Whatever Happened To Classic Town IV: Welcome to LEGO City

When Minifigures arrived on the scene in 1978, we were presented with three settings: Castle, Town and Space – The Past, The Present and The Future. Through the 1980s, these themes developed in their own ways, fairly independent of each other. During the 1990s, we saw the themes diversify in different ways: Space brought us a new hyperfluorescent faction each year; Castle changed a little less frequently, but introduced an increasing amount of magic. In the meantime, Town diversified: no longer the sole home of contemporary lifestyles, we saw different themes split off, containing subject material based on the contemporary real world: Divers, Paradisa, Outback, Race, Space Port, ResQ, Team Extreme, and Sports. The ‘core material’ – which we first saw back in 1978 – police, fire and construction – became increasingly juniorized. Having been further dumbed down for younger builders with the introduction of Jack Stone, and other 4Juniors sets, we saw a return to more mature material with LEGO World City.

However, both the 4Juniors and World City themes featured alleged models of modern vehicles that bore minimal resemblance to the real-world equivalent. After the LEGO Group’s financial crisis, a number of themes were discontinued, and the company set out to return to its core business. A revitalised town theme was introduced – but things were on their way to being a bit bigger; expectations were greater: Town just wasn’t going to cut it anymore: we were presented with LEGO City.

Welcome To LEGO City

Part of the strategy at this point was to start with a limited range of subthemes, and expand on it from there: Fire, Police and Construction were all there in 2005. The following year, we saw the Airport, Harbour and Train subthemes enter the fray.

And then the City began to get a life of its own: vehicles, not specifically tied to one of these subthemes would start to appear, including haulers, recycling trucks and more. Shops and service centres started to appear. And in 2008, the final ‘regular’ subthemes appear: Coast guard – now feeling like it is offering a focus on maritime safety, rather than the paramilitary activity of Res-Q or World City; Cargo terminals offering both local (postal) and international logistics solutions. And somewhere along the line, rally cars return, racing across the carpets, blankets and doonas (duvets) of the world.

But I found myself asking a few questions:

  • Is there anything that defines the look of LEGO city?
  • Are there any points at which trends in set design change?
  • Does the way in which storytelling takes place change?
  • Is it really all police cars and fire stations?

Today, I will address these issues, and next time address some of the issues regarding the differences between LEGO City and LEGO town, along with the legacy of LEGO town.

The Look of LEGO City:

When minifigures were introduced, many elements were restricted in their use, to a specific core theme: wedge plates did not leave LEGO Space for many years; the angular wheel arches were almost a marker of LEGO Town. Colours were also restricted: Castle was initially yellow, then grey, brown and green; Bricks in space were blue and grey, with guest appearances during that first decade of white, while we saw transparent yellow, blue and green during its first decade (1978-1987). LEGO Town was, initially, primary colours, with black and white trim – grey was reserved for road plates.

However, if the LEGO Group was going to thrive during its recovery from the financial crisis, there would be a need for a greater cross-pollination of elements – scope for them to be used between themes, and some themes would still feature strong colour blocking, we would find some elements more frequently used in LEGO City.

I took a look at Brickset’s parts database, specifically the system elements introduced in 2005-2007: I then called up the initial sets that these elements appeared in. Some elements appeared in many different themes, some were restricted to just one or two in their initial release.

Here are a few of the moulds that were used primarily in LEGO City, during the first few years of their production.

Vehicles

First, a few elements that were responsible for the look of vehicles:

The mudguard (design ID 50745) is probably the element that single-handedly defined the look of LEGO City vehicles, more than any other. It has, to date (February 2022), appeared in 266 sets, of which over 150 have been in LEGO City. It has otherwise been used in Creator 3 in 1, Friends, and the LEGO Movie – where it was used in sets typically parodying LEGO City constructions.

LEGO City also saw the introduction of two new vehicle chassis: a 4×12 (52036), as well as a 6×16 (design 52037). These modified plates allowed for the development of new cars and trucks, where the trucks were (finally) wider than cars after almost 30 years. The other modified plate introduced (52038) was particularly used for the front end/grille of cars prior to 2012.

The 4x6x2/3 plate (52031) was introduced and was well utilised in truck roofs over this time. The 4x4x2/3 was introduced in World City a couple of years earlier and continues to be used as both a roof and hood element. The 1×6 with inverse slopes at each end (52501) appears predominantly in City over the next few years, although it is often tucked away inside the model, rather than contributing to the look.

