New vision for planning and design at Harvard University Campus

Purnima Kapur makes herself acquainted with campus at Widener Library. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

By Nate Herpich
Harvard Correspondent/The Harvard Gazette 

Harvard’s campus has evolved and expanded over the past almost four centuries, from a small cluster of buildings in Cambridge that graduated the first class of nine men in 1642, into a University that spans several municipalities in Greater Boston and beyond. As that expansion has occurred over time, the University has focused on ways in which all areas of campus relate and connect to each other, to varying degrees of success.

In February, Harvard hired Purnima Kapur as inaugural chief of university planning and design, to oversee, and to bolster, this idea of connectivity, through ongoing thoughtful and comprehensive approaches to projects in Cambridge, Allston, the Longwood Medical Area and other areas of campus such as the Arnold Arboretum — all with the view that they are situated as crucial parts of a cohesive University campus plan. Similarly, Kapur will ensure that the planning for the Enterprise Research Campus in Allston complements and relates to the University’s immediately adjacent academic campus, including the Harvard Business School and the recently opened Science and Engineering Complex, as well as to the broader Allston community.

“I’m excited to be at Harvard, among such a high caliber of talent, with colleagues who are truly open to innovation and the pursuit of new ideas,” said Kapur, who was formerly the executive director of city planning for the City of New York. “And I’m humbled that Harvard has asked me to take on this new role in the midst of a critical moment in its history. The University has a unique opportunity to approach planning, across all of its rich and diverse campuses, in ways that foster innovation and academic excellence through interdisciplinary, collaborative learning. We can do this by building on existing collaborations, and ensuring design excellence and campus cohesion by providing a University-wide lens within which planning and design decisions are made by Harvard’s faculties and central groups.”

“Purnima is the right person to enhance the University’s campus planning and strategy in a cohesive manner that encompasses all aspects of Harvard’s campuses, regardless of location,” said Executive Vice President Katie Lapp. “She will lead us forward in a shared approach as we  think broadly about the entirety of Harvard’s campus, ensuring that the connectivity and accessibility across all parts of our campus are as strong as they can be so as to meet the evolving needs of our students, faculty, staff, and surrounding communities in the years to come.”

In her role, Kapur is in the process of forming the Harvard University Planning and Design Office — comprising the current Harvard Planning Office and Harvard Allston Initiatives functions — whose mission is to enhance, sustain, and optimize the University’s physical assets, including land and buildings, in support of Harvard’s academic mission. Through this work, the office seeks to preserve and enhance the distinct character of Harvard’s campuses within the diverse communities in which our campuses are situated, while also addressing future growth in an environmentally and fiscally sustainable manner. Sustainability has been an especially key component in how Harvard is looking to the future: Harvard’s newest building — the SEC, which just opened to students this fall — has been certified by two separate international building certification programs as one of the healthiest, most sustainable, and energy-efficient laboratories in the world.

“Harvard has an opportunity in the years to come to enhance our spaces and to think of new ways of bringing people together across our Schools,” said President Larry Bacow. “Purnima has an extensive background in planning, with more than 25 years of leadership planning in New York City, as well as diverse consulting experience in cities from the United Kingdom to Australia. She is a well-known leader, and her familiarity with the landscape in general and Allston in particular will serve the University extraordinarily well.”

A key component of Kapur’s portfolio is to implement the University’s Designer Selection & Design Review Policy, which was established by the Harvard Corporation in 2014, and is overseen by the Corporation Committee on Facilities and Capital Planning and the executive vice president. This policy provides support in the planning and design of campus buildings and the public realm, and it is designed to foster campus stewardship, promote design excellence through collective responsibility, and establish inclusive, transparent, and consistent frameworks for the designer selection and design review processes.

“Since I began in my role as chair of Harvard’s Facilities Committee, the committee has devoted its time to overseeing the immediate priorities of the University’s capital plan,” said Harvard Corporation member Shirley Tilghman. “Now, we are at a crossroads in our history, where there is an opportunity to focus on the  longer term with an eye to imagining and then planning for the future Harvard campus. The committee is excited that Purnima is the person who will lead our already strong teams in this critically important effort.”

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the way that colleges and universities have thought about learning and physical space. “New, hybrid options for studying and working remotely and in person could provide new opportunities for rethinking our built form, and shared spaces in particular, that could allow for new kinds of collaborations as well as serendipitous encounters,” said Kapur.  “We are at the cusp of a new wave of hybrid study/work environment that challenges us to embrace new advances in technology and learning platforms thoughtfully, without losing the sense of community, connectivity, and teamwork that is essential to the University learning experience.”

In addition to her professional experience, Kapur brings a strong academic background to these challenges, having taught courses in zoning, planning, affordable housing, resiliency, and waterfront development as an adjunct professor at Columbia University. This fall, she is a visiting faculty member at the Graduate School of Design, where she is part of the first-year Master in Urban Planning Studio teaching team. Kapur holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture Delhi, a Master’s in City Planning, and a Master of Science in Architecture Studies from MIT.

(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)