The field lab is what drew Mary Treacy to Harvard Kennedy School.  A first year Master in Public Policy student, Treacy designed her study around gaining skills and practical experience. “Learning in a classroom setting is important for building foundational knowledge, but it’s essential to know how to translate it into the real world,” she said. “Experiential learning provides practice, but it also provides a deeper understanding of each concept’s importance and how the concepts interact. Classroom lessons tend to make topics seem more black-and-white than they truly are. Once you start applying them outside of the classroom, you find more layers of complexity.”

Her lab course of choice was DPI 325, "Urban Politics Field Lab: Political Representation and Accountability,” led by Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, an assistant professor of public policy, who has been mentored in teaching field-based classes at HKS by Linda Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy. “I learned from Linda to fully lean into a real-world scenario for the students,” he said. He also found the support—and connections—of Harvard's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government extremely important. “Getting a chance to try out working inside governments is valuable to students,” he said of the course. “The benefit to experiential learning is that more students get involved in wanting to be in government later. That's our bottom line.”

Students had their choice of five community projects, each presented by a leader in that community:

  • Boston: determine the impact of the Open Newbury program on businesses to improve the city’s Open Streets program.
  • Everett, Mass.: help the city develop and test a communication and education plan for the Transportation Demand Management Ordinance.
  • Newburyport, Mass.: engage the community for feedback on mixed-use real estate development proposals in the city’s historic waterfront downtown.
  • Provincetown, Mass.: identify ways to create and preserve year-round housing, particularly for the local workforce, with a focus on year-round market rate rentals.
  • Providence, RI: investigate the current users’ (and non-users’) experiences with their recycling collection services and test creative behavioral approaches to improve residents’ (correct) usage of recycling collection services.

Treacy was intrigued with the Open Streets program in Boston, one of Mayor Michelle Wu’s commitments, which started on Newbury Street. Open Streets is a nationwide program to make city streets more accessible to pedestrians by closing vehicle traffic. The concept has become so popular that Boston has expanded it in the years since it originated but wants to evaluate its impact on businesses and residents to improve the program in the future. Treacy chose that project with fellow Harvard and MIT students Noah Kahan, Austin Davis, and Lior Sirkis.

Justin de Benedictis-Kessner.

“The benefit to experiential learning is that more students get involved in wanting to be in government later. That's our bottom line.”

Justin de Benedictis-Kessner

“One thing that attracted me was there was a pretty clear scope, but still enough flexibility for us to take it in whatever direction we wanted to,” explained Treacy. “I am familiar with the Open Newbury Street program, so as soon as the city planner made the pitch, I was already imagining all the ways we could take it.”

Her teammates agreed. “We were all very passionate about wanting to be on this project and work with the City of Boston,” said Kahan, a second-year master’s student studying urban planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “I think that passion and motivation by all of us created a team where we really were excelled.”

Davis enrolled in the course as a second-year city planning master’s student at MIT in the School of Architecture and Planning. He had heard exciting things about the course from others at MIT. “For me, it was pretty awesome to be on a team of two city planners and two policy students,” he said. “An idea can mean one thing in the planning world and something completely different in the policy world. I had to learn to change my perspective many times.”

Students in a Boston City Hall conference room giving a presentation.

Sirkis MPP 2025, with a background in municipal policy, agreed. “As a public policy student, this course allowed me to not only develop and apply theoretical knowledge in a real-world context but also to effectively communicate these insights to decision-makers,” she said. “Working in a multidisciplinary team presented its own set of challenges and learnings, preparing me for similar collaborations in my future career.”

The team focused on Newbury Street, a mile-long tourist shopping and dining destination. Open Newbury started in 2016 as a one-day, car-free pilot, grew to three days from the summer of 2017 to 2021, to six Sundays in 2022, and then expanded to July through October in 2023. The team’s challenge was to better understand the impact of Open Newbury on area businesses and enable Boston to improve the program both on Newbury Street and any other neighborhoods where it might expand in future years.

What made this project particularly exciting was the team’s collaboration with Visa, which enabled them to quantitatively assess the impact of the Open Newbury Street program using high-level insights regarding spending patterns within the area.

In presenting their research—combining measurable insights with interviews of businesses and stakeholders, and peer city comparisons—to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s team, it became clear that the field lab team’s objective was not to tell Boston what to do, but to analyze the situation and present options.

Lior Sirkis smiling.

“The data we presented appeared to be as surprising to many city officials as it was to us, highlighting the critical role of thorough research in economic development projects.”

Lior Sirkis MPP 2025

Their research found that opinions on extending the Open Street concept were mixed. While most businesses noted an increase in foot traffic, they found that there was not an increase in spending, for example. And there were other improvements to the program—a weather policy, compensation for lost revenue with pick up/deliveries—that businesses expressed a desire for the city to provide.

The team prioritized the policy options in four critical areas: public communications, program structure, urban design and placemaking, and activation.

“It is hard to be in a position where you are objective, when you really want something to succeed,” said Sirkis. “The data we presented appeared to be as surprising to many city officials as it was to us, highlighting the critical role of thorough research in economic development projects. Our approach, blending qualitative interview methods and quantitative methods using aggregated and anonymous spending insights from Visa, provided a more comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand and the different approaches that the city can take with the Open Newbury Street program.”

“I think the city planners were expecting to see mostly positive results across the board, including positive feedback from businesses and positive impacts on foot traffic and spending,” noted Treacy. “Our data painted a different picture. The quantitative analysis showed mixed results, and feedback from businesses was also mixed. Even for businesses reporting overall positive opinions, we saw that there were very real challenges they were facing, and it would be important for Boston to address these if they want to maximize the program’s impact and get more buy-in from businesses.”

Mary Treacy smiling.

“Classroom lessons tend to make topics seem more black and white then they truly are. Once you start applying them outside of the classroom, you find more layers of complexity.”

Mary Treacy MPP 2025

The combination of research, urban planning, team collaboration and face-to-face discussions with Boston city leaders proved a valuable learning tool for Treacy and her teammates.

“Before HKS, I was at the Federal Reserve working on macroeconomic research and I knew my skills would be useful to the quantitative analysis,” she said. “This was my first time undertaking a qualitative analysis. We conducted both interviews and surveys which were critical to our final recommendations. And with two team members (Kahan and Davis) in urban planning, I also learned a lot about urban design.”

Sirkis highlighted the value of presenting options for a real-world issue. “I felt a sense of accomplishment seeing the large turnout at our presentation, which underscored the project's significance to the administration,” she said. “I gained so much throughout the project. I significantly enhanced my abilities in qualitative and quantitative research, sharpening my skills in information analysis and insight generation.”

Sirkis also recalled another valuable lesson, important no matter where her future takes her. “I further developed my capacity for effective teamwork, especially in environments with diverse viewpoints.”

Photography by Jessica Scranton

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