Summer Session 2013: U.Va. Students Study Sustainability in Europe

August 13, 2013

Sustainability lessons can come from all corners of the globe, and this summer 19 students from the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University went to Europe to look at initiatives involving energy, water use and transportation.

U.Va.’s Suzanne Morse Moomaw, an associate professor of urban and environmental planning in the School of Architecture, co-led the class alongside Virginia Tech’s John Randolph, a professor of urban affairs and planning, and Ralph Buehler, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning. Fourteen students from U.Va. and five from Virginia Tech participated.

“We looked at large and small initiatives,” Moomaw said. “We looked at government policies and public will, expressed either through the government or through individual efforts. We wanted the students to think that things don’t have to be as they are.”

In the energy sector, the students studied alternative energy sources, such as biofuels and photovoltaic cells; government policies, such as urban planning and taxes; case studies involving building efficiency and wind power; and the culture and policies that affect sustainability in Europe.

“The average European accounts for just 40 percent of the consumed energy and carbon emissions of the average American,” states the overview to the course. “Why is this so? What do they know and do that we in the U.S. don’t? European countries and their cities have a history of higher energy costs and government directives that have resulted in better integration of energy systems and use into the design, planning and operation of their communities.”

In the course’s water module, students examined the European water supply, how it is used and how it is threatened. They started in Basel, Switzerland, where the students met representatives from the University of Basel and learned about the impact that pollution in the Rhine River had had on fish and other aquatic life. Later in the program, they met  with a faculty member from Franklin College Switzerland, who gave them a guided tour of a very troubled lake near Lugano. Using Lake Muzzano  as a learning laboratory, the students saw firsthand the impact of pollution, but also learned about the efforts at reclamation.

“There has been a lot of work among the European states to clean up the waterways and we got a chance to learn how it is being doing and the challenges faced,” Moomaw said.

Moomaw stressed the importance of the Rhine River, which starts in Switzerland and flows between France and Germany and into the Netherlands. Having several jurisdictions connected to one body of water forces a message of interdependency.

“Every country’s problem is also someone else’s problem; therefore, a global collaboration is necessary to change the way we view and handle the environmental issues facing our world,” said U.Va.’s Ashlyn McCurley, 21, of Lynchburg, a fourth-year student double-majoring in urban and environmental planning in the School of Architecture and in government in the College of Arts & Sciences

In another module, the students examined European transportation policies, such as congestion pricing and additional taxes on trucks, and practices such as walking and bicycling, car sharing and using high-speed rail.

“They have a fantastic public transport system with multiple modes – bicycles, buses, trains – so that people don’t have to drive cars,” Moomaw said. “They have smartphones where people can track the buses and trains and know how many minutes away they are and the mode that is the best choice. Swiss trains, trams and buses do run right on time.”

The University of Virginia’s Transit Service already has a similar tracking system for its buses. Also, the communitywide emphasis on biking struck a familiar cord for students.  Moomaw said that while she is interested in what European ideas could be imported to the United States, there was also discussion about things that being done well in the United States and the policies that will encourage more.

“For each policy, planning approach and case study in Europe, we attempt to determine how and if European policies could work in America,” Moomaw wrote in her course overview.

McCurley said the trip has spurred her interest in further examining the intersection of practice and policy.

“Because I am studying both urban planning and government, I am always interested in how the two fields come together to work toward creating better places to live, especially when it comes to protecting and maintaining the natural environment,” she said.

McCurley, who plans to start an accelerated master’s degree in the Frank Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy, said she ultimately hopes to work with local and regional governments on housing and transportation policy. She said implementing alternate energy, increasing access to clean water and reducing automobile use will “be long processes that take many different groups working together across time. Learning from each other’s mistakes and sharing information are important steps in starting the dialogue.”

The students were able to see how some of the policies work in practice.

“In Zurich, there is a campaign for people to limit their annual use of energy to 2,000 watts and we were looking at efforts to retrofit houses in Basel and Zurich,” Moomaw said. “It sets a benchmark and there is some evidence they are moving toward it.”

The students also had an opportunity to participate.

“During the water module they assisted in developing a citizens’ guide to water use and wrote op-eds for their hometown newspapers,” Moomaw said.

The hands-on experience has been inspirational to some.

“This course has pushed me into action,” said U.Va.’s Asher McGlothlin, 20, of Grundy, a third-year architecture major with a minor in architectural history. “Before I was only interested in sustainability practices. Now I am obsessed with learning more about them and implementing them in my own life.”

McGlothlin had seen the class as an opportunity to learn about sustainable energy practices, some of which he might be able to implement in his hometown, where coal mining is the main industry. He understands the difficulty of change, but he said individuals through their actions create larger change.

“If we want to live in a better, cleaner world, we all have to contribute,” he said. “For those of us who see the value in protecting our planet through sustainability, we must become the change that we wish to see in those around us.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications