It all started with the chairs. By simply placing some movable furniture in Harvard Yard in 2009, the University took the first steps in what would eventually become a long-term activation of its outdoor campus space. With just this small, temporary act of Placemaking, the change was dramatic and immediate. “The response was enormously positive,” explains Lizabeth Cohen and Mohsen Mostafavi, professors and co-chairs of the Steering Committee on Common Spaces. “Overnight, a vibrant and diverse population was pausing to meet, chat, doze, study, eat, watch performers, or simply sit down. The chairs hosted everything from seminar meetings, to the visiting Nobel-laureate capturing a moment of public solitude, to a spontaneous game of musical chairs engaging 70 participants.” Project for Public Spaces has been working closely with Harvard since 2005 to support their leadership on Placemaking and “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” interventions in public space.
In launching the Common Spaces initiative in 2008, Harvard president Drew Faust sought to more fully integrate and activate the campus—transforming its public spaces into gathering places that could connect the campus and its students with the larger Harvard Square neighborhood. As the Harvard community began participating in and taking ownership of this prime outdoor area, the university culture also began to shift as students, faculty, and staff enjoyed more cross-program interaction and unexpected social gatherings in this shared public space.
As one of the anchors identified in the Common Spaces study, “The Plaza” was an ideal site to create a gathering place; it was crossed by almost every student, faculty, and staff member, and had the potential to serve the larger Cambridge community. The Harvard Common Spaces Team, with assistance from PPS, initiated public programs and events like the “Plaza Pet Therapy Zoo,” and the Cambridge Open Market, which featured local food vendors and artisans. The winter of 2015 saw the return of the ice skating rink to The Plaza, along with fire pits, curling/shuffleboard lanes, hot cocoa and s’mores, and the numerous food trucks that are quickly becoming a campus mainstay.
“Prior to a complete renovation, The Plaza was a utility, a pass through, that everyone used to get from one area of the campus to another,” said Harvard’s Vice President for Campus Services Meredith Weenick. “Now [it] is a fantastic space where people stop to meet one another, enjoy delicious food, and participate in lots of fun activities.” The Plaza has indeed become a destination in its own right.
By bringing together different groups that are so often separated by age, location, background or program of study, this newly vibrant public space continues to be a central hub for social activity on campus. Playing a key role in the intricate fabric of the Cambridge community as a whole, the site is also serving as a testing ground for a growing network of public spaces across Harvard’s campus, such as The Dudley House Patio, and The Porch on the steps of Memorial Church.
The success of these and many other local projects are evidence of the benefits, and growing momentum, of Placemaking projects. Their proven impacts on the social life of visitors and residents also make clear how rethinking public space can be the keystone of community building efforts, and the success of The Plaza in particular demonstrates that creating an open and integrated gathering place for undergraduates, grad students, faculty, staff, and the larger community can lead to a stronger educational institution for everyone.