At-Home Learning From the National Building Museum, Week 2: Understanding Your Neighborhood

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Each of us plays a part in creating better communities. When you learn about the variety of people that shape communities, you become a more responsible citizen. You can learn how to affect issues in your own neighborhoods, including housing access, traffic, pollution and waste disposal, and transportation options.

You can work with your friends, families, and community members to solve problems at every scale. But first you need to have a good understanding of what is actually happening in your neighborhood. Use the information and activities below to explore and record important information about the makeup of your neighborhood.

Land Use

There are general categories, or types, of buildings that are the building blocks of towns and cities. City planners call these types of land use. See an example of a land-use map of central Washington, D.C.

  • Residential buildings (the yellow areas on land-use maps) are places you live, like an apartment building or a townhome. Can you name another kind of residential building?
  • Commercial properties (red) are places you buy and sell things, like grocery stores, clothing stores, and other kinds of shops. Can you name another commercial building?
  • Institutional properties (blue) are places you learn, get assistance, or receive government services, like a school, hospital, or post office. Can you name another institutional building?
  • Industrial building (represented by purple) are places that are transportation hubs, like airports and train stations, and places that make or process things, like factories, power plants, and recycling facilities. Can you name another industrial building?
  • Public spaces (green) are places you exercise and enjoy nature, like parks and nature preserves. Can you name another public space?


Mixed-use is when you have more than of these uses together in one building or area. One example is a building with a grocery store on the first floor and apartment units above it. Or a neighborhood that includes a combination of these elements: houses and apartments; commercial uses like a coffee shop, dry cleaners, or grocery store; institutional uses like a school; and open space like a park.

What is a benefit of having mixed-use spaces?


What is the land-use make up of your neighborhood? What do you have near your home? What is missing? If you can safely walk around your neighborhood, take a stroll and make a community resource map. You can record some or all of the following information about your community:

  • Land-use categories of buildings and spaces
  • Places people gather
  • Neighborhood boundaries
  • Traffic flow or dangerous places on streets
  • Locations of public transportation options
  • Green spaces and public parks
  • Pedestrian flow, how people move
  • Density (how many people live in a building); an apartment building is denser than a rowhouse, for example
  • Nature (trees and animals)
  • Styles of architecture


If you are not able to safely walk around your neighborhood or want to learn more, use these resources to go on a virtual visit.

Share your community resource map with your family and friends. Did they identify something you missed? Or did they discover something new about their neighborhood?

If you have children under 5, here are some are some ways to explore your neighborhood with them.

Next week’s activities will give you advice on how to talk with people to understand what challenges and opportunities there are in your neighborhood.

Week 1: What Is Design?
Week 3: Identifying Neighborhood Challenges
Week 4: How Would You Change Your Neighborhood?