We also get the elements required to put together a new motorcycle. The bike allows changeable fairings, which have subsequently given us street bikes, like this, and also dirt bikes for throwing on the back of a trailer and going away for the weekend.

Buildings

Moving forward in LEGO City, buildings gain a distinctive construction style: 1x5x6 panels replace bricks where possible, and large window frames are frequently employed, particularly one with multiple cross-beams.

The first police station released draws on the heritage from LEGO Town, using the same bay windows that were seen in 6332/6636 from 2009, and reissued in 2002. However, subsequent Police stations underwent a fundamental change in the way that their windows were arranged:

Airports

The arrival of the City Airport in 2006 brought us a new collection of elements, particularly dedicated to plane constructions; but I have to admit, I appreciate the call out to the 1991 Airport with the curved transparent elements.

In 2010 we saw a new nose introduced, which has featured in planes and helicopters alike; another one or two have materialised along the way.

Storytelling in LEGO City

In LEGO Town, children were left to create their own stories: most sets with policemen only included policemen, except in the 3 sets that included the felonious Jailbreak Joe. (we presume he was a felon, of course: we never really got to hear his backstory.) The Fire Brigade never saw a LEGO fire. And most businesses on the main street were devoid of customers.

The more I look at the sets released in LEGO City, there seem to be 3 phases:

  • Setting up the core theme (2005-2010)
  • Embracing side builds, and building in drama (2011-2018)
  • Building for LEGO City Adventures (2019-present)

Let me elaborate:

In the Beginning

In the first few years of LEGO City, the majority of sets include a couple of related characters: several policemen or firemen; a couple driving in a campervan, a few builders. Maybe at a stretch they would be people with different roles: Pilot and passengers; Medic and Patient; Station Master and Passengers/Railway Workers. The closest thing to drama would have been a solitary felon in custody in the prisoner transport van, or a polybag containing a burning oil drum and a fireman (7245 2008; 7997- 2007; 5613 – 2008).

During this time, we populate our city with workers, but they have nowhere to live. We also build a few garages (well, there are so many trucks and other vehicles in LEGO City).

2011 – Building for Story: Drama in a Box

In 2011, everything changed: the theme took a turn, emphasising storytelling in play: no longer did a police set come with a random criminal, but rather a speeding car, a bank or museum being robbed or even a hideout.

The fire brigade has a quiet year in 2011, but in 2012 they take to the forest and deal with flaming trees. The following year, they are constantly in action around the town: dealing with a dumpster fire, rescuing kittens, or even quenching the burning house.

As we move forward, we are not only gaining fire stations and the occasional coast guard base but also burning buildings, hideouts, and museums. Things that make cities an interesting place to be, and indeed building with which to fill the vacant lots of our town.

During this period, for example, you can see a consistent underlying narrative for a number of the criminals – with the characters developing between 2013 and 2020. You can read more about that development in this article from 2019 – although the character that I previously referred to as Slick has now been revealed to be Vito, in LEGO City Adventures.

Action Science

During this era, we also start to see regular ‘Adventure Science Themes.’ We have seen some of the in-house adventure themes – Adventurers, Power Miners, Atlantis – become less and less common, but we would start to see regular City subthemes, in specialised environments: the Space Port (2011, 2015, 2019, 2022); Deep Sea Divers (2015, 2020); Arctic (2014, 2018); Volcano Exploration(2016); Jungle Exploration (2017) and even Wildlife Rescue (2021). Some of these subthemes often reach close to science fiction, but provide great scope for storytelling.

In 2016, People packs were introduced: Boxes with around 15 minifigures, with a certain theme, as well as a few small side-builds. To date, we have had fun in the park, visited the beach and the great outdoors, trained for Space Flight and finally visited the fair.

As Seen On TV…

And then, in 2019, something odd happened: A LEGO City Minifigure got a name! Freya McCloud is the fire chief in the animated series, LEGO City Adventures. At this point, the team behind LEGO City has taken a leaf out of the book from LEGO Friends, Ninjago, Monkie Kid and Nexo Knights: designing sets around an animated series, having story-boarders and set designers in the same room to the plot out the year’s sets.

