Bringing Allston to the Classroom

Design School students point their T-squares towards the Charles River

When James Stockard started work as an urban planner, he thought all he needed to know about a neighborhood in order to draft a construction plan was its average income and price of a home.

“I very quickly learned that that was not the case,” he says.

As he watched the creation of slums during the urban planning revolution of the 1960s, he realized that incorporating neighborhood identity into planning visions is critical to their success.

In a new class he co-teaches at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), Stockard, the curator of the Loeb Fellowship in Advanced Environmental Studies, asks that his students apply this urban planning philosophy to local communities.

One group of students will focus on Allston this semester. For them, understanding Harvard’s presence in the area and how it interacts with the community—the future site of University’s new more than 200-acre campus—isn’t a casual interest: their grade depends upon it.

And for Harvard planners, whose proposal to build a new art museum in the area was stymied this month in the face of community outcry, Stockard’s teaching may prompt valuable lessons.

A ‘GOD-LIKE’ VIEW

Stockard said he hopes the 11-person seminar, called “There Goes the Neighborhood: Perceptions and Realties of Neighborhoods and Neighborhood Change,” will lead students to move beyond traditional statistics and ask questions about the social, economic, cultural, and political forces at play in communities.

“We think that the broader focus will lead them to better intervention strategies,” he said. “We hope that our planners will be more knowledgeable and ask more questions than I did when I started doing this.”

Trying to understand the people who live in neighborhoods makes good planning sense, especially because solutions to local problems can depend on more than building design, according to Toni L. Griffin, who co-teaches the GSD course with Stockard and has worked on planning initiatives in Washington, D.C.

“Sometimes your intervention is not a development intervention,” she said. “It may be something that’s much more social in nature.”

After conducting field research about the neighborhood’s identity for the semester, students in the class—which takes its title from Harvard’s Geyser University Professor William Julius Wilson’s work of the same name—will present strategy reports, outlining what planning intervention, if any, is necessary.

“Much of planning has this kind of God-like view from above,” said Jonathan Schifferes, a graduate student in the course. “This was very much trying to understand people as well as places.”

NEIGHBORHOOD IDENTITY

The students focusing on Allston said that understanding Harvard’s presence in the area constituted a large portion of their research. They noted that the University’s expansion has already had practical effects there and said their classification of Allston as “transitional emerging” could be attributed to Harvard’s influence.

“I think the presence of Harvard is a lot of the reason why it is ‘emerging,’” Cynthia M. Chu ’07, a history concentrator, said, although she added that Allston falls more towards “transitional.”

In urban planning terms, “transitional” designates neighborhoods that are experiencing structural changes and “emerging” implies an improving image, rising property values, and better public utilities.

The group also said that Harvard’s pending expansion had sociological implications, arguing that it would be enough to “canonize a neighborhood identity.”

The Brighton-Allston Heritage Museum opened its doors for the first time in February, and the area—also the target of expansion by Boston University and the Caritas St. Elizabeth Medical Center—is home to numerous grassroots organizations like the Allston-Brighton Green Space Advocates and the Allston-Brighton neighborhood assembly, in addition to the Mayor-appointed Harvard-Allston Task Force.

Eric S. Gordon, a student in the Business School and one of the students in the Allston group, pointed to the rapid rate at which Harvard was unveiling its plans to the community to explain the creation of neighborhood solidarity.

“They’re faced with a new reality,” he said. “Suddenly their neighbors aren’t who they think they are and now they’re expected to respond to that situation.”

HARVARD AS AN URBAN CAMPUS

Following Stockard’s logic, understanding and integrating Allston’s identity into their plans should be a critical concern of Harvard planners as they work out the kinks of the master plan, an official document presented to the City of Boston in January that broadly outlines the University’s vision for the next 50 years.

Over the past decade University officials have met regularly with residents in an effort to incorporate the neighborhood into the planning process, a process that generated the North Allston Neighborhood Strategic Plan in 2004.

But Allston residents have accused the University of not adequately addressing the neighborhood’s interests and abandoning the framework laid out during those discussions. They say the University sees residents as an obstacle to be overcome, not serious partners who can contribute to the process.

Before taking the course, all of the members of the Allston group said that they had little or no knowledge of the neighborhood.

“I’ve always thought of it as an isolated bubble in Cambridge,” Chu said. “I’ve never thought of Harvard as an urban campus.”

Although the group has two months before they must submit a proposal with advice to Harvard planners on the expansion process, all of the students said that the easiest way to ensure successful development would be to improve the University’s relation to community residents.

Gordon said that the University had to “do better than just being fair and transparent” in its negotiations.

“They have a lot to make up for, like the way they purchased land,” said Chu, pointing to one of the most frequent criticisms of Harvard’s presence in the neighborhood. “That’s something that people mention all the time.”

University officials have defended their real estate practices in the past by stating that Harvard is a private entity without a legal obligation to disclose its activities. But Schifferes said that tax-exempt institutions are still accountable to their host communities.

“Those institutions, whether legally or not, are expected to serve a public interest,” he said. “That’s what gives them that status.”

Whatever the impact the University will come to have on Allston, Schifferes noted that how Harvard achieves it goals may be more important than the end result.

“Harvard will get a campus, a good campus whatever the process,” he said. “But the main way to get people behind or at least accepting of the expansion is to make them feel like they matter.”

—Staff writer Laura A. Moore can be reached at lamoore@fas.harvard.edu.