Developing for Social Impact

This course explores a question with great currency but no methodology: how can real estate development both advance social purpose and account for development feasibility?

During the last 40 years of neoliberal city-making, those shaping the built world have converged in their aim to harness real estate development for positive social impact. Government agencies use surplus land and development exactions and incentives to steer private investment toward public policy goals; foundations, community development corporations and other social sector organizations use market strategies to advance their missions; and real estate developers, eager to prove themselves responsible civic actors, have become social entrepreneurs, seeking to provide social and environmental benefits that ripple beyond their project boundaries.

Yet social impact goals can be elusive—hard to define, measure and achieve—and they only arise if projects are financially feasible. But there is no established method to harmonize social impact with development feasibility. To address this vexing gap, the course will serve as a social impact development workshop, with two interwoven strands:

  • Through readings, assignments, visits by outside speakers, and in-class workshops, we will mine the adjacent fields of corporate social responsibility, social impact investing, venture philanthropy and equitable development for tools and approaches to align profit and purpose. Using these tools, students will devise a model for incorporating social impact goals into market-oriented real estate development.
  • With its strong development climate, sophisticated development community and high public aspirations for development, Boston is an excellent social impact development laboratory. For their term project, interdisciplinary student teams will apply their social impact development model to a Boston development site subject to an active public disposition process and present their competition entries to mid-term and final review panels.

We will conclude by discussing policy changes that could increase the feasibility of purpose-driven development and will probe how reliance on private investment to produce public goods both advances and impedes positive social and environmental outcomes.


Up to six seats will be held for MDes students, with priority given to REBE Area students.


This course will be taught online through Friday, February 4th.