Housing equity, development and sustainability: US ghettos and French banlieues

After Ralph’s intensive one-week sustainability crash course our class took a different yet related turn when Professor Hyra (Derek) arrived.  Derek’s module focused on sustainable and equitable neighborhood development, and we looked at the 2005 riots in France and why Marseille didn’t “burn” like other big cities with a comparable amount of public housing, the redevelopment of the old Port in Marseille, mixed-income housing in both France and the US and both nations’ policies: The Borloo law and HOPE VI, gentrification, and the US ghetto in comparison to the the French banlieue.  We took an in-depth look at public housing and housing policy in both the US and France, and discovered that many differences in the social, cultural, and governing systems in both countries correspond to varying mindsets of the underprivileged classes in the two countries.

While equitable housing wasn’t something that was included in my previous conception of ‘sustainable development’ (as I was more exposed to the environmental aspect), it now certainly is.  The first article we read for Derek’s module was Scott Campbell’s “Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities?: Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development” which linked the environment, the economy, and equity in a triangle around sustainable development that he calls the “triangle of conflicting goals for planning”.  Campbell laid out what he calls the “development conflict” as the ray between the environment and “social justice, economic opportunity, and income equality”, the “property conflict” between social justice and overall economic growth and efficiency, and the “resource conflict” between environmental protection and overall economic growth and sustainability.  This linked equity and moreover housing equity to the information and broad themes we’d covered in Ralph’s module.

At the end of Derek’s module we were given two days (the 9th and 10th) to write an 8 page paper on one of the topics we’d studied (this is phrased a little bit more loosely than the prompt we were given).  While a number of people looked at the Marseille riots and redevelopment of the Port, which was quite relevant due to our impending trip to Marseille that Thursday, and while the majority of the class chose to write and then present about mixed-income neighborhoods, I chose to compare the US ghetto to the French banlieues.  I used Wacquandt’s 2008 publication in which he argues against the notion that French banlieues are becoming more like US ghettos.

For those who didn’t know the specifics, like myself before I took this course: Ghetto is the term used in the United States to designate those ‘stigmatized neighborhoods situated at the very bottom of the hierarchical system of places that compose the metropolis” (Wacquandt, pg 1).  In France, such neighborhoods are today known as banlieues.  The slang term for “housing projects”, groups of low-rise and/or high-rise apartment buildings subsidized by a government agency to provide assistance for households in these low-income and impoverished neighborhoods is “the projects” in the US, whereas these groupings are called cités in France.  While American ghettos are located in the inner city, and while inner city is often the ‘geographical euphemism used by normal US social science to designate the black ghetto, precisely to avoid naming it’ (Wacquandt, pg 10), the banlieues are located on the outskirts of French cities.  Despite these geographical differences, throughout Europe (especially in France) “the US ghetto has been taken as embodying the urban pattern with which the poor neighborhoods of the postindustrial city everywhere are aligning” (Wacquandt, pg 4).  Loîc Wacquandt refers to this notion of the emergence of ‘ghettos’ along the outer ring of European cities as the “furiously fashionable thesis of a transatlantic convergence” (Wacquandt, pg 5-6).  In other words, it has become popular to believe that the French banlieues are being “Americanized” – that they are becoming more like the US ghetto.  Against this grain, some scholars such as Wacquandt, argue that “urban marginality is not everywhere woven of the same cloth” (Wacquandt, pg 1), and have labeled this notion of convergence as no more than media conflation, calling for policy remedies distinctive from those targeted at the US ghetto.

In my paper I discussed and compared the French banlieues to the US ghetto, detailing the factors related to their creation and then the conditions in them, followed by explaining the current policy interventions to improve these disadvantaged neighborhoods in both countries (as previously mentioned: HOPE VI and the Borloo Law).  I ended up arguing that despite their location in different political, economic, and cultural systems, and despite their disparate formation, the US ghetto and French banlieues are more alike than they are distinct, especially considering these formative differences.

