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Beyond the Infinite

Beyond the Infinite, Fall 2011
Issue 2, Volume 6

A Bronx Tale: Transforming an industrial river front
SANERGY: Converting waste to energy, fertilizer, and a franchise
A gift that means the world
An interview with Community Service Work-Study student Keren Gu ‘14

A Bronx Tale: Transforming an industrial river front by Emily Lo

The Bronx riverfront. Courtesy of Site and Environmental Systems class

Many years of industrial use have rendered the Harlem River unrecognizable to the ones who should know it best: its neighbors. Although the river once served as a prominent waterway, its 8-mile waterfront in the Bronx, NYC is now polluted and choked with heavy infrastructure that blocks the paths of even the most adventurous.

To generate strategies for reconnecting the river to its adjacent communities, twelve graduate students in DISP (Department of Urban Studies and Planning) took part in the Site and Environmental Systems class (11.304/4.255) with Professor Eran Ben-Joseph. Together they applied their knowledge to envisioning an integrated waterfront access plan along the western banks of the River in Bronx, New York. Partnering with city officials and local organizations, together they envisioned a pedestrian friendly Bronx.

Although beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, the students worked closely with area residents and members of the borough and city’s planning commissions to develop a cohesive plan that would increase public access to the water in an ecologically and culturally sensitive manner.

Visits to the Bronx were critical for understanding how big the “superhuman” infrastructure was and how complex the social dynamics were in characterizing the neighborhood. Master of Planning student Shoko Takemoto (G ’11) was most struck by just “how … many people were engaged and involved through the interactions that we had with our community partners at the Harlem River Working Group.”

After the site visits and public design charrettes, the class divided into groups to develop preliminary proposals around four major themes: waterfront access, infrastructure adaptation, ecological restoration, and temporary activation. Rising up to the challenge, the students’ ideas ranged from creating pop-up green parks for spontaneous play and designing safe lighting corridors to cleaning environmental contamination with plants and even oysters.

Bronx residents look at potential projects drafted by the class.
Photo: Stephen Kennedy

On May 19th, the class shared their work – entitled “Bronx, Meet Your Waterfront” – to 40 residents, community leaders, and city officials. The atmosphere of enthusiasm was best captured by Sam Goodman, urban planner in the Office of the Bronx Borough President and lifelong Grand Concourse resident: “Thank you for doing what you love for a community of people that have been waiting so long for new ideas of what could be.” Wilhelm Ronda, Director of Planning and Development, was also impressed: “We were inspired – we need more of that spirit in our city.”

Locals expressed gratitude in more than just words. Michael Marrella (MCP ’03), Project Director of the City’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, observed, “ One local resident was clearly choked up with giving his thanks to the students and was nearly in tears over his appreciation for their work.”

The momentum created by the Bronx Waterfront class, sponsored in part by a Service Learning Grant through the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, will serve as a planning and advocacy resource. A community group is currently applying for funding to pursue pilot projects based on some of the ideas presented. As a follow up, a few students will spend this summer compiling the final proposal into a printed report and brochures distributed to residents.

Meeting and serving the community was at the heart of Albert Ching (G ‘12)’s impressions as an academic and professional. “The experience … with all the people we met was actually the first that gave me a taste of what real city planning feels like,” he said, “the first one that felt real, with people counting on us, with complex constituencies, funding problems. It really inspired me to think of myself as a planner.”

For more information about the class, please see their website:

SANERGY: Converting waste to energy, fertilizer, and a franchise

Children in Nairobi waiting to use the Sanergy toilet. Photo: Jim Villanueva

An estimated 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. In the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, a group of MIT students and alumni are making inroads on the problem. Ani Vallabhaneni ’11 and David Auerbach ’11 have set up a social enterprise that supports a network of franchised toilets. The waste from the toilets is converted into fertilizer and electricity with the profits providing an income for the franchisee. With funding and strategic planning advice from the PKG Center and other sources, Ani and David addressed both the critical need for sanitation, the creation of business opportunities, and the demand for electricity in the developing world. The world is taking note. Sanergy won an Echoing Green Fellowship, Grand Prize in the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, the MIT 100K Business Plan Competition prize, and was recently featured on National Public Radio.

