A Quick Look at Marseille and Zurich

After our weekend visit to Bern, our group visited two more cities, Marseille and Zurich, as well as taking an impromptu trip to Nice.  On Thursday morning we all loaded into an extremely hot and cramped bus/small van type vehicle to make the 6-hour trip to Marseille.  Upon arriving in Marseille, I immediately noticed the differences between Marseille and Bern.  Marseille identifies more with an American city like New York; it is bustling with cars and people, and dirtier and smellier than the pristine Swiss capital of Bern, although its port area sets it apart.  It was also evident just from observing the people on the streets that Marseille was much more ethnically/racially diverse than other cities.  We had learned about this in several readings with Professor Hyra that gave demographics and historical facts about the diversity found in Marseille.   These readings, among other things, talked about how the multiculturalism in Marseille may have been one of the factors that kept Marseille from rioting, like Paris did in 2005.  Unlike Paris and other French cities, Marseille has its working class people, public housing projects, and ghettos in the inner city area, not the outer suburbs.  They are included in the city structure.  We learned about this unique city structure in the readings in class, and it was further magnified as we walked to our hostel, which was in an “interesting” part of town.  Our hostel was located about a 15-minute walk from the port area, where most of the shopping and restaurants are, and through some windy side streets filled with trash and some strange smells.  While it was not exactly a pleasant place to stay, it did really show us the real inner-city part of Marseille, the part that is not wrapped up in redevelopment.

View of Marseille

Other readings that Professor Hyra gave us talked about the Euro Mediterranean redevelopment project going on in Marseille.   It was portrayed in the readings (to me) as a glorified sort of port redevelopment that would benefit Marseille in many ways.  Although we visited the city in the middle of the project, so there was lots of construction, the redevelopment part we did see (such as the revamped docks) were very empty and almost seemed to not even belong to the same bustling city that was a 15 minute walk away.  After spending the weekend in Marseille, it was clear to me that there was a stark contrast between the theoretical Marseille I had in my mind, and what the city was actually like on the ground.  There were many highlights to our trip though, including a dinner at a place right on the port, and a trip to the island of Frioul, with a Mediterranean beach and views for miles.  Leaving Marseille there was one small blip in our plan; our train home left early and therefore our entire group, all 14 of us, missed our train.  This resulted in us taking a train to Nice for the night, enjoying the Bastille day fireworks, and then catching an early train from Nice back to Riva about 12 hours late.  I don’t think anyone in our group complained too much about this mistake.

Bastille Day Fireworks

On Tuesday we all successfully boarded a morning train to go to Zurich for the day.  Some of our readings with Professor Dukes, who met up with us in Marseille, focused on community participation, as well as the activities in class that helped us understand how to have dialogue on important issues, rather than debate.  To put these concepts into practice we listened to a presentation from Sigrun Rhode speaking about different examples of community participation that she had worked on in Zurich, including developing urban gardening and farming spaces in the city that would be available to everyone.  Her presentation on organizing community participation and taking everyone’s concerns into account when developing new areas in the city made it seem although it was an easy and painless process.  However, even just from the discussions that we have had in class where there are minor disagreements, I know that community participation is often not as cut and dry as it seems.  It is often difficult to combine the interests of a population with the policies and regulations of a government, and the end goals of the two groups are often at odds.  The readings highlight one of the most important thing you can do for this type of participation is to try to engage as many people as possible and engage them as deeply as possible, which is was obvious that Sigrun Rhode and her office attempt to do.
These two trips have brought us to the end of our study abroad program here in Riva.  My blog only covers a few main trips and a few of the things I have learned on this program. This was my first time being abroad without my parents, and my first time actually living anywhere for longer than 5 days outside the US.  The experience, as almost every single student who studies abroad says, was eye-opening and amazing.  I’m considering attempting to convince my parents to let me study abroad for a whole semester this upcoming year: so with any luck, maybe I will return to Switzerland in the near future!


Synthesis of Module 1 and Weekend Trip to Bern

Module 1 of our study abroad course has both given me a more comprehesive view on sustainability, as a general subject, and as a principle to apply to our life practices.  I have gained a more narrow and specified view in the sense I am more knowledge about different basic aspects of sustainability, but a also a broader view on sustainability now that I see how sustainability comes together and can be applied in a real life setting.  What I have learned so far both in our class time and projects, and culminating in our trip to Bern has changed my personal concept of sustainability in both ways.

Class Projects

In our classroom learning, specifically with the group projects, my definition of sustainability was narrowed and tailored.  I covered the topic of externalities, but listened to my classmates present on other topics such as the green economy, or the government role in promoting innovation.  Hearing about each of these specific topics allowed me to learn about some of the concepts that combine to make up sustainability, and they are each distinct and different.  The word sustainability is such a huge concept that it sometimes hard to define or be able to talk about succinctly.  Being able to cite specific, topics that are encompassed by this intimidating word is a very useful skill.  Sustainability is about the big picture in the long run, but it is impossible to understand this topic without first studying the more strictly defined building blocks of sustainability.

