Empowering Students to Plan Big: Campus Climate Resiliency in 2070

Empowering Students to Plan Big: Campus Climate Resiliency in 2070

Nineteen students worked in teams to identify campus vulnerabilities due to climate change in 2070 and beyond, develop a strategic idea to help MIT survive and thrive.
Overall Connectivity Vision
Overall Connectivity Vision from Big Plans, Spring 2016. Image by: Michael Wilson

Big Plans” is an annual spring course offered by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. It takes its inspiration from Daniel Burnham’s immortal aphorism, “make no little plans [….] Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.” Big plans are an integral part of modern urban planning despite – or precisely because of – the increasing complexity of environmental, social, and economic trends, and difficulty implementing large-scale proposals to change existing cities. An ideal plan presents a vision noble enough to compel the attention and support of policymakers, funders (private and public), and local residents; ambitious enough in spatial scale and social transformation to justifiably be called a big plan; and feasible enough within existing realms of law, policy, and technology to become reality. Few plans can or need to meet all of these criteria.

In 2016, we explored these themes through the lens of planning for climate adaptation in coastal cities. As a Living Laboratory course sponsored by the MIT Office of Sustainability, the class provided a chance to work with MIT’s planning and sustainability offices and Campus Resilience Committee. Nineteen students from MIT, Wellesley College, and Harvard College from diverse academic backgrounds worked in five teams to identify campus vulnerabilities due to climate change in 2070 and beyond, develop a strategic idea to help MIT survive and thrive, elaborate on specific building or site-specific proposals, and propose implementation strategies.

Campus and Sustainability Visions

The students brought their personal experience and creativity to bear on the campus with five pilot projects that might be scaled up. Engaging a variety of communities – from Dorm Row its undergraduate students to graduate students and the broader institute – the class thought about not only what climate change adaptation would mean for the campus, but also commuters and tourists, the City of Cambridge, and Boston’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The proposed projects addressed hazards ranging from extreme heat, cold and wind, rain, storm surges, and urban heat island respectively and answered the following research questions:

  • Beaver Fever – How could an open space committee help MIT embrace a future climate that could be like that of Charleston, South Carolina or Savannah, Georgia?

  • Keeping Community Moving – Are there ways to improve connections and gathering places along MIT’s linear corridors (e.g. Amherst Alley and Pacific Street) to shelter students from the cold, wind, rain, and snow?

  • MIT Underwater – In a future where flash flooding is part of everyday life, how can the culture and operations of MIT’s basements and tunnels be transformed?

  • C-Green Rail – Can the Grand Junction rail corridor be upgraded connect new neighborhoods in Beacon Yards and North Point to the region while solving its own local stormwater challenges?

  • Kendall Outdoor Lab – How should we use the redevelopment and construction in East Campus as a Living Lab to test new technologies?

The students drew upon intervention strategies including researching and educating on changes to behavior and in lifestyles, accommodating and redeveloping structures to shelter activities from the elements, and fortifying and changing building standards for robustness and resilience.

At the final presentation, our invited jurors, which included not only campus construction, sustainability, planning, and emergency management, but also representatives from Cambridge environmental planning, found the ideas of a Living Lab pilot design competition and an open space committee particularly compelling. These could be implemented and garner immediate results. Other ideas like shaping microclimates or using the Grand Junction alignment to improve stormwater management lend themselves to further modeling in engineering-oriented classes. What clearly emerged, however, was the overall vision to increase connectivity, which took three major forms: to increase social connections between students, faculty, and administration; to provide dynamic learning opportunities that engage students and faculty more directly in building design and construction; and to open the campus more to the Cambridge community and beyond.

Questions for Cambridge and Beyond

Throughout the course, we considered not only MIT campus, but also how our work could serve as a precedent for and impact planning in the City and for other institutions around the Commonwealth. We endeavored to answer:

  • What makes a plan “Big”, what makes it a “Plan”?

  • Who leads Big Planning, and who benefits and loses from Big Plans?

  • At what scales of time and space do we evaluate Big Plans?

  • Why do Big Plans so often fail or exacerbate existing challenges?

  • How can Big Plans be ambitious, but also sensitive?  

There were many ideas that could inform local adaptation efforts, which we shared with the team from the recently completed Cambridge Climate Vulnerability Assessment as it pivots towards a preparedness, resilience, and general master plan. In parallel, MIT continues to develop a better understanding of what climate vulnerability means for its students, buildings, open spaces, and academic/research continuity. We took inspiration from how bold moves like the creation of the modern Charles River basin or placing a time capsule in 1957 for the next millennium under MIT.nano could provide the aspiration and inspiration to inform our own Big Plans.

Future Planners, Sustainable Citizens, and the Need for Transformative Adaptation

In the face of climate change, it gives us hope that the Living Lab and classroom discussions helped students develop a nuanced appreciation for the political complexity of large scale planning processes and impacts. Through this class, we explored common skills used by planners: mapping data, analyzing a site, establishing a vision, addressing stakeholder concerns, evaluating impacts, drafting implementation strategies, and presenting your design concept in a public forum. Whether we choose to engage as professional planners or not, these skills and experiences made us more reflective citizens and advocates for sustainable development, resiliency investments, and transformative climate adaptation efforts across campus communities and the globe.