Architects of the Outdoors

The sculptors of Harvard landscapes create sustainable outdoor havens

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Louisa C. Denison ’11, who remembers the Yard in the fall as her most treasured mental image of Harvard’s campus, knows the simple power of a well-preserved, carefully designed landscape. She puts it quite simply: “being in a beautiful place affects you.”


With this sentiment in mind, Denison helped to create the Community Garden, which she now co-manages. In spring 2010, various Harvard organizations—including the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services, and the Office of Sustainability—worked with motivated undergraduates like Denison to create a multipurpose space.  The Garden’s creators hope not only to apply principles of sustainable gardening, but also to educate others about these same principles. This mission in part depends on the Garden’s aesthetic appeal.

“It was assumed that the garden would have to be beautiful in order to work,” says Denison. “Despite the University’s many ‘green’ initiatives, there hadn’t been a really beautiful demonstration of sustainability, a place to build community around sustainability.”

Rebecca J. Cohen ’12, another Garden Co-Manager, confirms the importance of aesthetics in the Garden’s design, an enterprise undertaken with advice from faculty from the GSD. “We really made an effort,” she says, “to make something that wasn’t just rows and rows of vegetables.”

The Garden certainly isn’t that; its carefully arranged plants and worn picnic tables make for a space that invites exploration and relaxation. Denison makes this careful balance sound absolutely natural, explaining that beauty and functionality are, at least in horticulture, not just complementary but often symbiotic: “You’re more interested in learning about a space if it’s beautiful,” she says. “And the more interesting the use of space is, the more beautiful it becomes.”

To Denison, Harvard seems particularly obliged to use its space both beautifully and sustainably. As she points out, Harvard’s vast resources give it a unique opportunity not just to experiment with its own landscape, but also to educate others in the sustainable practices it develops. It is a task that recalls the Arboretum’s threefold mission of horticulture, research, and education: a call not just to gain knowledge but also to spread it.

“Our job,” she says, “is to apply the same thoughtfulness that we apply to our studies to our landscaping.”

Carbone’s 21 years of experience at Harvard have allowed him to experience firsthand the university’s mounting drive to sustain, to beautify, and to edify. “We’re doing the experimenting,” Carbone says. “What we learn, we want other people to know, whether it’s a homeowner or another institution.”


As for the University itself, Carbone feels that one of Harvard’s main goals is the creation of more open community space on campus. As proof he cites the Common Spaces Initiative, which has brought changes from the impossible-to-miss colorful chairs populating the Yard to the occasional dramatic and musical performances outside the Science Center.

“The idea is to make campus more appealing for students to utilize,” Carbone says, “to bring everybody together.”

The ideal of a nurturing landscape has indeed been a driving force behind Harvard’s numerous recent initiatives, but its appeal is by no means limited to the University’s staff and students. It is an idea with universal attraction, a drive to make our surrounding landscape both enduring and aesthetically inviting. Along these lines, landscape should appeal to onlookers in order to bring people together—to unite through a shared love for a beautiful, open landscape.

Denison sees making a landscape that brings people together as a last, necessary step in designing a space like the Community Garden. It is, she says, the question those behind the Common Spaces Initiative were asking of Harvard’s campus: “it’s beautiful, but are people using it?”