Campus & Community

Allston life

7 min read

Spaces part of larger campus, community


birdseye view of
The Allston Life Task Force developed a range of major alternatives, presented within a set of four frameworks, intended to help guide the physical planning for Harvard’s development in Allston. (Photo courtesy of Harvard Planning + Allston Initiative)

To many at Harvard, the Charles River was thought to be a potential impediment to creating an expanded campus in Allston. But according to members of the Allston Life Task Force, “The main obstacle is not the physical distance, but the psychological experience of traveling between Cambridge and Allston.” The river, in other words, is now seen as the likely heart of one larger campus.

Tackling the challenge of integrating the two communities, the task force looked

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into aspects of campus life that would enhance the general campus character in Allston. They divided their inquiry into four subcommittees, on culture, transportation, housing, and retail. A core committee had the job of bringing together the work of the subcommittees and creating an integrated set of options for Harvard in Allston.

“In some meetings we encouraged blue-sky thinking,” said Dennis Thompson, professor of government and chair of the University Physical Planning Committee, who also chairs the Allston Life Task Force. “We found that some of the ideas that seemed visionary at the beginning turned out to be more realistic than we expected – a new kind of tram or a new pedestrian bridge, for instance. In other meetings we made a point of concentrating on more mundane questions – such as, Where will undergraduates get pizza at midnight? We included both kinds of options in our report, recognizing that some of the more visionary ideas may be practicable only in a longer time horizon.”

“We obviously weighed many factors in our evaluation of options,” said George Baker, Herman C. Krannert Professor of Business Administration, a member of the Allston Life Task Force, and chair of its Transportation Subcommittee. “Chiefly, we looked at the tangible and especially the intangible benefits for the University, the Allston community, and the region.”

The result was a range of major alternatives, presented within a set of four frameworks, intended to help guide the physical planning for Harvard’s development in Allston.

The four frameworks offer a range of thinking:

Allston Quads, which would favor a clustered and campus-oriented design with the ambience of a traditional residential college.

Allston Yard, which would mix university activities somewhat in the style of Harvard Yard and have a campus orientation.

Allston Square, which would support a cultural and commercial campus that clusters uses and focuses more on the city.

Allston City, which would both mix uses and integrate activities with the broader community, creating the most urban ambience.

The task force did not propose adopting any of these frameworks in its pure form, but instead saw them as guides for combining the many different elements that must go into planning for Allston life.

The task force also outlined three different scenarios for museums, performing and visual arts, transportation, graduate and community housing, and retail, representing a range of ideas, from modest expansion of current programs to much more ambitious visions.

The museums and performing and visual arts in Allston could include the relocation of the space-strapped Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH) as well as new performance and practice facilities for dance, theater, and music students, or, it might entail the construction of a museum complex including elements of the HMNH, Peabody Museum, and Harvard University Art Museums with a major performing and visual arts facility.

“We found that the development of the Allston complex provided important opportunities to overcome the constraints of space that had severely restricted the ability of some groups to develop,” said Joseph Bower, Donald K. David Professor of Business Administration and chair of the Culture Subcommittee. “This was particularly the case for performance in dance, drama, and music. Opening up the space constraint was liberating. Of course the challenge of finding funds remains, but the new space means that some severe problems facing the performing arts at Harvard may be overcome.”

Josh Basseches, executive director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and an ex officio member and staff to the Culture Subcommittee, sees the Allston development as an opportunity to plan the future of the museums. “Most of these museums were founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and we need to plan for the museums of the 21st century and beyond. What was most exciting was that the museum directors realized that this was an opportunity not only to fulfill the missions of their own museums, but to cut across existing boundaries and create new opportunities to enhance the museums’ teaching and public outreach missions,” Basseches said.

Basseches indicated that an exhibition space, for example, might provide deeper perspectives on the natural world, humankind, and art by juxtaposing or integrating collections and approaches from Harvard’s different museums, which now happens infrequently.

Transportation improvements could be made with enhancements to the existing streetscape, improvements in the existing shuttle systems to Cambridge and the Longwood Medical Area and better pedestrian crossings, perhaps new bridges, or it could be light rail, monorail, or aerial gondola, though the task force noted that because of the level of expected trips, the high costs and low net benefit for users, various rails were a less attractive option.

“The physical distances between Allston and the Harvard campus in Cambridge are actually quite modest, and foot travel is inevitably going to be the fastest, most pleasant, and healthiest way to get around campus,” said Edward Glaeser, professor of economics and vice chair of the task force. “But current pedestrian routes are less attractive and less developed than they should be. As such, the Transportation Subcommittee was particularly interested in developing pedestrian routes that were attractive, fun, and safe. In particular, the committee highlights the importance of improving river crossings, perhaps by building a new, environmentally sensitive bridge.”

“With well-chosen plans, Harvard can really help to shape this section of Greater Boston for decades to come; this is a very exciting prospect,” said Baker. “I will give one example, from my work on the Transportation Subcommittee. Right now, most people who work at Harvard live north of the Charles River, in communities like Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, and points west. With development in Allston, this could change. In order to make this possible, various kinds of regional transportation options, such as improved transit connections to the T and to the Framingham Commuter Rail Line, must be considered. While it is hard to predict how significant new development in Allston will affect regional commuting and residence patterns, these types of considerations were a part of what we weighed in our committee.”

All options are likely to include housing. Allston housing for the campus community could simply be the addition of 700 new beds to help Harvard reach its goal of housing 50 percent of its graduate students if those needs aren’t met in Cambridge. Or, the University could add as many as 3,500 graduate student beds added and distributed among Allston, Cambridge, and the Longwood Medical Area. In any of the options, community housing is an important priority.

“Graduate students prefer to live within walking distance of their departments and laboratories,” said Peter T. Ellison, John Cowles Professor of Anthropology, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the task force’s Housing Subcommittee. “Providing affordable housing for those who will be associated with the Allston campus as part of the overall plan will help to create a round-the-clock community similar to that in Cambridge. Greater availability of affordable housing will also make Harvard a more appealing place to pursue graduate study.”

Retail activity, according to the report, “has the potential to transform the quality of life for those who live both on the expanded Allston campus and in the community surrounding it.”

“Just as it is hard to imagine Harvard without Harvard Square, it would be hard to imagine Allston without a complementary mixture of retail activity,” said task force member Jerold Kayden, Frank Backus Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design. “Retail makes a place both exciting and livable.”