Doing research for my paper, the lectures Derek gave, and the presentations that other students gave on their paper topics fascinated me, and served as a great academic backdrop for our visit to Marseille, which I will post about later tonight!

– Maddie

Op, almost forgot:

Italian Phrase of the day:

Maybe = forse


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The Lost Weekend

I’m going to stop making blog date-stamp promises.  So far, I haven’t stuck to any of mine.

I’m taking the TGV to Paris from Geneva now, and I hope to complete and publish a series of shorter posts detailing my past two weeks by tonight (but, like I said – we’ll see if that happens).  There are too many things to say and too many pictures to share to possibly fit into a blog post or a series of blog posts, so I acknowledge that this will be a somewhat surface-level overview.  I will go in depth about particular events that were especially meaningful or memorable for me, but I will try not to digress too too much.  Of course, if you have any questions about something I touch on but do not detail – feel free to ask.

As I previously mentioned, Professor Hyra (Derek) and his family arrived in Riva on July 4.  From that Wednesday until that Friday (July 6th) we had class with Derek – though class Friday was cut short (we ended at 10:45 am) so that the group of 10 traveling to Barcelona could catch their 1pm flight from Milan.  Cheryl, Jenna, Jonny and I were the only 4 who didn’t go to Spain for the weekend, and Cheryl had plans to meet a friend in Interlaken on Saturday.  So, Jenna, Jonny and I were largely left to our own devices (and to our own Villa – yes, this was awesome to say / an awesome feeling) for all of 48 hours.  At 11 am, once the Villa was deserted, we decided to act on the recommendation of one of my friends who studied in St. Gallen, Switzerland this past semester and on a whim traveled to the Valle Maggia.  The Valle was only about an hour from Riva in our same canton – Ticino.  We didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into, we just knew there were supposed to be a river and awesome cliffs to jump off of into it “there”.  So, we dove in and took a train from Riva to Bellinzona to Locarno where Daniela told us we could catch a bus to Maggia.  It was raining, so we decided to try to wait it out in Locarno.  We walked around the lake and a few parks, and ended up grabbing a small lunch in a square near the train station.  We bought tickets on the 3 pm bus to Maggia and hoped that the weather would clear up.  About 30 minutes into our drive our bus stopped at a fairly nondescript building, and the driver motioned to us that this was “it”.  The three of us exchanged a skeptical glance, and stepped off – back into the rain.

We walked 50 meters and found a small standing map of Maggia proper that we examined, and we decided to stroll through the…municipality? before making our way down to the river that our bus route wound beside.  The more we explored, the more interesting Maggia became.  Were it not for the cars under the wood and grape-vine awnings over most of the driveways, we may as well have been in the 15th century.  The majority of the houses were made entirely of large slabs of stone (including the shingles), and all were adorned with elaborate gardens and greenery.  We came across maybe 6 people during our walk around the small city, and the rain made everything just a little greener – adding to the day’s already surreal feel.  In our wanderings, we became taken with what looked to be a yellow church high on the hill above the town, and Jenna led the march to find the trail to get to it.

We found a pathway that looked to lead in the right direction and a sign that read 25 minutes to a landmark we assumed was the church we saw, and we began ascending step after step, stone slap after stone slab, eyes turned toward the yellow beacon.  The steps ran in a switchback up the cliff face, and we made it to the yellow building after about 25 minutes of walking.  On the way back down we counted 512 steps!  The church that we thought we’d seen turned out to be a shrine – we explored the area around it before we set off to find the source of water we could hear.  A few hundred feet behind the shrine we came across a stone bridge over a thundering waterfall cascade – by far the coolest bridge I’ve ever been on.  We explored a little further past the bridge and came across a few like stone houses (!) and a rocky overlook before the rain started to come down harder and we decided to re-set and try to find the river.

