are there any street signs or signs to let you know where you are? What kinds of information are on the signs? Are there informational or directional signs?
  • Are there any stop signs or stop lights?
  • Are you able to see any streetlights? How many can you count within sight of the intersection?
  • Does the intersection have sidewalks?
  • Are crosswalks marked?
  • Are there curb cuts or ramps to make it easy for wheels to cross?
  • Are there any trees or plants?
  • Are there any businesses? What types of things can you buy within sight of the intersection?
  • Are there any office buildings? Any public buildings or public services (like a school or library?)
  • Is there any housing? Are there any schools?
  • Do buildings sit close to the edge of street or are they set back?
  • Is there any public transportation?
  • Does the intersection have any bike rentals or bike lanes? How many bikes can you see here?
  • Are there any railroad tracks nearby? If so, are the trains for public (people) or for freight? Are the tracks elevated? Are they below ground?
  • In a heavy rainstorm, where would water go?
  • Is there any art? Describe it.

Brainstorm Ideas

What is the purpose of this intersection?

Buildings, houses, signs, streetlights don't grow on their own. Everything in the "built environment" represents decisions made by people.

This step of the design challenge asks you to think more about why the intersection looks the way it does, and to come up with some early ideas on what problems you could improve.


  • Who - or what - do you think this intersection was designed for? Who is best served by this intersection? (Pedestrians? Drivers of vehicles? Residents who live nearby?)
  • How do you feel standing at this intersection?
  • Do the heights and locations of buildings make the space feel enclosed and protected? Or do you feel out in the open?
  • Would you feel safe crossing this intersection? What if you were a child or a senior citizen? What is affecting whether or not you would feel safe? What if you were blind or deaf?
  • Do you think the stoplights, if any, give the pedestrians enough time to cross the street – or do pedestrians have to hurry?
  • Is there anything unique or special about this intersection? Does the intersection have any special aspects that relate to the specific location or community it is located in?


  • Make a list or sketch any issues that different people may experience at the intersection. Highlight any shared issues.
  • Spend 10-15 minutes discussing what you’ve observed with someone else. What did you notice that was the same or different? What was the most surprising detail you observed? What do you think the purpose(s) of the intersection is? Use the questions above to help your conversation.
  • Could the intersection be a "Great Place?" See what the Project for Public Spaces describes as a "Great Place" Research different great places and streets to get new ideas. Upload inspiration images and write about why you think they help make a better intersection.

Develop Solutions

If you were in charge of decision-making how would you change or improve the intersection?

You’ve identified some problems you could improve, now it’s time "redesign" the intersection. What could be improved about the intersection? Who would those improvements impact? Drivers?

Pedestrians? Residents? Choose a problem or a handful of issues you noticed and propose some possible solutions.

Be sure to explain why you made the proposed changes, what your decisions are based on and, especially, who those decisions will affect.


  • How do you think this intersection has changed over time?
  • Is there anything you would add or change about this intersection based on the specific community location?
  • If you could change one thing about this intersection to make it a more enjoyable place to be as a pedestrian, what would it be?
  • If you could change or add two things about this intersection to make it a more enjoyable, secure place for a neighborhood what would you change or add?


  • Take a picture of the intersection and print it out. Place tracing paper on top of the printed image, and use a marker to trace the main buildings and streets onto the paper. Then, in pencil, sketch in your ideas about how to improve the design. Make as many drawings as you need.
  • Show a few different solutions to someone else and get feedback on which solution they think would be most effective for addressing the concerns or problems you've identified. Did they give you any new ideas or help you choose a solution for your final design?

Final Design

Tell us about your solution to redesign an intersection to be a more enjoyable, safe and neighborhood-friendly place.

After getting some feedback, review your possible solutions and upload detailed media and text that will help describe and illustrate the intersection. You may want to include a photo of your intersection, a land-use or zoning map to better explain the area, or detailed sketches or digital renderings of your solutions.

How are other students solving this challenge? Take a look at the Gallery, review their work and share some feedback with them.


  • Review your design – does it solve the problem you defined in the first step of this challenge?
  • Do your design decisions for the intersection meet the needs of a specific community? Be sure to tell us about that community in this step.


  • Make a list of your ideas, sketches, and study models to help you write about your process and the unique solutions you developed. Tell us about your ideas and how you got to your solution.
  • Who is the local decision maker for the location of your intersection? Research what county, district or ward your intersection is in.
  • In Chicago, each ward has an alderman that you can talk to. Write them a letter about the problems you see at the intersection and your proposed solution.
  • Attend a local community meeting to talk about your intersection redesign solution and learn about how to get involved with projects in the neighborhood.

Keep the conversation going and continue to collect feedback from your peers, teachers and the online community to help you improve on your final design – or maybe see it become a reality...