Sanergy has expanded its team from two to now 12 students. This summer Benji Moncivaiz '11 is working as a Public Service Fellow in Nairobi assisting with the redesign of the sanitation center and co-directing the fabrication and construction teams. Moncivaiz is conducting interviews with the users of the current pilots, recruiting and training the fabrication staff, and establishing a unified method for the construction of the sanitation centers.

Read more about Sanergy in MIT News
Waste-conversion startup Sanergy bowls over competition Wild-card entry takes top prize in $100K Business Plan Competition
In The World: Turning waste into profit Students aim to improve Kenyan slum-dwellers' access to basic sanitation - and generate renewable energy and jobs along the way. Wild-card entry takes top prize in $100K Business Plan Competition

Read Sustainable Sanitation by Amy MacMillan-Bankson reprinted from News@MITSloan from April 26, 2010.

President Hockfield and Dr. Thomas Byrne hope to inspire others with their gift to the PKG Center

Anna Waldman-Brown '11, Dr. Thomas Byrne, and President Hockfield at the IDEAS Global Challenge Awards Celebration. Photo: Tom Gearty

President Susan Hockfield and Dr. Thomas Byrne have commemorated MIT's 150th with a gift to the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center. “We are honored. This is a wonderful investment in MIT students and their work for the future. The gift quite literally means the world to these students and the communities they serve,” said Sally Susnowitz, Director of the PKG Center. President Hockfield and Dr. Thomas Byrne presented awards at the Global Challenge Awards Ceremony on May 2. In her opening speech, President Hockfield said “Personally, I take great inspiration from our students who face the world's problems undaunted by scale and with a remarkable commitment to service. You have shaken off the label Generation Y to become Generation Why Not.”

An interview with Community Service Work-Study
student Keren Gu ‘14

From left to right: Rediet Abebe, Harvard undergraduate, Elizabeth Simon, MIT undergraduate, Julia Zimmerman, MIT undergraduate, and Keren Gu, MIT undergraduate. Photo: courtesey of Keren Gu

Students in Community Service Work-Study positions often say that their experience has clarified their career focus. Employers tell us that their work-study student employee proved to be a catalyst for positive change in their non-profit organization. Run jointly through the PKG Center and Student Financial Services, Linden McEntire, the Administrator of the program, actively works with students to ensure that they are maximizing their potential in positions that are both challenging and meaningful.

Why do you tutor?
At first, I started working at Girls' Angle just to have a part-time job. But after working with a few girls, it be came my duty to go to the meets and to reveal how fascinating mathematics can be. Many girls at Girls' Angle have an interest in math, and I love keeping them interested and amuse them with everything that mathematics can do.

What have you learned about Cambridge or Boston through your work?
Girls' Angle meets at a Synagogue on Magazine street in Cambridge. After every meet, Ken would drive us (the mentors) back to our campus (Havard/MIT). Through Girls' Angle, Cambridge appears to be a very sweet and smart city. The people I've met, the girls and their parents are extremely nice people, and the girls are brilliant.

What's your best story?
I always tell my friends about how smart the girls at Girls' Angle are. Ken has taught me to motivate new mathematical concepts without actually using any advanced jargon. For example, during one of the meets, my task was to teach modular arithmetic to a girl, Gabrielle. Without mentioning words and notations like "Z_p", or "generators", or even "groups", I was able to lead her to reason/prove Fermat's Little Theorem.

What has your experience taught you about yourself?
Mentoring math not only taught me a brand new method of teaching math, it also made me reflect a lot on how I learned math when I was young. Though I know a lot of math for an average person, or even a MIT person, my problem solving skill doesn't exactly live up to the amount of math knowledge I have. I realized that it was due to "too much reading/learning but not enough thinking". Girls' Angle made me start to think about a problem much longer and harder before I start looking for the solution.

How do you connect your tutoring to your life at MIT?
Tutoring, in many ways, helps me relax from all the work MIT has to offer. It gets my find off of all the psets and due dates. Through tutoring, I also formed friendship with other tutors from MIT as well as from Harvard. I really appreciate that MIT's work-study has connected me with Girls' Angle, and it played a significant part of my first year at MIT.

To represent Girls' Angle, I went to the First Robotics Career Expo with three other mentors from Girls' Angle. Our goal was to gain publicity. At the expo, many parents and organization leaders spoke to us with their interest in Girls' Angle. With their support and collaboration with Girls' Angle, we are looking forward to expanding to other cities!