Designing Your LEGO City Layout

Layout Design, Step by Step

In a previous article, we covered design tools for LEGO layouts. Now we'll walk through a step-by-step design method that you can use to create a LEGO city that makes sense and is fun and challenging to build. Here's an overview of the steps in this article:

  1. Draw out the space available using your design tool of choice
  2. Decide on general areas: water vs dry land, use zoning, etc and sketch in on your plan
  3. Decide on roadway width and construction method, sketch in roads on your plan
  4. Decide on train track and monorail routes and train width standards, sketch in tracks
  5. Decide on road, track and water levels and mark bridges and slopes where necessary.
  6. Draw up an accurate plan and adjust roads and tracks to fit
  7. Decide on specific building locations and sizes and write in on your plan

Here are more detailed notes on the steps:

Land Use

Towns often have waterways in or close to them, and they provide us with plenty of scope for fun models and details. What kind of water or waters-edge features do you want to include in your town?

  • Sea
  • River, stream or creek
  • Lake
  • swamp or marsh
  • waterfall or rapids
  • Canal
  • lock
  • Dock or quayside
  • Beach
  • Cliff
  • Pier, seawalk or promenade

Real towns have ways of arranging their various parts so that they don't interfere with each other, usually by some kind of zoning. That way you don't get the steelworks next to the daycare, and the all-night disco next to the seniors' home!

We can arrange our Lego towns any way we like, but it can add an interesting extra dimension, especially for towns in a realistic style, to include some kind of zoning. We usually don't have enough space to spread things out as much as the real thing, but we can group things in a way that makes sense.

What kinds of groupings could be included?

  • Industrial - heavy and light
  • Commercial - high density ("downtown" style office blocks)
  • Commercial - low density (small offices, local shopping centres and malls)
  • Residential - high density (apartments, hi-rises, townhouses, row houses)
  • Residential - single family houses
  • Parks and open space
  • Transportation: roads, waterways and railroads and their infrastructure, along with airfields of various kinds.
  • Institutional buildings like schools and churches are often found in residential areas, and hospitals are often on the edges of commercial areas where they join residential areas.
  • Agricultural

Roads

LEGO standard roads have in the past been designed for vehicles which are 4 bricks wide. Many builders like to make their larger vehicles like trucks, fire appliances and machinery, 6 bricks wide. More recent LEGO set vehicles are 6 studs and even 8 studs wide, and newer road plates have wider roads to accommodate them. Roadway width also varies with the use of the road: freeway/motorway lanes are wider than the lanes on a country road.

There are several methods of making roads.

Most people use the Lego road plates of various kinds, either with grey or green base color. Grey is better for downtown or industrial areas, green for suburbs or countryside. Although older roadplates are no longer available new from LEGO, many people own them from previous years, or you can sometimes buy them used. Don't forget that LEGO makes T and X junction road plates as well as straight and curved ones. LEGO also now sells a new design of green road plates which have wider lanes on the road and narrower studded borders, suitable for 6-wide vehicles. There are other baseplates which were used to build sets on, which make good parking lots, bus stops, etc. This variety of road plates gives you scope for including different types of roads in your town.

Road plates work best when you don't use them directly back to back, but insert one or two rows of plain plates (with buildings on, usually) between the roads. This gives you a lot more space for building.

Road layout with space between

Road layout without space between

There are other ways of making roads that give you more flexibility than the road plates. You can use black or grey bricks on their sides to make a road surface, using yellow or white plates built into the middle to make road markings. This allows you to have wider roads, even multiple lanes each way, to accommodate 6-wide vehicles, and to build parking lots and intersections wherever you need them. However, it's hard to build curves, it does take a very large number of black or grey bricks, and you need to build up the sidewalks either side to be above road level. Now that TLC sells black 2x2 tiles in bulk via Shop at Home, you can also make road surfaces using these. Again you get more layout flexibility, but your road markings (yellow or white tiles) will look rather wide and it takes a LOT of black tiles. Both of these road making methods are particularly good for surfacing roads on bridges. You can also get elevated road plates from set 6600 Highway Construction which are great for bridges or multi-lane highways.

Non-LEGO road making methods and materials are also available, including cardboard or paper, or painting your tables grey and using the table surface itself.

Sketch a layout for your roads to give appropriate access to the land and water use areas you sketched in earlier.

