A group of 14 students headed to the Virginia Tech Center for European Studies and Architecture in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, this past summer, enrolled in a four-week, six-credit course developed by the School of Public and International Affairs to review the concept of sustainable development in a comparative context and to explore the social dimensions of sustainability.

"The Sustainable Europe program offers students the special opportunity to explore sustainable development in an international and comparative context. Through team teaching, collaboration between the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, and a focus on the multiple disciplinary and professional connections required to develop a sustainability focus, the course models the collaborative processes that are the foundation of sustainability research, policy making, and implementation," said Anne Khademian, director of the School of Public and International Affairs.

Virginia Tech Associate Professor Derek Hyra, in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning in the National Capital Region, and Ralph Hall, assistant professor in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning in Blacksburg, coordinated with Frank Dukes, lecturer and director of the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia, to design the course program organized around a sequence of three interrelated modules.

The first module was intended to help students discover the emergence of sustainable development through a lens of key international conferences and publications often referred to in discussions of sustainability. They also reviewed and discussed several critical ideas frequently used when describing the concept.

“During the first module, the students developed an understanding of a broad range of sustainability concepts. They were each given a subject to explore – such as the precautionary principle, weak versus strong sustainability, the steady-state economy, decoupling – and were asked to teach their colleagues what they had learnt about the subject. This proved to be an effective way of exploring ideas and provided the students with an opportunity to think independently and practice their presentation skills,” said Hall.

According to Hall, by the end of the first module, the students had quickly comprehended a wide range of subjects, and, more importantly, had developed an understanding of how these subjects relate to one another. Then, during the trip to Bern, they had an opportunity to demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge during a conversation with senior members of the Swiss Federal Government who prepared the Swiss Sustainable Development Strategy 2012-2015. The students also met with U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland Donald S. Beyer Jr.

The second module focused on the social equity component of sustainability by interrogating notions of ethnic/racial diversity, social exclusion, and neighborhood regeneration within metropolitan areas in Western Europe and the United States. The module also explored, cross nationally, the redevelopment of neighborhoods that suffer from physical and social deprivation.

Hyra’s research on Bronzeville in Chicago, Harlem in New York City, and the Shaw U/Street district in Washington, D.C., has investigated the relationships among race/ethnicity, social housing initiatives, and economic development policies and explored how these relationships in different contexts contribute to and shape the redevelopment of socially-excluded communities. Leading this second module, Hyra helped students assess the ways in which a range of nation-state policies contribute to circumstances in socially-excluded neighborhoods and explore different policies that have attempted to alleviate ill conditions through facilitating mixed-income communities.

During the third and final module of the course, the students examined how European communities are using conflict transformation and collaborative planning processes to address conflicts engendered by efforts to promote sustainability.

“As part of the last module we chose to highlight three European Union countries where sustainability -- complicated by issues such as health, community development, immigration, housing, transportation, water, and beyond – offers particular challenges because of its impact on multiple communities and levels of government,” said Dukes. Marseille, France (for immigration and multiculturalism issues); Zurich, Switzerland (for integrating old with new); and Belfast, Northern Ireland (for legacies of conflict) were the three case studies used in the classroom.

Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia each had seven students in the summer program. The students maintained a blog while they were away to share their experiences with families and friends. Those attending from Virginia Tech were: 

In addition to the time spent in Riva San Vitale and Bern, the students also traveled to Marseille and toured the city’s colonial port redevelopment project, known as EuroMéditerranée, and to Zurich. “The field trips to different cities throughout Europe were my favorite part and really made the class material come to life. Studying abroad provides the unique experience to be able to live and experience what you are studying in the classroom,” said Morillo.

Palmucci said she would recommend this program to anyone considering studying abroad. "Living in Riva San Vitale was an unforgettable, amazing experience. You become immersed in the Swiss-Italian lifestyle and Learning and observing places outside the classroom really help develop a unique and deeper understanding of what is being studied. Overall, Sustainable Europe was a truly life changing program," Palmucci said.

Funding for the Sustainable Europe program this year came from National Capital Region Operations; the Office of the Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education; the College of Architecture and Urban Studies; and the School of Public and International Affairs.

The program is open to both graduate and undergraduate students in all majors. The course is being offered again in summer 2013 and will be taught by Ralph Buehler assistant professor in Urban Affairs and Planning in the National Capital Region; John Randolph, professor in Urban Affairs and Planning in Blacksburg; and Suzanne Moomaw, associate professor in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. The 2013 course will focus on sustainable energy, water, and transport. More details can be found on the Sustainable Europe Summer Course website. Interested students can contact Ralph Buehler or John Randolph.



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