The City Planners Poem by Margaret Atwood Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


Atwood explores issues of society, power, and the future in “The City Planners.” In these succinct seven stanzas, she paints a picture of a world destined to collapse and then be recreated. The city planners create crazy streets with well-constructed homes and roadways. The grass doesn’t grow since all of the rooftops face the same direction. Everything and everyone needs to be contained within a single, rigid box. However, Atwood’s speaker seems to be more attuned to this reality than others. She is aware that the foundation is cracked and that eventually everything will collapse and descend into the ground.

About the poet 

On November 18, 1939, Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, to parents who were originally from Nova Scotia. Her family relocated to Toronto when she was seven years old, but they stayed in the isolated northern regions of Ontario and Quebec during the warmer months to pursue her father’s research on tree-eating insects as an entomologist and zoology professor. This is the time when Atwood developed her obsession with the Canadian wilderness, and it permeates much of her writing. Her first day of full-time school was when she was eleven.


Margaret Atwood’s poem “The City Planners” has seven stanzas that are broken up into asymmetrical line groups. The first stanza has twelve lines, whereas the last stanza has only two lines.  


Stanza 1

Cruising these residential Sunday

streets in dry August sunlight:

what offends us is

the sanities:

the houses in pedantic rows, the planted

sanitary trees, assert

levelness of surface like a rebuke

to the dent in our car door.

No shouting here, or

shatter of glass; nothing more abrupt

than the rational whine of a power mower

cutting a straight swathe in the discouraged grass.

The speaker of “The City Planners” opens the first verse by portraying something that at first glance sounds delightful. On a Sunday, she is “Cruising these residential” streets under the “August sunshine.” It appears that doing this is quite appropriate and even calm. While the sun is typically associated with warmth and enjoyment, the Christian tradition notes that setting the picture on a Sunday symbolizes a day of rest and gratitude. 

When Atwood continues, “What offends us is / the sanities,” in the third and fourth lines of the verse, she establishes an intriguing juxtaposition. The speaker, the scenario, and the “we” she speaks for are all pretentious and insensitively rational. Everything is arranged in quite utilitarian and uninteresting lines. It is immediately evident that life is very boring and monotonous with no creativity. 

The trees are the sole signs of life or life that may be interesting but isn’t. She calls them “sanitary,” as though they have lost all of their intriguing, unrestricted, and organic growing forms. It’s simple to picture them, like the houses and streets, having undergone certain cutting and pruning. The speaker interprets their “assert / levelness of surface” as a challenge to reality, a “dent in our car door.” The use of “our” in this sentence indicates to the reader that she is speaking for both herself and the other person she is traveling with. The dent in her door serves as a reminder to her that nothing is ever completely perfect and serves as a sign of reality. 

The speaker describes how calm and “rational” the world is on this August day in the final four lines of this poem. It’s quiet in the suburbs. There’s no yelling, glass breaking, or other inappropriate behavior. The residents have made an effort to distance themselves from anything even somewhat disagreeable. The grass, according to Atwood, is “discouraged.” This is an odd way to talk about something natural, yet it makes sense when you think of the flat suburban environment and hygienic trees. The mower prevents the grass from growing. 

Stanza 2

But though the driveways neatly 

sidestep hysteria

by being even, the roofs all display

the same slant of avoidance to the hot sky,

certain things;

the smell of spilt oil a faint

sickness lingering in the garages,

a splash of paint on brick surprising as a bruise,

a plastic hose poised in a vicious

coil; even the too-fixed stare of the wide windows

With only ten lines instead of twelve, the second stanza of “The City Planners” is marginally shorter than the first. The word “But” at the beginning tells the reader that while she has characterized the world in this way, not everything in it will suit that description. She continues, saying that the roofs are all constructed with the same tilt and that the “driveways neatly / sidestep hysteria / by being even,” before explaining what she means. On the surface, everything in the world is arranged to keep people rational and under control. But the speaker’s obsession is precisely this. 