We hiked down, and before we found the river we ran into the tourist information center where we checked bus times (there was a time where we thought we might get stuck in Maggia for the night).  The next (and last) bus was in half an hour, so we stopped for cheese, crackers, olives and buenos at the local Denner which we proceeded to feast on at our unmarked bus stop, having never actually made it to the river.  We caught the 6:30 (double decker!) bus back to Locarno, and made a game-time decision to see Macy Gray in Lugano over Billy Idol in the Locarno main square that evening.  We trained back to Riva, changed, and headed for Lugano at 10:15.  The rain had yet to subside, but we had an unexpectedly great time at the Jazz Festival, regardless of the weather.

The next morning we slept in until noon / one-ish and decided to spend the day in Como, Italy on – you guessed it, Lake Como.  We caught a train from Riva to Chiasso and walked through customs before getting on another train to Como.  The trip took about 30 minutes, all together.  We spent our time on a 5 euro cruise around the Como area, walking around the city parks, admiring the Duomo, and eating.  We caught an early train directly back to Riva and ate dinner at the Villa before heading back to Lugano for the second night of the Jazz Festival. The band we saw was great, and we enjoyed their entire set before we trekked back up the hill to the train station to catch the 1:15 am train home.  After a series of very unfortunate events that left Jenna and I at the Lugano – Paradisio train station and Jonny on the train home one stop further / at the Melide train station, the three of us unexpectedly reunited on the side of the road at 3:30 am in what will no doubt go down as one of the most comical moments of my life.  We walked the remaining three miles home to Riva together, as the next rain was not until 5 or 6 am, and crashed into the Villa around 4 am.  We were awoken the next morning by the return of the group of 10 from Barcelona, and we spent the rest of our lazy Sunday swapping stories, swimming in the lake, and doing readings on equitable redevelopment / mixed-income housing and gentrification for Monday with Derek.

The only picture-proof I have of Jonny, Jenna and I’s adventures is a few photos Jenna e-mailed me from Maggia.  As for the rest, you will just have to take my word for it – for now.

The beginning of the path to the top

Our climb, from below! If you look closely you can see the shrine and the bridge we crossed to the left, over the waterfall

View from the rock overlook past the bridge

Maggia from behind the yellow shrine

Flowers in Maggia

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“Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we [Bern]”

I drafted this post on the 4th but took me a while to get it just the way I wanted it (and I’ve added to it since then).  Please excuse any now-moot time / date references.

Time. Is. Flying.

As a sweeping overview: [Last] Saturday was our first ‘day off’.  We slept in (relatively speaking) until 10:30am, read three Economist articles aloud over breakfast in the courtyard, and then biked to the water-sport rental shop down the road from the Villa on Lake Lugano.  Tito, the owner, was out to lunch when we arrived around 12:30pm (the Swiss do it right).  Because Kate and I were predictably antsy, we decided to swim across the Lake while we waited for him to return.  This, also predictably, turned out to be a larger endeavor than we’d anticipated.  We swam slowly and took an extended break on the other side before we swam back to the others.  By the time we were done, Tito had returned and the majority of our group was out in kayaks or on wind-surf boards experiencing various levels of success.  After a few more hours on the lake, a group of us biked further down the coast and stopped for gelato at a restaurant on the water.  After an extended sit, we biked back to the Villa (exhausted), ate dinner, and put ourselves to bed in preparation for our early train to Bern.

We left Riva Sunday morning at 8:15, made three train connections, and finally arrived in Bern around 2 pm.  I managed to read the majority of the Swiss CleanTech report in transit, and took the time to premeditate questions I had for the SD figures we would meet with with during our stay.

Once we arrived in Bern, we had the rest of Sunday free.  At Professor Hall’s encouragement we walked to the Aare river and a few brave souls (including Professor Hall) took a dip in the 14 degrees Celsius glacial water.  We then explored the Einstein museum, walked around the city, and ate dinner at an Italian restaurant in one of the city’s squares.  From there, we staked out a spot to watch the Euro 2012 final near the University of Bern.  Adopting the Italian influence of Ticino (the Canton of Riva San Vitale), we solemnly made our way back to our hostel after Spain’s definitive third goal (and subsequent win over Italy).

