Redesigning the Urban Landscape Means Thinking Smaller

When designers and developers reimagine the 21st century urban landscape, their focus typically turns to the world’s most populated and highest-profile cities. New York City, Mumbai or London naturally seem the most ideal locales for transforming public spaces, designing new transportation systems and crafting modern infrastructure. But as the cross-disciplinary Gateway Cities initiative has illustrated, including last spring’s Gateway Cities course, meaningful and exciting changes can happen in the most modest urban centers.

Gateway Cities has been a central facet of Dean Mohsen Mostafavi’s mission to foster cross-University collaboration and expose students throughout the Schools to a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to solving challenges in the urban environment. Conceived by Dean Mostafavi and Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Arthur Segel and lead by Nic Retsinas of HBS, David Barron from Harvard Law School (HLS) and Ann Forsyth of the Graduate School of Design (GSD), the 2013 program attracted a total of 26 students, including four HBS students, 12 GSD Master of Urban Planning students, and 10 students from HLS.

The Gateway Cities students were grouped into six cross-disciplinary teams to spend the semester tackling redevelopment projects in Fitchburg, Worcester, Framingham, Salem and Somerville (not officially a gateway city), and to devise a Social Impact Bond (SIB) to fund elderly housing redevelopment for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (MDHCD). While students benefited immeasurably from working across schools and disciplines, for the faculty Gateway Cities provided rich opportunities to work with students and faculty throughout the University. Logistical issues have prevented the course being offered for the 2014 spring term, but preliminary plans are underway for a follow-up course.

Building on the course’s success, the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) will be hosting a Gateway Cities forum on April 18, 2014 at the GSD, featuring a broad spectrum of nonprofit, public and private sector entities from across the Commonwealth, as well as Harvard University students and faculty. JCHS Faculty Chair Ann Forsyth is collaborating with JCHS Deputy Director Pamela Baldwin, faculty and practitioners to plan the event, which will be co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (MDHCD), the Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHPA) and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC).

Located throughout the Midwest and Northeast, “gateway cities” are moderate-sized former industrial urban centers that have struggled economically, especially during the recession. The Massachusetts legislature has officially defined these cities as having populations between 35,000 and 250,000 residents with less than the state average per capita income and education levels. In Massachusetts, gateway cities are also attracting new waves of immigration, along with renewed attention from policy-makers targeting them for redevelopment as part of the Commonwealth’s comprehensive economic strategy. The Gateway Cities forum, like the Gateway Cities coursework, will explore the myriad design, financing and business development, legal and public policy aspects of transforming an aging city for the 21st century.

Illustrating the “One Harvard” concept, the ongoing collaborative Gateway Cities program provides insights for students, faculty and practitioners into the holistic business, design and regulatory aspects of urban redevelopment. Ann Forsyth highlights the value of the cross-disciplinary approach for exposing academics and practitioners to a broad range of perspectives. Stay tuned for coverage of the Gateway Cities forum in April, and check out the JCHS blog for news and updates on the event.