Elevation Changes and Bridges

It makes a big difference to the look of your town if you can include different levels (of road, rail and water). Of course this involves slopes and bridges. Slopes are relatively easy to construct in train track by raising each section a little higher using plates and bricks underneath the track. LEGO train motors can usually handle 2 plates of height gain per track section, depending on how many cars your train engine is pulling. Try not to have slope changes and direction changes (curves) starting in the same place, to reduce the probablity of derailments. Sloping roadways are a little harder: using regular road plates you can end up with your buildings standing at a funny angle! Brick-built roads or elevated road plates are easier to make slopes with.

Some possibilities for bridge building:

  • Elevated road plates as in 6600 Highway Construction
  • Stone arched viaduct/bridge using lots of grey bricks and arches (can also be built in red to represent a red brick viaduct)
  • Girder bridge using Technic beams (can be a lift or swing bridge)
  • "Wooden" covered bridge as used in Eastern N America
  • Footbridges
  • Concrete bridges
  • Suspension or other large bridges

One thing to watch out for with bridges is alignment at the two ends, especially with train bridges. If you're building a bridge which will be permanently in place you can get this right once and forget it, but with a removable or movable bridge this is a critical design point: you need a method of accurately locating the bridge ends in the same place every time.

Trains

Towns are often built around or on a train layout. What is the prupose of the train tracks in your town? Is there a passenger or freight depot? A container yard? Dockside tracks? If the train goes round and round on a small town layout, can you hide part of the track to disguise its circular nature? How do roads cross the track? Grade crossings work much better on straight track where you can use tiles and/or sloped panels to bring the road across the track. Will there be crossing gates and lights?

More issues with trains are:

  • Clearance around the tracks, especially on curves. The wider and longer your train cars are, the more clearance you need.
  • Space taken up by the curves
  • Awkward-shaped areas left over around curves and switches

Clearance is critical: test with the longest and widest train cars you'll be using, on multiple track shapes (especially S-curves) to see exactly how much space you need to leave on either side, then leave a bit more! If you'll be using 8-wide trains instead of the LEGO-standard 6-wide, your clearances will need to be greater.

Trains take up a LOT more space than you'd think! A single track can turn through 180 degrees in 30" width (three baseplates), but if you have more than one track running alongside each other, curves will take up a lot more space. Use Track Designer to lay out your tracks: it's remarkably accurate and will give you a very good reality check on how much you can fit into a space.

Filling in the awkward shaped areas around curved and angled track can be done in several ways:

  • buildings with curved sides
  • groups of small buildings
  • parks
  • farm fields
  • a building which completely covers the tracks
  • mountains

You can make fencing which follows the track curves using flex tubing mounted on posts made from 1x1 bricks and 1x1 plates with clips. If you plan to automate your switches using motors or pneumatics, design little buildings to go over the mechanism - but watch out for clearance!

Train-related buildings like passenger stations, freight houses and engine servicing facilities need to be integrated into the track and road layouts so they end up in positions that make sense. You may want to design the track layout first and then arrange your roads and "zones" around the train building positions. In real life, this happened when a town grew up around a railroad, but railroad buildings introduced into existing towns sometimes ended up in inconvenient places!

Make sure you can reach all your tracks from somewhere, whether that's the edge of the layout or a popup hole in the middle. Derailments will always happen in the one unreachable spot! This goes double for switches. Think too about where you want your tracks in relation to the buildings and scenery. Along the front of the layout is good for viewing rolling stock, but it can look better (and the train journey look longer) if some of the track disappears behind things and pops out again somewhere else.

Monorail

LEGO produced a series of monorail sets in the 1990's, for Town and Space themes, and they make a great addition to your city if you can find them secondhand. Monorail can be easier to integrate than train tracks because you can run it above ground level so it can go above or through buildings instead of around them. What is your monorail intended to do? Connect downtown with the suburbs? Train station with the airport?

Design issues for monorails include vertical clearance where the monorail passes over train tracks or roads, and support positions: watch for supports landing in the middle of roads or train tracks. You may have to build small support bridges for certain positions in order to clear items below the monorail track. Make sure the direction controls at stations or ends of track are reachable: you can extend them upwards using a technic axle if you need to pop them out through a roof.

Draw up an accurate plan

At this point you have a lot of items sketched in, but it's very hard from a sketch to tell if things will fit, especially if your town involves trains. You really need to do an accurate drawing using your method of choice.

Landscaping

Not every part of your layout needs to be buildings or transport systems! Don't forget to include fields and forests, mountains and rivers, seas and beaches.

Building locations

Now you can identify locations and sizes for specific buildings and write them on your plan.

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