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Virginia Tech and University of Virginia students team up for sustainability

September 7, 2017

Group of students in hard hats visit construction site in Germany
Students in the Sustainable Policy Making and Planning in Europe program visit the construction site of multimodal tunnels in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia may be rivals on the football field but when it comes to learning about sustainability and best practices in Europe, they are on the same team.

This summer marked the seventh time that students from both universities traveled to Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, France, and Hungary to learn about sustainable practices in energy, transportation, and water quality. Faculty from Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia have guided that learning.

In four modules, the students study the fundamentals of sustainability and environmental policy making in modern Europe; Europe’s wicked sustainability challenges and the roles for civil society; water resource management, including global availability, significant threats, negative human impact, allocation and regulation, distribution, and equity; and how European cities promote walking, cycling, and public transport.

“Throughout the three-week trip, students evaluate innovative European sustainability planning and policy approaches and we challenge them to think about how these might work if imported to their communities in the United States,” said Ralph Buehler, associate professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs in the National Capital Region.

Buehler, an expert in sustainable transport, has led the group from Virginia Tech for five of the seven years. Todd Schenk, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in Blacksburg, joined the program for the second consecutive year. Schenk’s focus is on environmental policy and planning and collaborative governance issues. Suzanne Moomaw, associate professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia is an expert in sustainable urban systems and taught water policy in the program for five summers.

Twenty students participated in the 2017  Sustainable Policy Making and  Planning in Europe program, eight of them from Virginia Tech and 12 from the University of Virginia. Open to graduate and undergraduate students in all majors, the program began prior to the trip with online preparation focusing on the differences in government structure, planning, and sustainability between the United States and Europe. Students also developed study questions and research goals.

“The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech collaboration gives students the benefit of expertise from both schools and builds new networks in the commonwealth to tackle the tough issues,” Moomaw said.

The students met with local architects, designers, planners, policy makers, and researchers who are taking on the most difficult problems not only in their own cities, but also in the world. Among these were experts from an international organization based in Hungary that is helping to advance sustainability-related policy making in new and future European Union member states and the Czech Republic with activists working on both refugee and Roma rights issues in Budapest.

Kristen Hornbaker, of King George, Virginia, a junior majoring in political science and public relations in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said learning about the refugee crisis facing Hungary was of particular interest to her, the kind of problem she hopes to work on and help solve once she graduates.

The students spent one of the three weeks at Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, with a learning laboratory for water resource management located right in the adjacent neighborhood, Lugano.

In a daily course blog, students shared the day’s activities and their own realizations. Sam Chanesman, of Herndon, Virginia, a senior majoring in urban affairs and planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and a 2017 Keystone fellow, wrote about how students studied and proposed solutions for Lake Muzzano, a polluted lake now protected by a Swiss nature conservancy.

Buehler’s module focusing on transport policy, planning, and sustainability centered in Switzerland and Germany. In Karlsruhe, Germany, the group heard about public transport from experts at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and was invited to a presentation on public transport infrastructure at Karlsruhe Rail Infrastructure Company (KASIG), working on the city’s transport infrastructure project.

Josh Gritz, a fourth-year student majoring in architecture and civil engineering at the University of Virginia, commented, “Sustainable Europe is an exhilarating exercise in perspective-taking. The ability to experience almost a dozen exciting and contrasting cities in less than a month is invaluable, and opened my eyes to the myriad problems and solutions relating to sustainability. I now carry with me an internationally inspired set of skills (besides just LEED guidelines) to tackle sustainability problems here in America, in a time where sustainable practice is more pertinent than ever.”

During a side trip to Vienna, Calvin Tran, of Chantilly, Virginia, a senior majoring in political science in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, observed some best practices. “All throughout the city, there were public bikes that could be rented, with designated bike lanes, too. Vienna seems to have very good bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure,” Tran blogged.

For more information on the Sustainable Policy Making and  Planning in Europe program, contact Ralph Buehler.

Written by Barbara Micale

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