Putting the Al in Allston

While Gore speaks, Harvard unveils an Allston revision—and green space takes centerstage

Last week, Tercentenary Theatre was decked out in Commencement fare, festooned with large banners proclaiming that “Green is the New Crimson” in an effort to welcome home eco-wonk-cum-movie-star Al Gore ’69, shown above in classic Uncle Sam pose.

But lost amidst the glitz of Harvard’s sustainability efforts was a more meaningful step forward that took place a few hours after Gore’s speech and a few hundred yards to the south: the unveiling of Harvard’s revised master plan for Allston. While the new plans certainly have their issues, the revision reflects a desire to make green space the hallmark of the future campus. “The new plans are such a demonstrable example of thinking of how important the land is and how important nature is,” says Kathy A. Spiegelman, Harvard’s chief planner for the Allston initiative. “To take what was once marshland and reclaim it is such powerful and exciting idea.”

For some time now, eco-consciousness has imbued Harvard’s plans for the Allston campus. But the better known aspects of its plan—notably, the deal between Harvard and Massachusetts to put a pre-emptive cap on carbon dioxide emissions from the new campus—have focused more on macro environmental policies. The newest revisions focus less on these innovations, which rely heavily on out-of-sight technology, and more on creating a natural aesthetic that interweaves natural elements more tightly with the future campus. In order to accomplish this aim, the plan focuses on improving interconnectivity throughout Allston while increasing open space, hiding unsightly infrastructure, and even leaving room for an urban farm.

The future campus’ “streets are very much designed for people—people on foot,” according to Michael Vergason, a landscape architect on Harvard’s master planning team who describes the campus as having “a fine texture or network of circulation that provides a variety of ways to get to the same place.”

In terms of open space, the new master plan will also have a greenway, which will run through the neighborhood and extend to near the Charles, and allow for the construction of several small parks—moves that Vergason says will “bring a significant measure of nature back into Allston.” But less glamorously, the plans also take heed of the intersection between visual pollution and the ecological sort, making use of techniques to hide less-than-aesthetically-pleasing infrastructure in order enhance the impact of the campus’ use of open space. Adam Gross, a design principal at Baltimore-based Ayers Saint Gross, one of the architecture firms that Harvard has hired, says that of the 45 different colleges campuses he has worked with around the country, Harvard has made the best effort to hide its utilities. “You’re not going to see big mechanical equipment sitting around next to buildings,” he says. “It’s all going to be below ground.” Other utilitarian buildings will also be hidden from view: the new campus will not “have a lot of above-ground, ugly freestanding parking garages,” Gross says, “but will rather have significant parking structures underground covered over with green spaces.”

By building over existing development and replacing at least some of it with green space, the University’s construction is the rare project that will actually increase open space. The idea for an urban farm—which Gross admits “may seem a little farfetched”—takes the idea of creating an open campus to a new level. The plan follows Yale’s Sustainable Food Project, which operates a farm at the north end of the university’s campus; like at Yale, Harvard hopes that its farm will produce food for its dining halls. Vergason says that the combination of the farm, the greenway, and the small parks will “create an urban forest,” one that can “improve the quality of the environment and go a long way to returning natural systems to their ecological functions.”

Of course, Harvard’s revised master plan is still plenty controversial—at a meeting of the Allston task force on Monday, residents peppered Harvard’s planners with requests for more detail, leveling criticism at some of the things that Harvard has proposed—such as building two additional roads through the neighborhood—and at things that it hasn’t—anything concrete for what it wants to do with the Holton Street Corridor.

But even at the Monday meeting, which was tenser than most, nary a negative word was voiced about Harvard’s plans to make the future campus greener and more open. And that, as Harvard’s planners have learned, is about as positive a response as one can hope for.



—Staff writer Nan Ni contributed to the reporting of this story.