The Universities of Boston – Ethan Matthews

Universities have massive influences on the built environment. From the influx of students that morphs local demographics, a central economic input and output, and the space that university buildings inhabit, Boston is shaped by the 64 colleges and universities located within the city. I will be inspecting how four universities—Emerson College, Berklee College of Music, Northeastern University, and Boston University—have shaped their communities.


Everyone knows Boston as a college town. There are over 64 colleges and universities within and around the city, so there is an undeniable presence of college students throughout the entire metropolitan area. But many other cities have a similar level of exposure to university life. What makes Boston different is how these 64 unique institutions have

Everyone knows Boston as a college town—with over 64 colleges and universities in and around the city, there is a significant presence of students throughout the entire metropolitan area. Each school has developed in their own unique ways, with their entire histories, growing alongside, interacting with, and shaping their communities in visible and invisible ways. But these institutions have impacted the city on a deeper level than just introducing massive amounts of people, as they have directly partaken in the physical rejuvenation and construction of their respective communities.

This question about how universities shape their urban environments first arose for me when I began to juxtapose the development of Charlottesville, my home town, against that of Boston. The University of Virginia, established in 1819 in the heart of the city, has always been the cultural, financial, and social center for a significant portion of central Virginia, attracting tens of thousands of students, distinguished faculty, and research opportunities. As such, the surrounding Albemarle County has grown increasingly wealthy as the university has grown, indirectly facilitating the urban and suburban development and increasing the stability of the area. From the high level of economic strength the university brings, the once majority rural county has increasingly pushed its agrarian roots towards its boundaries, as land prices increase and formerly agricultural space is taken over. 

Perhaps a similar process has occurred in Boston, I wondered, but at a far greater magnitude. Surely, the 64 universities in the city have attracted massive growth and changed the landscape in a similar way to UVA and Charlottesville, but that has permeated through its millions of metropolitan area residents. However, through further research into the histories of universities in Boston, I realized that, although UVA and Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, etc. have indeed played a significant role in the development of their respective communities, they have done so in very different ways. Boston is a massive city—the 22nd largest in the country—as opposed to the barely 45k population of Charlottesville. Each city has its own story, and the story of Charlottesville’s relatively small suburban development could not be more different from Boston’s 1600s origins that have expanded the urban center into a metropolitan area with a population of nearly 4.5 million.

When deciding which institutions to research, I narrowed my scope down to four as to better understand how seemingly insignificant actions and policies can shape a community, as opposed to focusing on more obvious influences. These four are Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Emerson College, and our very own Northeastern University, as each has a distinct presence in their landscape and have more profound, traceable impacts on environments closer together than other universities.

The most obvious influence that universities have on their communities is with the wealth they possess. Boston University’s endowment alone is almost $2.2 billion, and with these financial resources available the university has an immense ability to directly shape their built environment. At Northeastern, new developments, notably ISEC and the Lightview apartments, are slowly encroaching upon the greater Roxbury area. These massive structures, in both size and economic scale, have indirectly gentrified the area by bringing in huge numbers of students and with them an incredible increase in property value, displacing generations of native Roxbury citizens, the majority of whom are African American or other minorities. Emerson, the smallest college on this list, has rejuvenated Boston’s historic theater district through direct funds towards its characteristic arts and media studies, attracting talented students and administrators from around the world. This money and creativity has resulted in the renovation of numerous theaters and historic buildings, notably the Paramount and the Little Building, expansions whose influences permeate throughout the city. Berklee, has developed its Fenway neighborhood in a similar way. Although located in a busier area with multiple large roadway systems surrounding its campus, Berklee has, with a unique set of urban challenges, revitalized and constructed its own landscape. 

But there are far more nuanced reasons as to why and how these four institutions impact their environments than just through money. Many of these changes are facilitated or catalyzed by the presence of the Emerald Necklace, most apparently with Emerson’s late 1990s move to its current campus location. The Boston Common’s presence, in addition to the availability of facilities in the area, motivated the college’s migration, which in turn enabled the rejuvenation of Boston’s entire theatre district. The Back Bay Fens have also significantly influenced the shaping of Back Bay and Fenway, most significantly by impacting Berklee’s presence and development around the park’s footprint. But uncovering the interconnected relationships between urban landscapes reveals that they have played an integral role in the current state of the distant Roxbury and South End. The park’s immovable presence has served as a crucial land boundary to the upper end of Northeastern’s campus—had Olmsted’s park not been there, Northeastern would likely have expanded in a completely different way. This obstacle, in addition to land prices along Huntington and north of campus where the university had already extended, has led Northeastern to expand south, past Ruggles, and into the Roxbury and South End neighborhoods. This infiltration has played out in ways not apparent without analyzing the landscape. Carter Playground is a direct result of university development, whereas the changing environment of Dudley Square, seemingly unconnected, is changing as a direct result of this development.

This uncovering of interconnected relationships is an application of Anne Whiston Spirn’s The Language of Landscape where she emphasizes the importance of “landscape literacy.” Fully understanding the Boston’s theater district depends on unearthing how the Boston Common enticed Emerson to the area; realizing the Fens’ immovable presence in the Fenway and Back Bay neighborhoods can explain how Berklee and Northeastern have developed in ways that fundamentally alter their communities at a variety of physical, socioeconomic, and cultural levels; and studying the history of Boston’s urban development along the Charles River explains why BU has needed to grow the way it has.

There is clearly a diverse array of positive and negative changes which educational institutions can incite in their urban landscape, most noticeable through contrasting Northeastern’s Roxbury gentrification against Berklee’s City Music program. Being able to assess and understand the invisible connections between universities and their local environments equips one with the ability to fully understand why these urban environments face profound issues like gentrification, but can also experience incredible improvement. Without interpreting the landscape in terms of universities, much of Boston’s story would remain completely buried.

Sources Cited

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