Monday morning we woke up early and ate a tasty breakfast at our hostel before we walked to the American Embassy to meet with a fellow Virginian, the American Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein: Donald Beyer.

Prior to our departure, Professor Hall provided our class with text documents of the Swiss Platform for Rio+20, the Swiss Government’s Sustainable Development Strategy 2012 – 2015, The Swiss Government’s Guidelines for Sustainable Development Policy, the Swiss CleanTech Report, and the outcomes of Rio+20 in order to prepare us for our three meetings  in Bern with the American Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein, a few members of the Swiss Government, and a Ph.D candidate in Geography at the University of Bern (Universität Bern).  After engaging with these readings and reflecting on our intensive week-long SD crash-course at the Villa, I was eager to interact with, question, and learn from some of Switzerland’s key SD figures.


Before coming to Switzerland and before reading and discussing the material we covered in the first week of this course, what I knew about sustainability was largely conjecture.  I’d never taken a sustainability class, nor a class on the history, politics or environment of Switzerland.  In that regard, a lot of the material we covered in module 1 was new to me.  I’d heard the terms weak sustainability and strong sustainability, I knew a thing or two about Rawls and Utilitarianism, I’d heard about the elusive ‘green economy’, and I thought I knew what it meant for development to be sustainable; but I did not have a firm grasp on any of these concepts, exactly how they were connected, or why it was important that they were being talked about.  I knew Switzerland was at the forefront of the SD movement, but I wasn’t exactly sure why.

The readings, lectures, and discussions throughout module 1 provided me with a solid base of knowledge about the history of the EU,  of “Sustainable Development”, and of Switzerland’s SD policies that our meetings in Bern and that the 2nd and third models built and will build upon.  I can now put a face to the name of the Kuznet’s curve, the steady-state economy, and the Coase and Pigovian Theories.  I can now articulate how all of these concepts and how many different ways of thinking are connected within SD, and how important it is to consider sustainability along with all other factors in policy making.  I’ve long felt like I understood this concept, but I didn’t know that it had a formal name (: integrated thinking).  I can now reference UNCED or the Brundtland definition of Sustainable Development, Rio +20, “Our Common Future”, and countless other SD documents, events, and actors and accurately refer to them within the context of the history of Sustainable Development.  Throughout the first week of this Sustainable Europe course, Professor Hall touched on every topic I could have asked him to plus some.  I was especially excited to have my topic of interest: philosophy, connected to sustainability in such a direct and meaningful way.  I am now generally more knowledgeable about the subject, and for this I intently read our pre-trip readings in anticipation of the opportunity our class had to interact with the people doing the acting in the present day sustainability movement in Switzerland in Bern.  It’s one thing to read a text about Sustainable Development or about Switzerland’s SD action plan / policies, but it is entirely another to get to critically read them knowing that you get to ask questions about what you’re reading to the people that wrote the text and that are implementing its posited strategies and solutions.

It is also one thing to read about a country’s SD programs, and quite another to experience them and the country for yourself.  The fact that this course is in Switzerland is like a science class lab: reading about a chemical reaction and then observing / creating that reaction.  Switzerland exudes sustainability in a way the States do not: it’s in the people, it’s in the air, it’s in the water.  Everything is very well planned and made to last.  In a way, Switzerland is the “precautionary principle” to the US’ “prove harm” principle.  The public transportation system is amazing and not only have I read about it, but I’ve also experienced it.  I’ve taken countless trains and buses, and I’ve ridden my bike almost every day I’ve been here.  I haven’t been in a car in weeks, and I’ve gotten everywhere I’ve needed to go seamlessly.  There’s no trash in the streets, I visited the oldest church in Switzerland (again, it was made to last), and I have generally lived and participated in the Swiss way of life (I’ve shopped (for food) almost every day!).  There is truly nothing like imersing yourself in the subject that you are studying.


