Guest commentary: Add river bank issues and volunteer work to town- gown reporting


by Renata von Tscharner, Cambridge Chronicle

Cambridge — As has been the custom for some years now, the Cambridge Planning Board meeting held its town/gown meeting on Feb. 1. With PowerPoints and printed booklets, MIT, Harvard and Lesley University all gave extensive presentations mostly

about their real estate, transportation and sustainability projects.

As Board members pointed out, there was a competitive spirit, each challenging who had more LEEDprojects and who had been more effective at preventing green house gas emissions. And many of the energy saving efforts have been initiated or supported by faculty and students.

Next year, this report might also include the universities’ efforts to engage students in other projects that benefit their host community such as the Charles River and its parklands. For example, at MIT, Professor Gediminas Urbonas has chosen the Charles River for his ‘Art Culture and Technology’ class, assigning students to develop artistic pieces along the river. For MIT’s 150 anniversary, his team is designing a platform that allows viewers to see interactive images projected into the steam rising from the river. And at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Professor Pierre Belanger is working with landscape architecture students to analyze the use of infrastructure for recreation. In fact, they are applying their skills to examine the addition of underpasses as the Charles River bridges are being restored. And Dr. James Shine of the Harvard School of Public Health serves on the Charles River Water Quality Commission and is helping to analyze the health impacts of polluted river sediments as part of the Swimmable Charles Initiative.

As the City Councilors Cheung, Kelly and Reeves pointed out in their responses to the presentations, increasing the urban livability needs to be higher on the universities’ list of accomplishments and goals. Making the city more livable and user friendly also involves expanding recreational opportunities. Since Harvard has just announced its ‘On the Move’ initiative, with the intention of having more people walk and run mainly along the Charles, one way that Harvard could help further, would be to assist with the maintenance and improvement of the pathways along the river. In the winter that means snow removal. During the cold season, outdoor recreation in the sun is particularly important in the city. But for the remainder of the year, resurfacing the pathways and helping to advocate for underpasses would be most helpful. Walking and running along the river would be greatly improved if runners and bicyclists could avoid the crossings at bridges.

In connection with their environmental efforts, the universities’ reports also included the work of student volunteers. Future reports might also include important volunteer contributions students have made to the parklands along the Charles. For example over the past year, 198 students from MIT and 82 students from Harvard have worked with the Charles River Conservancy improving the landscape along the Charles (and a Lesley University graduate is ably coordinating these efforts).

My wish list for next year’s reports includes extending the municipal boundary lines to the river (which is owned and managed by state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation) and to add volunteer activities that benefit the community.

A little less than a year ago, the Cambridge Planning Board was given a presentation by the Cambridge Community Development staff on their Riverfront Plan. “The goal of this plan is to expand the formal and informal use of the riverfront through enhanced connections, more and better recreational opportunities, and a focus on positive change when development opportunities arise”. This Plan is a great foundation for discussion by all concerned about the quality of the city, particularly by Harvard and MIT whose buildings take up a large part of the riverfront. The town/gown presentations offer an ideal forum for this discussion.

Renata von Tscharner is the founder and president of the Charles River Conservancy ( providing advocacy and stewardship for these urban parklands making them more active, attractive and accessible to all.

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