Now, I’m not sure how I feel about being told who my LEGO City figures are. It’s a tough call. I mean, yesterday it was Fiery McFire Chief, the day before it was Captain Blaze, but from this day forward, she will be Freya McCloud.

Over the following years, we have had more and more characters revealed: not only through fire and police departments but an increased cast of characters throughout the town: the handyman Harl Hubbs, Shirley Keeper- the city waste management expert, children Billy McCloud and Madison Yea and many more. During this time, we have also had an increase in the variety of businesses depicted in LEGO City. In 2022, we have finally been presented with a LEGO school.

During this period, a large police set (> 500 pieces) is just as likely to be a police car or some bandits and a bank as it is a police station. A large fire brigade set might include a fire engine and a burning building, OR a fire station.

We have also seen a relative increase in the number of large street scene sets, with multiple shops, as well as tourist hotels and tourist attractions, some of which aren’t even on fire or being burgled! Of course, we have plenty of sets where that might also be the case.

Hitting the Streets

You might have noticed that in the more recent sets, we have had a change in the type of road plate used: a new constructed, 2 plate-thick road-plates were introduced in 2021, and we have seen it utilised in at least eleven sets since then. In fact, more sets have been shipped with street elements in the last year than we have seen in the previous decade. Until recently, roads were printed on base plates, produced using a different production method. While the road plates are only recently discontinued, no form of baseplate has been used in a LEGO CITY set since 2011, with plates providing the foundations for buildings since this time. Base plates are still used with the Creator Expert Modular Buildings.

Improved Diversity

Released as a promotional figure in 2007, this is the first female figure to appear in LEGO City. She reappears in the 2008 Advent Calendar.

In the days of LEGO Town, most figures had their faces based on the classic smiley figure. Gender tended to be allocated by the children playing with them according to the hat or hair they were wearing, and their personal expectations.

Looking through the first couple of years of LEGO City we do not seem to have any figures specifically coded as female until 2007. There are a few figures where gender coding is ambiguous.

I have previously looked at the gender distribution of minifigures in LEGO City and followed it up subsequently. So, we can now add 0% female minifigures in LEGO City in 2005; up to 12% in 2012; 28% in 2016; 38% in 2020 (with a similar proportion of male characters). In the 2022 sets revealed to date, the proportion appears to be closer to 45%/45% with 10 % not clearly defined.

And while we have seen a definite increase in female characters in LEGO City in the last decade, we have, more recently, seen an increase in the number of children and older people; this has been helped along, in part, by the Minifigure people packs. Since 2016, these packs have included older and younger people, as well as introduced the first Minifigure in a wheelchair.

After this breakthrough in 2016, we have subsequently seen further characters with disability aids: a hearing aid, a variety of wheelchairs; and a seeing-eye dog.

What Makes LEGO City different to LEGO Town?

And so, we see that LEGO City has evolved to become a large and complicated space. No longer content to mask their emotions with a simple smile as they did in LEGO Town, we can certainly see some of the ways that LEGO City has evolved. But is LEGO City just an oversized, overdramatic version of LEGO Town, or are there other things that are different?

Is LEGO City Really All Fire Stations and Policemen?

But, when you look through any catalogue of new releases in LEGO City, you start to think that LEGO City is obsessed with firemen and police stations with more and more new fire and police sets appearing every year. But, is this a real or imagined effect?

I downloaded the set data from Brickset.com for both the town and city eras, to look at the number of sets released, as well as fire and police oriented sets. I broke the data down into 3-year eras (1978-1999;2005-2021)

There is a significantly greater number of police and fire sets released during the LEGO City (2005+) era. Does this represent an increased proportion of the sets released as a whole?

Yes it does: In the city era, we see that 31% of the sets released are either fire or police sets, as opposed to a total of 13% during the town era. Does this make the City a more dangerous place to live? Or does the evolution in elements and design techniques mean that the fire and police sets tend to be subject to more frequent ‘churning’ or refreshing, compared to the days of town, where models tended to have a longer shelf life? I suspect the latter.

Of course, both eras have had a higher number of police and fire sets compared with LEGO friends, which is still running at zero for both.

Where Do We Sleep and Shop?