Before we were given the opportunity to ask the Ambassador the questions that were burning in our minds, he gave us a short explanation of what they do at the embassy: (three main tasks) Diplomacy, economic development, and public diplomacy.  I was interested to learn that the main point of tension right now between the US and Switzerland is bank secrecy.  Essentially, US citizens hide their public assets in banks in Switzerland so they don’t have to pay taxes on it, and the US government isn’t so cool with this.  The US embassy and Switzerland are jointly working to bring down banks in Switzerland that take part in this (or, as Ambassador Beyer put it, “they bring / have brought themselves down”).

In terms of sustainability, the Ambassador said that their role at the embassy is to communicate the States’ SD progress and position to Switzerland.  As it turns out, we’re doing better than they think (and our SD approval rating is up from 4 to 14%!).  This came as a bit of a surprise to me.  As much as it may sometimes feel like we are running in place in the States (compared to other nations), it was encouraging to hear that we are making steps in the right direction.

As something of a corollary, I walked away from our meeting with the Ambassador with a better understanding of the institutional, geographical, political, and cultural differences of the US and Switzerland that make it hard to implement identical SD strategies, and the challenges that the US faces that Switzerland ostensibly does not.  As the Ambassador noted, the Swiss are very good at thinking about the long term and they are very good at following rules.  By contrast, in the States, decisions for now are often made at the expense of the future, and we were doomed from the start to be individualistic and rebellious – as we are a nation formed by rebels.  In Switzerland, the push for SD comes both from the top and from the bottom.  The Ambassador put it to us this way: In Switzerland, they sit down and talk for three years about policy decisions and end with a decision that both the right and the left (political wings) will agree to.  In the States, we have a majoritarian system where everything is win / lose and polarized.  If the left wants one thing, the right wants another.  In the States people go crazy if gas prices rise, while the Swiss people recently by referendum voted to increase the amount of tax they pay in order to keep their social security in tact / paying for itself.  In this way and in other ways, the Ambassador stressed the difference in the Swiss and American cultures, the importance of integrated thinking to sustainable policy making, and of the coordination between both the public and the private sectors and of the various levels of government.  The terms ‘green economy’, “precautionary principle”, and others came into play during our meeting, and it was neat to hear and see the concepts we’d spent a week studying come to life at the Embassy.   We learned in our meeting with the Ambassador that Switzerland is the number one investor in US industry, and Daniel, Professor Hall and I contemplated – would it be feasible for Switzerland to push the US towards CleanTech with its large market pull?

After a free-for-all lunch we walked a few blocks to the Government building where we met with several members of the Swiss government that have their hands in the Swiss SD pie: Daniel Dubas and Daniel Wachter of the Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE), Stefan Ruchti of the Federal Office for the Environment, and Lorenz Kurtz of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.  Lorenz Kurtz took part in the Rio +20 conference in Brazil in June, and it was extremely interesting to hear him talk about his experience there and to hear his opinion about the progress that was made (as, many reports have criticized the conference for not covering much ground).

After our meeting with the American Ambassador, and after reading the Swiss Government’s SD strategy, I was the most curious to ask the Government representatives how they take their broad SD strategy outlines and turn them into specific policy directives, and if they saw any specific areas where the US could benefit from Swiss SD policies.  It’s quite possible I did not not phrase my questions in terms such that they could be answered, but it is also quite possible that it is not feasible to directly take Swiss SD strategies and implement them in the US.  Whatever the reason, I felt unsatisfied when the answers I received merely highlighted the difference in the Swiss / US political structures and cultures.  It almost boiled down to: the Swiss just do it.  Their society is structured in a different way, and its people are of a different mindset.  They, as government officials don’t impose policies and laws on the Swiss people without support.  It’s a top down and top up process, like the Ambassador had said.  If I had the chance to refine my questions after hearing the responses that I received, I’d like to ask, more specifically, what SD policies have experienced the most success in Switzerland, and just how those policies were initially brought about – was it through the market, was it organic, or was it driven by the government?  Or as my week’s emersion in integrated decision making has predisposed me to emphasize, was it a combination of the three?  The challenge would then lie in synthesizing this answer and creating a policy solution that could similarly benefit the US, despite its political and cultural differences.