Several of the topics we covered in class were new to me, and even the ones I had experience with were given new meanings.  With my own topic of externalities, I had never heard of the Pigovian theory or the Coase theorem, and this now greatly supplements my understanding of externalities and how we can think about them.  Discussing the paradox of efficiency and job creation was also something that I had not been able to consider before.  The conundrum, simply, is that as we get more efficient with our capital, therefore needing less labor, and this means fewer jobs.  Fewer jobs means less income for more people, and any politician that pushes this platform will find scare support.  How then, can we promote efficiency in our society?  Paradoxes and cyclical effects such as this one was a way of thinking about sustainability that I had not previously been exposed to.

Trip to Bern

View of the Aare river in Bern, which we took a quick dip in. The water flows at around 2 meters/second and was a balmy 55 degrees Fahrenheit when we went in.

Our first module culminated in a weekend trip to Bern, the capital of Switzerland.  The knowledge that I had gained so far in this module was reinforced and illuminated by many of the activities and meetings we took part in during our stay in Bern.  The meetings we had in Bern and  walking around and exploring the city gave insight to how Switzerland as a nation is succeeding in sustainability.  Our group had three important meetings while in Switzerland: one with the US ambassador to Switzerland, Donald Beyer, another with several governmental officials, Stefan Ruchti of the Federal Department of Foregin Affairs, Daniel Wachter, head of Sustainable Development section, Department of Environment, Transport, Energy, and Communications (DETEC), and Daniel Dubas also with DETEC, and a presentation on photovoltaic power/tour of Bern University with Fabian Streiff.

Ambassador Beyer was extremely personable and knowledgeable, and after a brief introduction, he allowed us to ask him questions about any of the topics we had covered, sustainability, and the relations between our two countries.  Meeting Ambassador Beyer was also especially exciting for me since he lived in Alexandria, Virginia, very close to my hometown of Arlington, Virginia.  From this meeting I learned many things, such as that when the US wishes to deal with countries we may not have the best diplomatic relationship with, such as Iran, we do so through Switzerland.  Switzerland is also a very prominent investor in the US, which previously I was not aware of.  It was also interesting to learn that much of Switzerland’s energy comes from nuclear power sources, but after the Fukishima disaster, they pledged to phase out this power source.

The biggest concept that I took away from our meeting with the Ambassador was concerning the differences in our two countries and the underlying history behind it.  As Ambassador Beyer pointed out, America is a large, young country based on rebellion with a polarized and centralized political system.  Switzerland is a smaller, older country that places great value on protecting its historical integrity and had an extremely decentralized political system.

These main factors combine to show that the efforts toward sustainability and the definition of progress in Switzerland and the US have evolved very differently.  America is a country that gained its independence through rebellion, and holds dear to its heart the concepts of manifest destiny and the American dream.  With the growing population in America, the idea of expansion of infrastructure through roads and housing through suburbs is prevalent in our society.  Switzerland, on the other hand, prides itself on keeping its land intact, and its countryside green.  Almost 80% of the Swiss live in apartments, and towns are dense and made for bikes, trains, and walking, rather than cars.  From our discussion with the Ambassador, it became clear to me that the definition of progress for Switzerland is preserving what they have in their country, and succeeds because this is important to every citizen.  America’s political system is also centralized and can be very polarized at times.  Often, if one side of the spectrum says they believe in climate change, the other side, almost just on the principle of disagreement, says they do not believe in climate change.  This divide plays itself out in legislative bodies, making it difficult to pass laws or come to a general consensus on important issues.  The Ambassador contrasted the American political system with Switzerland by speaking about how each canton has its own government, combined of 5-7 members of different parties, and that they make decisions though collaboration and discussion.  This allows the Swiss to be able to pass legislation and regulate the people that live in their canton with fairness and efficiency.

One of the last, but most striking differences that Ambassador Beyer pointed out was the sheer size difference between America and Switzerland.  Switzerland is roughly the size of Virginia, just one out of the 50 states in America.  Its compactness forces it to be dense, and also allows for it to have such an extensive and well-run train system.  America is built on roads, since it is such a large country, and is much more difficult to regulate.  It also has many more resources than Switzerland has, just from its landmass.

The differences in origin (both time and cause), differences in political system, and differences in size have caused America and Switzerland to develop in very different ways.  In the realm of sustainability, it is clear that Switzerland’s track has been the more successful one.  Switzerland’s achievements in sustainability dwarf American accomplishments.  To become more sustainable, America would be wise to take a look at aspects of the Swiss government, the Swiss transportation system, and the mindset of the Swiss people in regards to sustainability to being its needed transformation to becoming a more sustainable nation.

After the very enlightening meeting with the Ambassador, we continued on to meet with Mr. Ruchti, Mr. Wachter, and Mr. Dubas.  This meeting again showed how the Swiss government develops it sustainable practices and reinforced what we had heard in our earlier meeting about the decentralization of the Swiss government and how policies are implemented.  They described and went over the Swiss sustainability strategy, and spoke to different aspects of this strategy, as well as briefly touching on the structure of the Swiss government.  The biggest takeaway I found from this meeting was just the basic fact that there is a sustainability strategy written for Switzerland while in the US nothing of this type has been written at the governmental level (at least nothing that has been publicized).  The people we spoke with have the power to write this legislation and help implement it into society, while in the US people who are pushing sustainable goals do not have this type of legislative or governmental power.  They also addressed the issue of about how much it cost to complete their sustainability report, and said it was not a huge sum, around $1 million dollars.  I would wonder how much it would cost the US to do such a sustainability report or analysis.

