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Reflections: Planning by the numbers

It isn’t often that you get to be an architect, a town planner, and a landscape designer all in the span of 15 minutes and without education or experience in any of these fields. Now you can wear all three hats while taking the Planning Board’s online Harvard Residential Visual Preference Survey, which of course has an acronym, VPS. You get to recommend the size and style of future housing in Harvard and to say whether you envision residences clustered around an open space or spread out in town. Or maybe you prefer an apartment building or a cohousing development. There are no right or wrong answers, but the ratings you choose can tell you a lot about yourself in addition to giving helpful input to the board. In my case, I may have learned more than I wanted to know.

Going with my gut

I have always liked colonial or cottage-style (not the Newport kind) architecture, but I didn’t realize just how averse I am to a variety of other designs. VPS asks you to rank the residence or layout in each picture on a scale of 0 (strong dislike) to 10 (strong like), with a 5 being neutral. You are urged not to think too much (I liked that) but just to “go with your gut.”

The first set of pictures illustrates single-family homes and examples of cluster housing. My first reaction to image #1 is that it’s a cute house; I like the big window and the landscaping. Then I decide it looks a little lopsided, and it’s pretty small, and I don’t think I’m supposed to count the landscaping, so I give it a 6. (I hope that’s not overthinking.) The third image is an aerial view of a large circle of land surrounded by Monopoly houses. My gut is revolted and gives it a 0. The next two images are labeled “cottages,” but neither is my idea of one. The roof of the first has too many peaks and the second is too flat. (I sound like Goldilocks.) It does have a separate garage, but for me, who hasn’t had a garage in 45 years, it seems silly to start now.

The sixth picture is of houses clustered around a “town green.” The houses are cute, but our town green is already taken. Number 15 is also cluster housing, and I like the bigger houses, though they need some landscaping. Having decided I like cluster housing, I am about to give a 10 to image number 20 because of the picket fences and trellises. But then I see that the houses have that cookie-cutter look, and I knock it down to an 8.

When #7 comes up, I shrink back lest the towering row of skinny houses fall on their facades and hit me on the way. Number 9 is cute, but it’s too busy with all those peaks and porches. It does have a great old tree, but I realize it wouldn’t necessarily come with the house. The garage—should I decide I want one—is nicely tucked away under the house. The same cannot be said about the garage in #14, which looms front and center. Seventeen is a “cohousing cluster.” I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds claustrophobic. Number 18 has a breathtaking site, but anyone wanting to take up that much space should feel guilty, and #21 is a dark, stone and wood house that looks like it belongs in Dickensian England.

While I haven’t given any picture a 10, my ratings show I would give a 10 to a composite showing a variety of medium-sized, single-family, colonial cottages with picket fences, trellises, mature trees, and natural landscaping, clustered not too tightly around an open green space with a rain garden or cooperative vegetable garden in its center.

The second category shows houses accommodating from two to four families. I give high “likes” to the examples of an older, existing house converted to a multifamily home. The houses specifically built for two families make that abundantly obvious; there are two identical sets of everything. Whether split vertically or horizontally, they make it very clear these are separate-but-equal accommodations. At least in a converted older home the occupants could enjoy feeling like individuals, going in different doors and keeping the number of families inside a mystery. Number 32, with its stone, institutional facade gets a 0 for looking least like it belongs in Harvard.

Townhouses? Aesthetically displeasing

Section three shows a variety of townhouses, all of which I score in the bottom third of the scale. They all look like they belong in a city, not a small town. I find the very idea of a row of attached buildings aesthetically displeasing—there’s too much mass, and although some try to look different, you can tell they are all nearly identical. In this group, I nominate #49 as most un-Harvard. The last two sections feature different kinds of apartments.

Rating these residential structures, which was great fun, confirmed that I am pretty single-minded and quite opinionated. I hope I have aroused interest in taking the survey but have not exerted undue influence. After all, Harvard can have only so many picket fences.

For more information, see "Planning Bord conducts visual preference survey for senior housing." To take the survey, go to

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