The other side of the story is revealed at this moment, which follows the semicolon in line five of the stanza. Even though everything appears to be well planned, the speaker is made aware of the fact that humanity is not easily controlled and schooled by a few small details. She describes the stench as “surprising as a bruise” and mentions a paint splash “on a brick” and “spilled oil.” This metaphor makes me think of how striking a bruise that is blue or purple on skin that is light in color. She could feel the paint smudge exactly like this.

The combination of the words “plastic” and “poised” in the second-to-last line is a nice example of alliteration. The coil of hose that is outside a house is described with these terms. The idea that the hose is a snake that is just waiting to bite implies that there may be more going on in this residential area. The residents may be just as insane as the speaker is because of their surroundings.  

This stanza’s final line personifies the house’s ‘large windows’ in a subtle way. They appear to be “too fixed” on one goal as they gaze out at her. 

Stanza 3

give momentary access to

the landscape behind or under 

the future cracks in the plaster

Both the third and the subsequent stanzas of “The City Planners” are composed of just three lines. The opening line of stanza three continues where the previous stanza left off, explaining to the audience how the windows give the speaker a fleeting glimpse into what’s happening beneath the surface. She can see “behind or under / the future cracks in the plaster” thanks to it. She is aware that the flawless façade that the city planners have constructed will not endure. 

Stanza 4 

when the houses, capsized, will slide

obliquely into the clay seas, gradual as glaciers

that right now nobody notices.

An enjambed line that begins in the second half also opens the fourth stanza. The speaker continues, saying that as the houses topple over and plunge into the surrounding ‘clay seas’, the plaster will break. The speaker implies that the houses and everyone living in them are doomed by comparing them to future sinking ships or glaciers. This way of living, so meticulously mapped out and anticipated, is unsustainable. It is inherently at odds with human nature. 

Stanza 5

That is where the City Planners

with the insane faces of political conspirators

are scattered over unsurveyed

territories, concealed from each other,

each in his own private blizzard;

Speaking of the “City Planners” mentioned in the title occurs in the fifth verse. Atwood compares their faces to those of “political conspirators” in a metaphorical way. They appear to be assembling some sort of political, immoral conspiracy, which does not imply that they are politicians. These people are dispersed over the globe, living in “unsurveyed territories,” each trapped in their “own private blizzard” and in search of something. In the final lines, snow is mentioned for the first time. In the next two stanzas, it reappears. 

Stanza 6

guessing directions, they sketch

transitory lines rigid as wooden borders

on a wall in the white vanishing air

The surveyors are unsure of their plans. Regarding something that will undoubtedly vanish, they are drawing “transitory lines rigid as wooden borders.” This is a beautiful simile that thoughtfully illustrates their attempts and the futility of attempting to control human nature and creativity. 

Stanza 7 

tracing the panic of suburb

order in a bland madness of snows.

“Tracing the panic of suburb/order in a bland madness of snows” is how the surveyors put it. With these final lines, the poem lets the reader wonder what might happen next. It does imply that this is the point at which the cycle recommences, with the creation of a brand-new suburb that is equally as insane and hygienic as the ones that collapsed and sank into the ground. This final paragraph completes the reader’s mental picture of the residential neighborhood by contrasting the “panic” and “order” of the planning. 

She uses the term “snows” in the last line. This would imply that she’s attempting to go beyond the boundaries of what is flawless and orderly and instead portray a progressive breakdown of structure. The snow and disappearing air in these last words might equally be interpreted as symbols of the climate catastrophe and a testament to the power of urban planning in promoting a green economy. 


The speaker of the poem opens by recounting a drive through a neighborhood of homes. Though at first everything appears tranquil, it soon becomes apparent that this is not the case. It drives the speaker nuts to look at the neatly arranged homes, roofs, and driveways. Though they are now rare, she occasionally sees glimmers of human nature piercing the city planner’s vision. They have a garden hose that is curled and some glob paint. 

The endeavors of the city planner to create a new suburb among the snowstorms of what may be read as climate change are shown in the second half of the poem by Atwood, which is even more symbolic than the first. They roam, sketching flimsy lines that appear to be wooden borders on pale, fading walls.