Daniel asked the question we’d thought about on our walk from the American Embassy – whether or not Swiss market pull could have a significant effect on America in terms of CleanTech.  The answer to this question too, was somewhat disheartening: probably not.  America would have to change internally.

It would seem, Improvements aside, we still have a long way to go in the States.  While we certainly helped to kick off the environmental movement, we have now been surpassed by many countries in SD terms, including Switzerland.  I walked away from both Monday meetings thinking – what will it take for the US to shift its paradigm in order to adopt effective sustainability and sustainable development measures?  Will it take a disaster for us to change?

All things considered comparing two countries in terms of SD, just as with everything else, is complicated.  Switzerland is much smaller than the US, and it is a land-locked nation.  Water is their only real natural resource and as the glaciers melt, their situation becomes more dire.  Our political system and culture in the US is very different, and it we are to implement a successful SD policy / strategy, it will have to be tailored to our government and our social mindset – and realistically, this may mean that sustainability will have to become economically desirable to be implemented on a nationwide scale.

After our meeting with the Government we had the rest of the day free.  The majority of our class walked straight to Bern’s “Bear pit”.  There was some serious confusion about what exactly this bear pit would entail.  As it turns out, the bears are not kept in an actual “pit” any longer, but they now live on a grassy slope (next to the original pit) that is bordered at the bottom of the hill by the river, and at the top of the hill by a large fence.  I’ve posted pictures for reference.

The next morning we ate a second breakfast at the hostel, packed our things, and walked to Bern University to meet with Fabian Streiff, a Ph.D candidate in economic geography.  He presented his research on the photovoltaic industry in Switzerland to us, and then took questions.  To me, this was especially interesting and new as I am very unfamiliar with the technology side of sustainable development.  After our meeting with Fabian, we were given an informal admissions info session and tour of The University of Bern by Zoe Ghielmetti, the executive director of the International and National Relations office and her assistant, Flavio Caluori.  The differences in the US and Swiss education systems are fascinating to me, and the tour and presentation got me thinking about and interested in going to graduate school abroad.  In Switzerland, they have to know whether or not they want to attend University, and what they want to attend University to study at a much younger age than we do in the States.  Being as indecisive as I am, I felt lucky to have gone through the American public school system and perhaps given the opportunity to study abroad (or go to graduate school abroad) at a later age.

After our admissions session and tour we ate lunch in one of the University’s cafeterias and were then given free time to explore Bern until our train left at 3 pm.  Kate and I notably got a pair of delicious Brats on the way home.  We made it back to the Villa in time for dinner, and then spent time on the lake.  It’s amazing how after only two weeks, Riva feels like home.

We spent the majority of July 4th blogging and playing soccer on the field across the street from our Villa, said goodbye to Professor Hall, and welcomed Professor Hyra, his wife, and two kids: Avery and Barrett the same day.  Since Thursday, we’ve been intently studying mixed-income neighborhoods, gentrification, and comparing housing policies in the US and France with Professor Hyra.

I wouldn’t say my understanding of sustainable development changed during our meetings in Bern, but the experience changed the way I think of the US and Switzerland and SD solutions, and further emphasized the importance of integrated decision making.  The trip, and our classes in Riva thus far have made me truly thankful for (and value) the diversity of backgrounds represented within our class of 14.  We are all majoring in different things, and we each add our own knowledge base to our collective discussion pot.  More on that soon.

