Few higher education institutions rival the power and influence of Harvard University, or its history – this year marks its 375th anniversary.

As an itinerate student of cities and communities, I have long been intrigued by prestigious academic establishments like Harvard and the impact they have on their local communities. With Harvard’s long history as a bastion for innovation and research, the surrounding area has become a natural draw for high profile firms and emerging companies seeking collaborative academic ventures to fuel their growth. This, in turn, leads to job growth and trickle down dollars which support local economic development.

On a recent March visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard’s main campus, I wandered the local streets, jotting notes on my iPhone app while encountering bohemians, academics, and students–some even disguised as St. Patrick’s Day revelers. As one of the estimated 8 million annual visitors to the university and city each year, I found myself entranced by the rich architecture and intellectual vibe that permeated throughout the local culture. There was an aesthetic congruence to the historic streets, parks and town squares that brought engagement to the social fabric of the area, lending support to Cambridge’s distinction as one of the most walkable and vibrant communities in the nation.

Harvard University

Cambridge is home to an estimated population of 105,594, driven largely by the faculty, staff and student community of Harvard. In addition Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a neighboring higher education institution of high repute is just a stones throw away.

Despite a natural abundance of local assets, Harvard and Cambridge have arrived at a crossroads amidst tight budgets as well as fiscal losses to the university endowment. Last year, in response to a plummeting stock market that wrecked havoc on their investments, the university put the kibosh on a $1.4 billion science facility construction project, raising the ire of neighborhood residents who were suddenly surrounded by the eyesore of an abandoned project.

Declining fortunes aside, Harvard continues to plunge ahead with investments designed to solidify its world stature as the premier educational institution in the world. One example of this is a plan to build a $90-$100 million executive education center that will sit on the Harvard Business School campus off Soldiers Field Road. When completed it promises to be a top-tier facility that will only serve to further the business school’s already pristine reputation.

The university’s efforts to build upon stellar assets such as its business school are just another notch in the belt of its global reputation as the world’s most highly revered education establishment. Of greater note, though, is how these efforts translate into a better quality of life for Cambridge and the surrounding communities. A walkable paradise, the area boasts a high per-capita percentage of commuters who walk to work. Cambridge, in particular, has a nearly perfect score in terms of walkability, according to Walkscore.com.

The pedestrian landscape, replete with a traffic-calming mechanism in the city’s downtown core, creates an oasis of urbanity that resonates well with the university’s more stoic academic confines. The infamous Harvard Square is the spoke for community activity and embodies the spirit of Greek agoras—those long ago gathering places that attracted intellectuals, curiosity seekers and people simply passing through. Located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Brattle Street and JFK Street, it is a hustle-bustle locale, as well as a feeder system for the Red Line train that travels to and from Boston proper.

Downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts

For voracious readers, the immediate vicinity features a rich collection of bookstores that cater to virtually every interest. There are over twenty-five bookstores situated in a six-mile radius, giving Cambridge the distinction of having more bookstores per capita than any other city in the world. Harvard’s influence is acutely felt in these stores, many of them featuring exclusive sections of books written by the university’s rich cadre of academics—high-profile writers like Clayton Christenson, Howard Gardner, Elizabeth Moss Kanter, and the late Rev. Peter Gomes.

The Harvard factor further extends itself into the region’s demographics, serving as an attraction point for a mosaic of people from every corner of the world. The surrounding city has long been revered for its diverse population – racially, culturally and economically – leading to the frequently used moniker of the “People’s Republic of Cambridge.”

Questions still remain, though, about the future of traditional higher education and its lasting impact on the social fabric of communities like Cambridge. My bet is that the repute of Harvard will continue to attract the best and brightest minds, infusing the surrounding diaspora with a spirit of community, diversity and service that is unmatched anywhere else.

Michael is the editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at The Urban Journalist dot com.

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