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Civic issues + Engaging communities

East Boston storm water design charette with local students

Resilient Infrastructure Storm Water Charette with Boston Architectural College, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, Inc.

In the 19th century Ecoles de Beaux Arts in Paris, exhausted architecture students would labor feverishly on models and drawings to satisfy looming deadlines, getting as much as possible out of their heads and into the world before the ominous arrival of a wheeled cart, known as "en charrette", collected the work, severed the flows of ideas and energies, and terminated the design process. In the spirit of the modern charette, architecture and landscape architecture students from the Boston Architectural College (BAC) and students from the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Boston's School for the Environment toiled with similar fever, passion, and energy in an intensified afternoon of design collaboration on a recent Friday afternoon. Rather than signaling the end of a project, however, the work produced in the Channel Room at BSA Space presented a bounty of new beginnings—a wealth of generative ideas for resolving the complex problems associated with sea level rise, climate change, and storm water management in East Boston.

Over the course of the spring semester, BAC students and UMass Boston students—led by Ben Peterson and Dr. Paul Kirshen—have been collaborating on strategies for the development of resilient infrastructures. With the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) in East Boston as clients and partners, students have been able to exercise the application of learning in real time, with real people, in real places. For each group of students, the project is situated in an important moment for learning. UMass students are using the work as the basis for a culminating capstone project. BAC students, enrolled in the college's Gateway Initiative, are continuing the legacy of the school's commitment to design as a discipline invested in relationships with community partners in the civic realm.

The collaborative effort is rooted in a recognition that the complex problems associated with climate change require complex, multidisciplinary resolutions. UMass Boston students are able to provide the political, ecological, and economic foundations that articulate these complexities. BAC students are able to use these underpinnings as the fertile ground for developing design responses. NOAH offers an invaluable and genuine connection to the communities of East Boston. And the BSA Foundation, in one of its most potent roles, is able to bring all of these parties together towards a common goal.

Throughout the course of the afternoon, Sharpies, maps, and stray pieces of trace paper became the tools for drawings and diagrams of performative water sculptures, neighborhood farms and playgrounds, and residential rain gardens— all optimistically approaching the design of stormwater infrastructure as embedded with the possibility of becoming celebratory, community-supported, public amenities. As noted by Magdalena Ayed, a partner from NOAH, the students’ ideas have the capacity to transform spaces of neglect into places of communion. It is through this alchemy of people and ideas that the seedlings for change are planted. 

Together, the students from each institution are providing an important service to NOAH as the organization works towards implementing the difficult challenge of community-supported climate adaptation and resiliency planning—sponsored by a generous grant from The Kresge Foundation. While larger efforts to choreograph and coordinate city and regional agencies are occurring, the design ideas, energy, and optimism of these students present a multitude of new ways to think about not only what might be made real, but how.  While as a vehicle the 19th-century charette-cart may be obsolete, the 21st-century version is alive and well, promising to include more participants in its efforts and shuttling an array of dynamic and collaborative work into the future.

View the East Boston Community Design Manual produced by the students here.


All public exhibitions and programs at BSA Space are supported by the BSA Foundation, which promotes activities that illuminate the ways that design improves the quality of our lives. Simply by enjoying the gallery exhibitions, reading ArchitectureBoston magazine, and participating in programs, Friends of BSA Space assist the BSA Foundation in its quest to build a better Boston by engaging communities, inspiring vision, and provoking positive civic change.

To learn more about the Foundation join one of our monthly Meet the BSA Foundation Tours. More details at architects.org/foundation.