Happy [belated] 4th from Switzerland!  I’ll post tomorrow (really tomorrow this time) about this most recent weekend’s excursions in Maggia, Como, and Lugano!


(Photo credits: Kate and Rachel)

Kate and I swam to the other side of Lake Lugano (and back!)


More Bern

Watching the Euro 2012 Final near the University of Bern

Government conference room

The Bear Pit from across the river

Bear pit from above

University of Bern

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July 9, 2012 · 3:37 pm

Perspectives on Equity and Equality (Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Utilitarianism) as related to Sustainable Development

David and I spent the better part of two days reading academic texts that evaluated Rawls’ Theory of Justice (and the revisions he makes to his own theory in his subsequent book, Political Liberalism) and his grievances with Utilitarianism and crafting a presentation for the class on both theories in the context of equity and equality (and then applied them to Sustainable Development (SD)).  We gave our presentation around 11 this morning in the courtyard of the Villa Maderni.  Because were were two people working on a topic designed for one person, we expanded our focus to the greater continuum from consequentialism to deontology (and then placed Rawls’ theory and utilitarianism on this continuum) and were given twice as much time to present.  Even with twice the time, it was tough to introduce, explain, and apply such meta-level concepts to Sustainable Development to the class.

We limited the goals of our presentation to this: to make Consequentialism, Deontology, Rawls’ Theory of Justice, and Utilitarianism accessible concepts to the class so we would not as a class be intimidated by the terms if and when they are used in the context of sustainable development, to stress the importance of defining terms for useful communication, to provide a philosophical framework in which the class could place the concepts, challenges, and posited solutions to the challenges of Sustainable Development that we are studying, and to apply these lenses to SD (namely, the concepts that were presented before, and the solutions that were presented after us).

We opened our presentation with a thought experiment to get the class thinking about (a few of) the moral lens(es) through which we can look at SD.

In the first scenario, we asked everyone to imagine they are sitting on a bus where they witness the following scenario take place: a girl carrying a large stack of books walks down the aisle, and the person across from you deviously sticks out their foot out in front of her.  In one case she falls, in one case she doesn’t.  We did not initially explain the implications of this thought experiment, but it is meant to highlight some of the criticisms of consequentialist theories – theories that base the morality of an action based solely on the outcome of an action.

In the second scenario, we asked everyone to imagine they are on the same bus.  In this scenario, the person across from you is asleep with their feet blocking the aisle.  A girl hurries on to the bus, doesn’t see the set of feet and falls.  This thought experiment is also meant to highlight what some deem as deficiencies of consequentialism.  (Ostensibly, the person across from you (on some consequentialist counts) committed a ‘wrong’ act.)

We then introduced the topic of our presentation and laid out where we were going to take it, specifically:

We wrote our outline on the board:

Our topic: Perspectives on Equity and Equality (Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Utilitarianism)

followed by our outline:

I. Consequentialism / Deontology continuum

(Generally placed at opposite ends of the proverbial moral theory continuum)

II. Sketch of Utilitarianism

II. Sketch of Rawls’ Theory of Justice

IV. Application to Sustainable Development, specifically drawing connections to the Swiss guidelines for Sustainable Development

I then explained the defining features of both consequentialism and deontology and placed them at the ends of our proposed continuum, namely:

– Consequentialism = the rightness or wrongness of an action is solely based on the consequences of one’s conduct.

– Deontology = derives from the Greek word “deon” which translates to duty or responsibility.  Essentially, according to Deontological theories the rightness or wrongness of an action is based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules (a moral code).