One of the first MOCs that I ever built, back when I was a lad, was a house. The bricks’ colour didn’t match, it only had one door, and the windows may or may not have had glass in them. But the roof stayed on. I don’t know why that was important, because Minifigures did not yet exist. Unfortunately, there is no photographic evidence of this MOC today. But it does remind me of one of the characteristics of LEGO Town: an almost annual house of some description.

There have not been many houses released in LEGO City sets over the last 15 years. this worries me, in part because I don’t even need to look this number up; there have been 2, one in 2010 and another in 2021, both seen on the right. Now, compare this with the number of houses produced during the classic town era: There were 13 houses released in LEGO Town between 1978 and 1992. Plainly this is not a priority for ‘everyday life’ as defined by the LEGO City team.

However, plenty of houses have been produced – either in the city or country, under the banner of Creator 3in1

So, not only do we have a relative increase in emergency services, we also have a change in the proportion of sets depicting housing, shops, or tourist attractions, as illustrated by LEGO City’s affordable housing crisis. With this in mind, I had a look around at where else we have been seeing houses in recent years: Creator 3in1 is the obvious mainstay, with at least one, and occasionally two sets where the hero build is a house being released per year. Some of these sets do incorporate multiple-house builds. And they come with minifigures!

A fraction of the LEGO Creator 3in1 houses

And then, in 2012, another theme featuring ‘real world activity’ is released. Celebrating 10 years this year, LEGO Friends has brought us shops, homes, malls, holidays, and expeditions over the years. But let’s take a look at the number of reasonably detailed houses that have been released over the years. Some might be tree houses, but if they offer at least 3 walls and a roof, I am considering them to be a house for the purpose of this discussion.

Ultimately, there were 15 house sets released during the Town Era. During the City era, only 2 houses have been released under this label. There have also been a couple of tumbledown houses released as hideouts, or as buildings in the process of being burnt down.

27 houses have been released as Creator 3in1 sets since 2007 (not including their alternative models), while around 16 houses have been released in Friends since 2010.

Shopping, eating, having fun…

What about those other things we might do around town? Things such as schools, shops, garages, and cafes: In the town era, we saw around 1.7 shops/services per year. In LEGO City, the annual number is around the same BUT there is an increased number of sets each year in the City range compared with Town.

We do see an annual ‘Shop’ set in creator 3in1: should we consider these as one shop or three being released as a set? These sets use techniques that are perhaps more advanced than the typical LEGO City set, perhaps closer in style to LEGO Friends. We could also consider the modular buildings series, if we are looking to include other ‘city or town’ style builds, but these sets have often had an Olde Worlde appearance, feeling like they are set in the 1930s or 50s, rather than our contemporary LEGO City.

Sets featuring a number of shops- Main St, City Square and the like have been a feature of both LEGO City and LEGO town over the years. Perhaps there has been a slight trend towards a few more of these in recent years.

There are so many other places in LEGO City where we have not necessarily been presented with an ideal set – but we have been given plenty of contemporary characters to populate our LEGO City through the Collectible minifigures. These characters are also brilliant for providing inspiration for our own models in LEGO City.

In Conclusion

The focus of LEGO City has shifted from just presenting kids with a series of vehicles or headquarters for different organisations in the City, through to storytelling, with sets including multiple opportunities for dramatisation: be it fire, cops and robbers, the retail/hospitality experience, or exploring the world(s) around us.

During this time, we have seen fewer typical ‘Town’ buildings such as houses, and while standalone shops have been rare in LEGO City over the years, more recently, ‘Omnibus’ or ‘Grandma’ sets (you know, the ones so big that only Grandma buys them as a special present) have included a number of businesses to get your town up and bustling.

Housing, shops and amusement parks are also a frequent topic for builds in Creator 3in1 and LEGO Friends, and I think it is here that we will get a greater level of satisfaction than might be found looking in LEGO City for such builds.

I hope you have enjoyed this overview of LEGO City, and the things that make it different to LEGO Town. If LEGO City is anything, it is constantly evolving. The City of today has come a long way since 2005, and I am sure it will continue to evolve and expand. As the home of ‘Real World LEGO Stories,’ the sets have become more sophisticated, both in their construction and storytelling. The theme has been in the top-selling LEGO themes for at least the last decade.

One thing is for sure, as long as the theme is around, there will be police cars and fire stations on the shelves, along with other makings of a good story.

Until next time,

Play Well.

Coming up soon: Space!

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