As a rule, Harvard students have a vague understanding of the mysterious project that is Allston. Many see it as an expensive pipe dream that pits the Harvard administration against angry Allston residents, Veritas signs against pitchforks. But for a select few environmentally minded students and faculty, the Allston plan is something more than a debate over Harvard imperialism: it is an opportunity for Harvard to establish itself as the leader in sustainability.
Ashley M. Mannetta ’09 and Elizabeth R. Shope ’09, co-chairs of the group Sustainable Allston, have striven to implement their vision of an eco-friendly campus since their arrival in Cambridge. Both environmental science and public policy concentrators, the two seem united in their efforts to attain sustainability. But during their interview with FM, Shope was suprised to hear that her co-chair is also a sophomore.
“Why does everyone think I’m a junior?” asks a perplexed Mannetta.
“Maybe you just seem too well-versed in the system,” Shope answers.
Mannetta isn’t the only one who’s getting into “the system.” The initiative to make Allston environmentally friendly has led students to seek a high degree of cooperation from the administration. A campus-wide discussion that includes students, faculty, and administrators has tried to make a “green” Allston a top priority.
“It’s a lot stronger for them to hear from students,” Mannetta says. “[And] they really do care what we have to say,” Shope adds. “Especially as undergraduates.”
A GREEN SYSTEM FOR CHANGE
Christopher M. Gordon, chief operating officer of Harvard’s Allston Development Group, echoes the importance of student involvement. “I don’t think anybody on my job could say ‘I’m going to ignore the environment,’” Gordon says. “Luckily, I happen to like the green side of it.”
Lucky indeed. Sustainable Allston was founded in the fall of 2003 by two Harvard College students and two students from the Graduate School of Design. Their message was simple: get students, alumni, and community members to send e-mails to former University President Lawrence H. Summers, advocating sustainability in Allston.
“While a lot could be done at the level of the house and individuals, what was really needed was institutional change,” says co-founder Zachary D. Liscow ’05.
Their first big break was a meeting with Summers in Dec. 2003. The meeting was a mild success, if not a bit inconclusive in its efforts to move “sustainable Allston” from a concept to a real objective.
“We intentionally never had specific policy prescription because we understood that coming in with specific plans was likely to be rejected,” Liscow says. “When a group of students come to an administration asking for something, making their lives more difficult, you expect resistance.”
Perhaps Liscow has a point: While it’s generally agreed that trees and polar ice caps are good to have around, environmental issues tend to bring hefty initial price tags. As Boas Professor of International Economics Richard N. Cooper says, “We do have competing uses for the funds, so you want to be sure that when you save energy you do it in a cost efficient way.”
But Sustainable supporters are quick to point out the long-term economic benefits of going green.
“The payback time is very short,” insists Stefan Behnisch, the Stuttgart-based architect of the future Allston science complex. “If you save 40 percent energy, it’s huge and that’s where we’re headed for.”
COPPING OVER THE GREEN
Some sustainable supporters even insist making a green Allston wouldn’t cost much more than building it the traditional way.
“It can cost you money if you run the process a certain way,” says Visiting Scientist Leith J. Sharp, director of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative. “But if you do it through integrated design, and you have the commitment integrated into the project from day one, it is actually possible not to increase any capital cost.”
But even if it were a little cost-heavy, Harvard could probably afford it: even Gordon admits that Harvard’s got the green to make this project happen.
“Harvard can take a long-term view,” Gordon contends. “Some developer making a shopping mall might not be able to do it, but Harvard can.”
One of Sustainable Allston’s biggest supporters was Summers, whom Liscow refers to as “surprisingly receptive.” But sustainability seems to have outlasted the Summers regime: Gordon calls President-elect Drew G. Faust “very enthusiastic” about sustainability. “If everybody keeps rolling the ball in that direction,” he adds, “we’ll be able to get something done.”
One of those ball-rollers is Behnisch, who is among the most prominent sustainable architects working today. He’s built dozens of sustainable buildings, including the Genzyme office in Kendall square, where he says “the feedback has been very positive from employees and staff.”
“It’s about enabling people to experience the seasons,” Behnisch says, referring to the lavish window gardens and green roofs that bring a year-round tropical feel to his buildings. And of course, there’s the whole “save the environment” thing. “You’ve all seen [the] Al Gore movie,” Behnisch hints.
MAKING SUSTAINABILITY KNOWN
But despite an increased concern for the environment in the media, the inconvenient truth is that sustainability has kept a rather low profile on campus.
“There is this 70-page Allston plan that’s public but the percentage of students that have read the plan is really small, maybe what, 10 percent?” Shope says. “Probably less,” Mannetta interjects.
While Gordon claims that many students are involved in the process, there is a great majority of students who have no idea what green architecture means.
Lost in reveries of green bliss, Sharp rattles off a laundry list of explanations. “All energy sources would be clean and renewable,” she enthuses. “All organic waste would be composted and reused on site. All landscaping would be organic and native, there would be a green roof, you’d have students and faculty alike all conscious and conscientious about being conservative with resource use, and you’d have organic food being served in dining halls.”
Sharp’s vision sounds like an environut’s wet dream; in the meantime, Harvard has a more realistic (but still ambitious) game plan. Under the current proposal, thirty acres of open space will be constructed on asphalt-covered land, and planners will strive for lower energy consumption and carbon dioxide emission. Furthermore, Allston streets will be bolstered with bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.
But saving the environment need not wait for Allston: there’s always just “turning off your lights, turning off your computers,” Shope says. “All that good stuff.”