Harvard, Mellon, Urban, Design, Cities, Architecture, Humanities, Research
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Reconceptualizing the Urban is a four year investigation of urban studies funded by the Mellon Foundation. It brings together scholars and resources from across Harvard University and is directed toward establishing a vigorous, interdisciplinary, and coordinated study of urban environments in the humanities. The primary goals of the project include: the development of sustained research projects that incorporate new visual and digital methods in the study of urban environments; contributing to the Harvard curriculum with urban studies courses co-taught by GSD and FAS faculty; producing publications and exhibitions; and generating a wide variety of urban studies programming and intellectual community-building. This initiative will play a significant role in shaping long-term goals for urban studies at Harvard’s undergraduate and graduate levels.


The Harvard Mellon Initiative is structured around ongoing city-based research projects. Each project will serve as a research ‘portal’ into specific geographies and urban issues, while opening up a broad interdisciplinary field of comparative study and research. Each city-based research portal is directed by two or more faculty from FAS, GSD, and other schools, who are taking a leadership role in directing research on the city (see below).  Each portal will include a core group of doctoral students from different programs.


Starting with four research portals: Boston, Berlin-Moscow, Mumbai, Istanbul the grant provides funds for student and faculty travel and field research. The intention is to integrate teaching and research at all levels across the university, and at the same time to establish a presence in the cities themselves by developing collaborative projects with local institutions, and tapping into current projects and debates. The aspiration is to create a broad intellectual community of interdisciplinary humanistic inquiry focused on the city and issues of the urban well beyond Harvard.

Steering Committee


Directed by Eve Blau, co-principal investigator of the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative, the Berlin Portal is composed of a core team of Harvard professors and advanced graduate students from the Graduate School of Design and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Working together with Berlin-based scholars and practitioners, we aim to develop collaborative projects that focus on six strategic research themes: the interdependence of formal and informal planning practices; the relationship between gentrification and historic preservation; nature and agriculture in the city; the urban imprint of cross-border mobility and migration; infrastructure and urban organizational systems; and innovation in the post-industrial and post-socialist city.


Boston, the research center of the world, is confronting radical demographic change within a unique local structure of neighborhoods and communities. Boston is the focus of many studies at the GSD, where a series of studios have been examining the changing metropolitan condition. The Radcliffe Institute, in collaboration with the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Kennedy School of Government, has launched the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) under the leadership of two sociologists, Professors Robert Sampson and Christopher Winship.  BARI seeks to improve collaboration between university researchers and the City of Boston by making resources available for faculty and student analysis and then feeding their findings back to the city in order to improve the quality of life for residents. As such, the Boston case could become a precedent to follow in terms of effective community engagement and data gathering practices that can make a lasting difference in the city itself.


Situated on a unique geography at the junction of Europe and Asia and bearing the legacy of three empires Istanbul is a historic world city that defies any easy categorization into typological abstractions like “European city”, “Islamic city” or “Mediterranean city”; Hybrid, fragmented and multi-layered, it has resisted all modern planning efforts and continues to pose formidable challenges to design professionals and policy makers.


The Moscow research portal takes cultural memory as a primary focus, exploring the diverse ways in which the past manifests itself in the present.  We study the city-scape as a historical palimpsest, using map, image, film, memoir, and literary representation.  Our goal is to create a digital platform with richly curated and annotated materials that can serve broadly as a research and teaching resource.


Mumbai, the subcontinent’s center of wealth and urban culture, is plagued with unequaled densities and income inequities. Among the South Asia Initiative, the GSD, and the Divinity School, several courses, research projects, and events have focused on the city and the network of urban centers and regional affinities that it has produced over the past twenty years. Significantly, its exponential growth has created a new hinterland and reorganized, both territorially and culturally, the relationship between the urban and the rural as well as between income levels and casts. The collaborative work of Rahul Mehrotra at the GSD and Diana Eck at the Divinity School, together with other faculty in anthropology and the social sciences, will provide the core of this investigation as it expands towards other sites of rapid urbanization in South Asia to examine the emergence of ephemeral and kinetic urban phenomena as integral to contemporary urbanization in the region.

Colloquium: October 14

Please join us for the following series of panel discussions:   Landscape and the Creation of ...

Lunch Lecture: October 14

Join us for a conversation with Elizabeth Timme (MArch 2010) and Helen Leung (MPP 2011), co-Exe...

report from mumbai

Harvard Graduate School of Design MDes student Kate Cahill visited Mumbai to investigate a series of...