Our third and last meeting was with Fabian Streiff who gave us a presentation on the photovoltaic industry in Bern, and then led us to be given a tour of Bern University.  His presentation on photovoltaics and how renewable energy in Switzerland is being addressed was again indicative of the long term thinking on the part of the Swiss and how they are already working to restructure their energy system.  After learning about the photovoltaic industry, we were given another presentation on the University of Bern.  One of the most interesting parts of these meetings for me was hearing about the differences in the college/university system in Switzerland and the US.  In Switzerland, not everyone goes to University, and you usually go to whichever one is closet to you, you attend at a later age, often after a sort of work study program, and tuition is about $700 a semester.  All these factors are very different from the American system of higher education.   To enter a bachelors program in the University of Bern from America, you also need to have a high school diploma and two years of college education, because the basic Swiss education is more comprehensive than American education pre-college.  The University of Bern was also interesting because it is a city school without a centralized campus.  After attending UVA for two full years now, I am very used to having what we call the “campus bubble”, so I don’t know how it would feel to attend a school with no residence halls or conventional campus.

One of the buildings associated with the University of Bern.

Our meetings in Bern and touring the city again reinforced for me some of the sustainable practices of the Swiss. Bern has an electric bus and trolley system that runs throughout the town, there were many fewer cars than in American capital cities, and the city has very little litter (as most Swiss cities we have visited so far).  The city is also very compact yet densely filled with activities and stores for the residents and tourists.  After walking around the city for three days, I began to know my way around and recognize landmarks.  Both the intellectual and educational aspects of our three meetings combined with the experience of traversing Bern on foot made me feel that I had become very well acquainted with the city.  Being able to speak with governmental officials and both jump in the ice cold Aare river that runs through the town in one trip made our trip to Bern very memorable.

After learning about more narrow topics of sustainability in our class, going to Bern allowed me to develop the broader concept of sustainability by showing how Switzerland as a country can put it all of the separate aspects of sustainability together.  The Swiss sustainable development strategy was one indication of this, as well as the structure of the city of Bern.  I believe that being located here in Switzerland and being able to travel to cities like Bern and interact with governmental officials who are at the forefront of the process made our learning about sustainability more concrete and more likely to be implanted in our minds.  In this module we were able to first learn about more narrow sustainable concepts, then put them into a broader framework, and then tour a city that is implementing this framework and speak with the people that are having a real impact doing so.  I know I will take what I have learned in this first section of our course about sustainability and sustainability in the context of Switzerland back to the US.

Externalities: through the Coase and Pigovian theories and their implications

In our class presentations on different topics pertaining to sustainability, my topic was externalities.  This presentation defines externalities and summarizes the main points of the Pigovian and Coase theorems and their implications for externalities.  It then briefly looks at the implications of dealing with externalities, as well as links with the Swiss government and their mentions and goals for externalities.

The graphs referenced in the presentation were taken from here for negative and positive externalities, and here for the Pigovian tax graph.

The video referenced in the latter slides about the Swiss connections can be found at here starting around 2:15.

Externalities presentation

My presentation to the class included going over the information presented in the PowerPoint, as well as sketching three graphs showing how basic principles of economics interact to create externality graphs. I believe the presentation was effective, but to make it clearer and more concise I needed to better summarize the information to keep my presentation within the 10 minute limit.  However, I would have liked to have a little more time to present so that I could have included more concrete examples/thought games to better illustrate the two theorems I read about: the Pigovian tax/subsidy theory and the Coase theorem.  From my experience taking our introduction to microeconomics class at UVA, theories and lofty ideas about economics are much easier to understand if a specific real-life example is given with each of them.

Arrival to the Villa

After using more forms of transportation in 24 hours that I usually use in over one month (car, a plane delayed for 5 hours, 5 separate trains, and a bus), I finally arrived at our villa in Riva San Vitale lugging my 50 pound suitcase behind me.  The long and multiple train rides were made bearable by both the scenery that accompanied them and the very friendly and talkative man named Marius who accompanied us on the latter of our three train rides (who also succeeded on making me feel extremely inadequate as he told us he was fluent in 5 languages and I barely know 2).  The Metro system and Amtrak trains in the US pale in comparison to the trains in Switzerland, which zoom quietly along lakes, in valleys, and next to cascading waterfalls.  While I was exhausted and my body was not quite sure if it would be wide awake or fast asleep, I was relieved to meet up with the whole group, knowing that I would freely be able to speak English and be understood.  Now into our second day here, I am not sure if my jet lag is completely gone, but our tour of Riva and a swim in the lake certainly helped me to adjust to our new location and schedule.

A snapshot of Lake Lugano, near where we swim.

This is our home sweet home, the villa.