Harvard Yard during the fall is quite a spectacular experience. The different ages and species of the trees scattered across Old Yard and Tercentenary Theater result in an almost impressionistic display of light and color. Tourists flock not only to take pictures with John Harvard, or to pose with the squirrels, but also to enjoy the natural beauty of Harvard in autumn.
However, as the season progresses, the leaves begin to fall, and these seasonal experiences are interrupted by the cacophony of leaf blowers. These leaf blowers are a nuisance in a plethora of ways. Sure, they aid in maintaining a manicured environment through which students, tourists, faculty, and staff commute every day, but they contribute to noise and air pollution, and prevent the leaves from entering back into the circle of life as nutrients for other organisms. Arif Khan, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and student sustainability grant recipient, formulated a project to confront these issues.
Of his idea, Arif says, "It came to me last year, it was mid-November and I was visiting Harvard—it was an open house for the fellowship program I am now a part of. It was a beautiful fall day, the weather was perfect and the leaves were really beautiful. I was walking around the Yard, enjoying the moment, and all the sudden, the leaves descended. There were all these leaf blowers and it was really noisy and people were disrupted—there were tour groups there and they couldn't hear each other. It just seemed crazy that that's how we deal with leaves which actually provide nutrients for the soil, that we burn fossil fuels and blow them into piles and take them elsewhere. Whereas the ideal is that we can collect them, compost them, and put them back in the soil. So, I got the idea at that moment—I thought wouldn't it be cool to get a bunch of people raking and playing in the leaves in Harvard Yard."
So on Wednesday, November 18, the first Harvard Yard Rake-In was held in Old Yard where students, faculty, fellows, and tourists alike grabbed rakes and contributed to a healthier, less noisy environment.
Arif comes from a background in urban planning and has worked with the United Nations on disaster relief and preparedness in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Coming from this perspective, he looks at ways to take advantage of social capital—ways to bring the members of the community together to work toward a common goal—improving the environment of a shared space.
Although the more practical benefits of the Rake-In, like the reduction of carbon dioxide, harmful air particulates, and spending on fossil fuels, are very important, Arif is extremely interested in the perceptions of activities—for example, viewing the Rake-In as a way to integrate altruism and exercise. Members of the Harvard community come together, make Harvard Yard a more inviting space, form social bonds, and get some exercise all at the same time.
I thought, well wouldn’t it be fun to get a bunch of people, organize them, and have them rake the leaves, so they could get exercise at the same time as doing something good as well as offsetting or reducing the amount of carbon emissions.
Yard work is a form of exercise that people in urban areas do not always have access to, and could be seen as an alternative to going to a gym or organized sports. In this way, exercise is no longer just a self-benefiting activity. By taking a rake and clearing the Yard of fallen leaves, participants can enjoy the crisp autumn weather and the esthetics of Harvard Yard, build a scarecrow, form and develop new relationships, and direct their energy in a way that allows them to benefit others in addition to themselves.