Plan Downtown Malden: core urban planning studio hits the streets

On an evening in late April, over 100 community members turned out for a public meeting and presentation by students in the 2nd semester core urban planning studio of Plan Downtown Malden, a comprehensive set of recommendations to improve the city center. The studio, led by Ann Forsyth (professor of urban planning), Daniel D’Oca (design critic), Kathryn Madden (design critic in urban planning and design) and Robert Pietrusko (lecturer in landscape architecture and urban planning and design), used Malden’s planning problems as the opportunity to engage advanced level analytical and creative problem-solving and address complex planning concerns.

The MA Area Planning Council-funded project was developed at the behest of Mayor Gary Christenson, who introduced the presentation: “This is the 1st time I’ve felt we are coming close to coming up with a viable plan; that’s because of the students of the Harvard GSD. We’ve already seen a difference just because of your presence here in Malden. We are going to implement much of what you’ve proposed. The timing couldn’t be better.”

Students started the studio equipped with a 160 page report prepared by course leaders and informed by the town vision: a vibrant downtown Malden that honors the city’s past and builds on its diverse present to meet the needs of the future. Throughout the month of February studio members met with government officials and community and business leaders and performed 140 hours of observation, in addition to studying previous plans and reports. Most importantly, they engaged intensively with the community by reaching out to stakeholder groups that included seniors, Arabic, Chinese and Haitian residents, teens and business and property owners. In all, more than 660 Maldonians spoke out through surveys and at 22 public events and expressed their pride in the community and a faithful optimism about its future.

The research identified recurrent concerns: dissatisfaction with the location of Government Center, which is blamed for a general decline in the downtown area, safety issues and misused spaces and lack of community and open space. The resulting Plan Downtown Malden builds on the history of the city and its assets, which include a transportation hub offering direct connection to downtown Boston and a lively retail scene with ethnic restaurants and shops. The city is also on the Bike to the Sea trail and features historic public buildings and significant human capital – people with deep commitment to achieving the vision of the city. The plan aims at improving accessibility and circulation downtown to foster economic growth and create a regional destination.

Plan Downtown Malden Natalia Gaerlan (MUP ’14) reflected, “This studio has given us a good idea of what it’s like to work under real world constraints and budgets. There are things we think the community would benefit from that we learned from the workshops they don’t really care about, for example bike lanes. Some of the resistance might be overcome by taking incremental steps, educating people as to how the changes work.”

To present the nuances of their plan to the community meeting, students had participants envision a variety of visitors – walkers, metro riders, drivers and family groups – experiencing a redesigned Malden center. They painted a picture 10 years in the future of a downtown characterized by housing diversity, affordability, walkability and a sense of neighborhood.

In order to expand the range of possibilities, students invoked models from nearby communities that have successfully revitalized downtown areas and illustrated examples of pedestrian and bike-friendly aesthetic streetscaping, differentiated zones for industrial and commercial sectors and smart growth centered around the transit station. They described community gathering spaces and stormwater mitigation. And they advocated the formation of a community development corporation to manage the transition and protect the vision.

Plan Downtown Malden

Community response to the plan was highly enthusiastic. Habiba Idrissi, who facilitated outreach to the Arab-speaking community said, “I’ve been impressed with how organized the students were, how they divided the work among themselves to connect with each group, and how respectful they were to cultures and religions. The community’s response has been very open. I was surprised how interested people have been in the project.”

Marie Coulanges, liaison to the Haitian community, felt the studio was successful. “Malden is now a very diverse, very populous place. Sometimes people feel their voices are not heard, but here no one can claim they didn’t have a chance to say, oppose, implement, innovate, complain, voice concern. It’s a great opportunity for the community.”