Campus & Community

GSD students troubleshoot local problems

5 min read

‘Elemental, redemptive’ thinking produces a variety of solutions

Back in March, at Cambridge’s King Open School, Matthew Gillen and José Terrasa-Soler asked fifth-graders how to make the city a nicer place to live in.

The two are among 11 students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) who put in months of similar fieldwork, starting in January. From interviews with local students, families, politicians, and others emerged “101 Urban Salvations.” The intensive studio project proposes visionary solutions for Cambridge, a racially and economically diverse city of 100,000 known for its famous universities.

From the King Open youngsters, the complaints rolled in: People are too loud, there are too many cars, the streets are too dark, and the rats too bold. Riding a bicycle is risky. Summers are boring.

Gillen asked the class of 20, “How many people want to live in Cambridge when they grow up?” Two hands went up.

Fast-forward to last week (May 11). On the ground floor of Gund Hall, the walls of a small classroom were plastered with Photoshop summaries of the finished proposals; “101 Salvations,” though keeping the name, had morphed to 107 ideas for improving Cambridge.

“Some are tiny, and some are gigantic,” said studio instructor Margaret Crawford, a GSD professor of urban design and planning theory.

On the tiny side was a series of “street fashion” ideas, she said, including mini-malls and small boutiques, and even a ban on plastic bags. (“Tote in style,” read one proposal, by student Ruth Silver — inspired by the fact that Americans use 84 billion plastic bags a year.)

On the gigantic side, for one, was a proposal to create an “emerald bracelet greenway” surrounding Cambridge, and connecting bike trails and green space. Another proposal suggested building rooftop additions on commercial property, adding density to existing buildings that, by law, can be as high as 55 feet. The bonus to Cambridge from this “unclaimed air space”: 1,600 new housing units.

Most of the ideas, said Crawford, are “elemental and redemptive,” including one of her favorites: a grocery store in Harvard Square.

Final proposals fell into interrelated thematic groups. Those with a Charles River theme drew the lowest number of “salvations” (four), while sustainability drew the most (28).

For a greener Cambridge, students proposed electric car outlets, urban orchards, a city environmental master plan, partylike blackouts (to save kilowatts), and health clubs that generate electricity from cardio workouts.

Other thematic groups included winter (six proposals), economic development (seven), and youth (10). Fun and public space drew an equal number of salvations (eight). Universities and transportation had 11 each.

Biking was a big part of visionary transportation ideas for Cambridge, including a continuous bike path, and dedicated bike lanes on Massachusetts Avenue.

Just outside the Gund Hall classroom, on a sunny patio, GSD student Leah Murphy pedaled a propped-up bicycle to power laptops. While traffic buzzed past a few yards away, people lounged in the shade on chairs, or circulated at the drinks table. “There need to be more (outdoor) places in Cambridge that are like a living room,” said Gillen. “More small-scale intimate spaces.”

Gillen’s own proposals included a public pool floating on the Charles River, a winter hot tub club in Cambridge Common, and a Harvard Square dog run.

Murphy, who pedaled in her Harvard University Cycling Association gear, proposed the urban living rooms idea. She also called for industrial heritage tours, bike lanes, and better intersection sight distances for drivers. With things are they are, she said, a bike commute can be “very scary.”

Terrasa-Soler wrote up proposals that add more green roofs in Cambridge, cut city emissions to zero, install more solar power, and use vacant land to site little urban forests. “They provide a different spacial experience,” he said.

Zheng “Jay” Chang, who arrived at GSD with degrees in economics and architecture from his native China, proposed a variety of changes for Cambridge, including more food trucks, rooftop farms, and bank lobbies transformed into “e-zones” with laptops and Japanese-style vending machines.

Some of the proposals may be too expensive or too far-out, said Chang — but the interviews that led up to the proposals were a valuable listening tour for urban designers and planners. “The most important thing,” he said, “is to try to understand the city from different points of view.”

The May 11 event included points of view from eight jurors. They studied the “101 Salvations” ideas and provided commentary for the assembled GSD students.

“There’s a whole level of information here that doesn’t appear anywhere else,” Crawford told them.

Author and architecture journalist Tracy Metz, a GSD Loeb Fellow who works in the Netherlands, praised the students for their “inspiration and freedom of thought” — and Crawford, for taking on Cambridge as a project site instead of “going to Dubai.”

She liked the interview process that inspired all the ideas. “It’s learning how not to think top-down,” said Metz, “and working from the bottom-up.”

Afterwards, with a drink in her hand in the outdoor living room, she said the salvations were often simply about bringing pleasure back into a city environment.

That’s what GSD student Sandy Hussain had in mind. Three of her ideas ended up in the “fun” category: Floating a party barge in the Charles River, for instance, or installing mobile dance floors. “The concept is about the urban beach,” said Hussain, who was inspired by the P.S. 1/MoMA Warm Up outdoor music series, held every summer in Queens. “The physical environment is so fixed. It’s time to play a little bit.”

She added: “Cambridge needs that.”

James G. Stockard Jr. L.F. ’78 — one of the jurors at “101 Urban Salvations” and curator of the Loeb Fellowship Program — was prepared to hear a lot of “pie-in-the-sky ideas” about improving Cambridge. But he was surprised.

“Some of these are extraordinarily doable,” said Stockard, a onetime commissioner with the Cambridge Housing Authority, who called the studio a first for Harvard.

For one, “I love all of the sustainability ideas,” he said. “They should happen tomorrow.”