MIT and the Urban Neighborhood

The urban setting for major research universities will be one in which there are certain to be both overlapping and competing expectations as to the future use, form and management of that urban setting. It is also clear that many of these expectations are of long-standing while some are new concerns stimulated by the recent growth and change of one or another of the activities in the area. Expectations are also established by new political and administrative leadership and by reference to examples elsewhere that show fresh ways of meeting old issues.

For many years, Cambridge, MA, as host to two major research universities, has been the scene of debates as to how best to meet the competing expectations of different stakeholders. Where there has been success, it has frequently been the result, at least in part, of inventive urban design proposals and the design and implementation of new institutional arrangements to accomplish those proposals. Where there has been failure it has often been explained by the inability - or unwillingness - of one stakeholder to accept and accommodate the expectations of another. The two most recent Fall Urban Design Studios have examined these issues at a larger scale. In 2001 we looked at the possible patterns for growth and change in Cambridge, UK, as triggered by the plans of Cambridge University. And in 2002 we looked at these same issues along the length of the MIT 'frontier' in Cambridge, MA as they related to the development of MIT and the biotech research industry. In the Fall 2003 Urban Design Studio we propose to focus in on an area adjacent to Cambridgeport and the western end of the MIT campus, roughly centered on Fort Washington. Our goal is to discover the ways in which good urban form, an apt mix of activities, and effective institutional mechanisms might all be brought together in ways that respect shared expectations and reconcile competing expectations-perhaps in unexpected and adroit ways.

Students will have access to the reports that were the products of the two previous Fall Urban Design Studios in which many of these issues were addressed at a much larger scale. In this studio the emphasis is likely to include the variety, mix and form of housing; the range, distribution and scale of MIT academic and non-academic activities; the provision for bio-tech and other employment activities, the amount and pattern of retail and other local support activities; and the design of the setting as a whole such as it might become a treasured neighborhood in the minds of all stakeholders.

From the many reports and studies that document the expectations of the different stakeholders we will seek to understand the full variety and strength of their concerns and the many previously advocated ideas. We will look at the form and use pattern of university settings elsewhere in the Boston area and seek to infer the expectations that are honored in new development and institutional mechanisms. We will review recent policies and long term directions and expectations that represent the positions of the stakeholders in MIT's setting and speculate as to the urban form and institutional mechanisms that may accomplish those goals.

The pedagogic objectives of the Fall 2003 Studio are:

  • to engage and become familiar with the range of physical attributes entailed in achieving good urban design: built form, public space, landscape, path and access systems, parking, density, activity location and intensity and so on;
  • to engage and become familiar with instrumental propositions about the realization of urban design, including planning , finance, public/private partnerships, parcelization, phasing, etc.;
  • to learn the nature, strength and relevance of propositions that seek to relate behavioral and organizational outcomes to these physical attributes and institutional interventions;
  • to develop skills in working in multi-disciplinary teams; and
  • to build abilities for working in digital environments including the production of graphic and written evidence in a timely fashion, and in lucid and publishable form.

The studio is open to students in the MArch (Level III), SMArchS and MCP programs and we will seek a class of about 15 students in which these three groups are about equally represented.

Project Overview

Three main tasks, briefly described below, will make up the studio experience. The first will be carried out by teams of two students each; the second by each student working individually; and the third by teams of three or perhaps four students each. The output of each task will be a short 'report' in a form that will allow it to be made available to the whole class and to guests at least two days before the review of that task. Thus the review will be able to be conducted with an emphasis on discussion, rather than presentation, of the students' ideas.

Task 1: Double 'Readings': Built Form/University Goals

Teams of two students will examine and record the built form of a university and its neighborhood and speculate as to the goals and values represented by that form. The same team will study one or more document containing current goals and values at MIT and speculate as to what attributes of built form are likely to enable or encourage the achievement of those goals (weeks 1 through 3).

Task 2: Brainstorms and Idea

Working individually, students will diagram one or more central and evocative ideas about the urban design of MIT's neighborhood (week 4).

Task 3: Urban Design Proposal for MIT's West Village Neighborhood

Working in multi-disciplinary teams, students will prepare a detailed urban design proposal for the, (as named by us), West Village Neighborhood centered on Fort Washington Park and devoted specially to housing. Six steps make up this task:

  1. conceptual plan, open spaces, uses and activities, and implementation outline (weeks 5-7);
  2. streets, transit, parking, blocks, and parcels (weeks 8 & 9);
  3. building typologies, implementation techniques (weeks 10 & 11);
  4. testing proposal's performance against goals (weeks 12 & 13);
  5. report preparation (weeks 13 & 14);
  6. prepare for review (week 15).

A 'background book' will be available to each student containing relevant papers, reprints and references as well as a more detailed DRAFT description of each task and a schedule for the studio.

Most weeks will incorporate a talk and discussion period with guests drawn from the stakeholder groups and others familiar with the issues we will be addressing. These will generally take place during studio class time late on Thursday afternoons.