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University President Lawrence H. Summers touts Harvard’s planned expansion into Allston as a way to propel this institution into the twenty-first century, and he is right. But some recently released tentative plans put forth at an administration summer retreat show some significant flaws.
There are certainly some positive elements in the plan. The much anticipated relocation of the School of Education and the School of Public Health to new campuses in Allston will strengthen and consolidate those branches of the University while freeing up some valuable Cambridge real estate. The construction of a new “science campus” in Allston will allow for expansion and coordination of research facilities that would not be possible on the north side of the Charles. And despite worries that separating science fields from one another physically might prevent their intermingling intellectually, the University has already “split the sciences” without any negative consequences. A great deal of basic biomedical work is done at the Medical School in Longwood, quite a commute from the University’s Cambridge core, yet save a few students unhappy with the bus ride to the Medical School library, few complain about a lack of academic coordination. Allston is a stone’s throw by comparison.
Yet the flaws of the plan are readily apparent and potentially crippling to the College community. Constructing undergraduate housing across the river—a surprise inclusion in these plans—would be a mistake for the University’s growth. Notions of girding the two campuses together by forcing hundreds of students to cross the river at all hours of the day is both practically and theoretically flawed.
The river itself presents a spatial divide between the two campuses, but even more of a barrier is the traffic on Storrow and Memorial Drives. While an Allston House might be about the same physical distance from the John Harvard statue as the Quad Houses, it is further in minutes and in mind. Imagine students taking a morning shuttle to class only to see it get stuck in the epic rush-hour traffic at the Larz Anderson Bridge. Imagine students drinking all night in Cambridge with their friends and then trying to cross Memorial Drive on their way back home. Students living in the Quad already feel separated from their peers along the river; an undergraduate campus spanning across two cities is just unreasonable.
Building a lively and viable campus in Allston requires a mix of housing and work places—University spaces and privately owned enterprises. As a center of graduate student life, Allston could be an unrivaled attraction that accommodates the needs of those pursuing advanced degrees. But relegating a sub-critical mass of undergraduates to the other side of the river separates them both physically and symbolically from their classes, social spots and the student body. A thriving campus cannot be built in Allston around students who wish they were somewhere else. Instead, Harvard must create a graduate center in Allston, and use the space freed up here to increase undergraduate opportunities in Cambridge.
If made as a graduate hub, the Allston campus will someday be a thriving center of life that rivals Harvard Yard. But if undergraduates are relegated across the river, the heart of the college—and the University as a whole—will be relocated at the bottom of the Charles River, and students living in Allston will be made to trudge back and forth to exile.
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