Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Meet Me at The Plaza: New Seats, New Scene at Harvard University

Re-post from Project for Public Spaces Blog on Mar 18, 2015

The Plaza from above during its opening | Photo courtesy Harvard Campus Services
The Plaza from above during its opening | Photo courtesy Harvard Campus Services

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.

The Placemaking momentum at Harvard began with movable seating in Harvard Yard – a space unchanged for hundreds of years | Photo by PPS
The Placemaking momentum at Harvard began with movable seating in Harvard Yard – a space unchanged for hundreds of years | Photo by PPS

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.

Giant chess, beanbags, a variety of seating, and a large tent for farmers markets and events creates a real sense of place at The Plaza | Photo by PPS
Giant chess, beanbags, a variety of seating, and a large tent for farmers markets and events creates a real sense of place at The Plaza | Photo by PPS

THE PLAZA

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.

Even when the weather is poor, people congregate on The Plaza for food trucks and socialization | Photo by PPS
Even when the weather is poor, people congregate on The Plaza for food trucks and socialization | Photo by PPS

“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.

Fire pits provide warmth and a reason to gather on The Plaza in the winter | Photo by PPS
Fire pits provide warmth and a reason to gather on The Plaza in the winter | Photo by PPS

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.

A recent example of a detailed seasonal amenity and design plans for the Plaza at Harvard | Illustration by PPS
A recent example of a detailed seasonal amenity and design plans for the Plaza at Harvard | Illustration by PPS

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.

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