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COLUMN

Improving Our Campus, the Other Way

Vivek Rao

Over the last few years, MIT campus development has focused around a few gargantuan construction projects, most notably the Zesiger Center, Simmons Hall, and the Stata Center. As potentially valuable as new, state-of-the-art facilities can be, they mean little without refreshing and vibrant common spaces. Take Kresge Oval, 77 Mass. Ave., and the courtyard within East Campus, for example. These and other common outdoor spaces help define our campus and contribute to the overall aesthetic quality of the environment in which we eat, sleep, work, and play.

This is not by any means intended to serve as a doom-and-gloom column lamenting the disturbing lack of pleasant common spaces at MIT. In fact, in many ways our campus provides a relatively green and beautiful reprieve from the urban environs that surround it.

Yet there remains much room for improvement. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of an aesthetically pleasing campus. In an era in which many top students decide where to enroll based on one-day tours on a given campus, beautifying our own could prove especially fruitful. Perhaps more importantly, for those of us already here at MIT, a more pleasant campus could make daily life significantly more enjoyable.

One of MIT’s most glaring campus flaws is underutilization of our prime location along the Charles River. For much of its length, the Charles meanders along as a fairly puny stream. Upon reaching MIT however, it opens up into a fairly decent and moderately majestic river responsible for much of the natural beauty that Boston has to offer. Unfortunately, the presence of a major thoroughfare -- Memorial Drive -- between MIT and the Charles significantly detracts from the benefits of being located right next to a river. Ideas such as further narrowing Memorial Drive or even putting a section of the road underground have no doubt been discussed in the past, but should be rehashed with renewed enthusiasm. If we’re willing to spend over $280 million on the Stata Center, shouldn’t we at least consider a project that would allow for a Esplanade-like concourse along the MIT portion of the Charles?

Another place for potential campus improvements is the stretch of Mass. Ave. between the Student Center and Central Square. Some might say that it’s an area that serves as a buffer region between MIT and the outside world, but the reality is that it lacks the vibrancy most students would want near their campus. Sure there are a couple of restaurants and bars, but if MIT could work with the City of Cambridge to further commercialize that stretch with more eateries and some functional stores, both the convenience and liveliness of the campus would increase drastically.

Perhaps the most radical (and most expensive) form of campus development that MIT could consider pursuing would be a dramatic restructuring of dorm locations. The placement of a majority of on-campus residences in a single row along Amherst Alley seems to inhibit community as much or more than it stimulates it. While separating the campus into working and living hemispheres may have some benefits, a linear layout tends to isolate dorms from one another. Simmons Hall’s placement, though obviously influenced by a lack of available plots, hardly helps the situation since that dorm has arguably the most isolated location on campus. Fixing the inefficient and community-inhibiting orientation of the dorms is no doubt a long-term project (perhaps on the order of hundreds of years depending on land availability and building turnover), but it’s one that the administration should at very least keep in mind when deciding on any significant campus projects.

To be fair, our campus has its strengths, and compared to a number of other urban universities MIT strikes me as rather pleasant, comfortable, and secluded. That said, the quality of the campus could jump from good to great if we were to focus on a few key areas. Massive new buildings are nice, but a hodgepodge of modern facilities alone is not sufficient to maintain a positive campus. It’s time to consider some of the subtler but equally important ways of improving our environs.