Eighteen pairs of eyes opened through experiences in five countries over three weeks with two School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) experts! This summer, an immersive Virginia Tech study abroad program exposed students to sustainability in action, equipping them to consider U.S. applications.

Faculty leaders for the annual “Sustainable Policy Making and Planning in Europe” summer class are Ralph Buehler, Associate Professor in Urban Affairs & Planning and Faculty Fellow, Metropolitan Institute along with Todd Schenk, Assistant Professor in Urban Affairs & Planning.

Dr. Buehler describes the course balance between experiential learning and assessment: “First-person experiences are very important. Students observe and learn about integrated public transport, pedestrian zones, traffic calming strategies, and other elements of a sustainable transport system. The research part complements this experience, in determining how policies work and how success is reached. What are determinants for attractive policies and what are possible barriers for implementation in Europe and the United States?”

Students incorporate their specific sustainability interests into the research projects and presentations. A 2016 participant analyzed policies for supporting elderly populations with aging-in-place and social housing services, a research effort informed by German planning methods and Hungarian public housing developments. As Dr. Schenk explains, “students are charged to compare and contrast an area of policy and how it is differently administered between U.S. and European jurisdictions, whether local, regional, national or international/EU.”

Other students in the 2016 course examined renewable energy and sustainable technology, comparing various policy options, including tax credits and feed-in tariffs. Virginia is not among the U.S. states that offer such a ‘bonus’ for putting renewable energy into the grid, but in Europe incentives are widespread to increase the proportion of renewable energy.

Sustainability is a wide spectrum with many topics available for student research, including urban planning; walking, cycling, and public transport; environmental policy; the role of civil society; and economic implications. Furthermore, SPIA’s “Sustainable Europe” program directly addresses the wicked challenges encountered by urban planners, like the refugee crisis and human rights issues.

Participants experienced and studied sustainability in Freiburg (Germany), Riva San Vitale (Switzerland), Venice (Italy), Vienna (Austria), Budapest (Hungary) and Ostrava (Czech Republic). In Switzerland, the delegation studied at Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship, housed in a 200-year-old restored villa.

Two serendipitous experiences occurred in the Italian portion of the 2016 journey that provided additional learning opportunities. The group’s stay in Venice dovetailed with the international architectural exhibition Biennale, where 63 countries displayed projects. Students Starla Couso and Emily Baker wrote about this unexpected and enriching happenstance, saying “The topics were widespread from urban planning to material studies to sustainable development to architectural theory, so everyone found something (or many things!) that fascinated them.”


Enviro policy making photo, Venice water taxi

Also while in Italy, students eye witnessed the flood warning system in Venice. This transpired entirely by coincidence, after the risks Venice is facing (land subsidence, climate change and altered use of the lagoon) and what it is doing to address them. The water rose and the alarms sounded!

Among the other elements unique to “Sustainable Europe:”

  • Online module prior to travel. According to Dr. Buehler, “this is crucial for students to maximize their experience and learning in Europe. The online part gives students a new set of lenses on Europe and sustainability, so they arrive at a point of understanding before the trip begins.” Baseline grounding in institutions and frameworks increases the productivity of student encounters with sustainability scholars and practitioners (such as the visits with local government officials, air quality NGOs and steel mill employees in the Czech Republic).
  • Virginia Tech/University of Virginia enrollments. The 2016 course included 12 students from VT and six from UVA, and the 2017 program will be jointly offered. Students benefit from additional networking and connections to professors they wouldn’t get to know otherwise.
  • Flexible credit options. Tech students can choose a 3-credit version or a more rigorous 6-credit option, depending on their tuition budget and academic goals.

View from the train station in Freiburg

Check out Dr. Buehler’s personal blog and the Sustainable Europe blog, which provides a platform to communicate with the universities, families and other interested parties during the program. Writing the posts is a responsibility that rotates among students, who enjoy this opportunity to synthesize and write about a day’s takeaways.

The 2017 program has been announced, with applications due by February 15th, 2017. Please visit http://europestudies.wordpress.com for more information, and to apply.