David then described Utilitarianism and Rawls’ Theory of Justice and then placed them on the continuum.  As he quite eloquently put it:

“Two of the prominent philosophies within the continuum of consequentialism and deontology are Utilitarianism and Rawls’ Theory of Justice.  Utilitarian ethics argues that the most moral action is that which maximizes utility.  This means the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of people possible.  A problem with this ethical system is that it allows for negative effects as long as there are enough positive effects to tip the scales.  For instance, it is acceptable to allow a few individuals to die in an industrial factory because of working conditions if the product that is output produces enough utility.  For most people this is a disturbing concept, but this is the driving philosophy of modern economics.  Despite its drawbacks, utilitarianism can be applied in a framework to increase environmental considerations.  The theory of weak sustainability argues that there are three stocks of capital, ecological or natural, economic and social.  These capitals can be increased or decreased, however the overall result of any action/policy should be an increase in the combined amount of capital.  These tradeoffs and maximization strategy show the direct use of utilitarianism in this system.

     A much more deontological philosophy is that of Rawls’ Theory of Justice.  This theory rests on the assumption of the Original Position, also referred to as the veil of ignorance.  This is a theoretical position in which a person is ignorant of their place and time in society and then seeks to create a governing ethical system.  Rawls argues that there are two basic principles that a person would create.  The first principle states that every individual cannot be denied their basic liberties and freedoms.  The second principle of Rawls’ theory seeks to maximize the benefit to the lowest in society, a concept which Rawls’ refers to as maxamin.  (This is also known as the difference principle.)  This maxamin is to applied to primary social goods, instead of utility, which are the basic things a rational person would want in his/her life.  This includes things such as water, food, opportunity and shelter.  There is a very rigid hierarchy to the two principles, and the first can never be forsaken for the second.  These two principles aim to create a truly fair world in the social context, however there is no concern for the environment in Rawls’ theory.

     To connect Rawls’ theory to sustainability, Dr. Hall has proposed a third principle to add to the theory.  This principle states that social arrangements should be organized so they protect and continually improve the environment and don?t result in activities that exceed the earths carrying capacity.  Following Rawls’ hierarchy of principles, this third principle is to be considered after the first two are satisfied.  With the addition of this principle, the theory can now be used to strongly promote sustainable development.”

After David presented the ground-workings of both theories to the class, we picked a few SD issues and looked at how we can view them through the the lenses of both Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Utilitarianism (we deliberately provided a framework so the rest of the class could take this framework and apply to it other specific concepts and areas of Sustainable Development because there are so very many SD concepts and so many very different moral theories that can be applied to SD).

We notably highlighted:

– Rawls’ criticisms of Utilitariansim – that simply getting to the same conclusion might not make an action morally right (in terms of SD, this is an important concept in terms of the Kuznets curve that Jonny presented)

– Considered Weak Sustainability as Utilitarian in nature and evaluated the Swiss government’s “balanced consideration of the three target dimensions” as closer to a Rawlsian view

– Precautionary principles vs. proof of harm – we roughly divided them as Rawlsianism vs. Utilitarianism

The presentation was generally a lot of fun.  We certainly didn’t cover everything, but I think we accurately and holistically presented both Rawls’ Theory and Utilitarianism (in their most basic form) and demonstrated applying these theories to specific areas of SD to provide an example that other students could follow in their future contemplations and deliberations.

After everyone in the class had presented their slice of the information pie, we ended class for the day early – around 3:30 pm.  A number of us took bikes from the Villa’s shed and pedaled part of the way around Lake Lugano, intermittently stopping to take pictures and scope out roadside swimming areas.  It was perfect. Perfect is not an overstatement.  Lake Lugano is idyllic, and I can’t wait to spend both tomorrow and next weekend exploring it further!  I’m kicking myself for not bringing my camera.  For now, here are the promised pictures of the Villa, my home:


Almost forgot:

Italian phrase of the day:

I’m never leaving: Non mi sono mai lasciare

German phrase of the day:

I’m never leaving: Ich bin noch nie verlassen


Until tomorrow (maybe.  Depending on how the bike ride goes, maybe Sunday or Monday!),


The Villa Maderni – my home for the Summer!

Classroom on the second floor of the Villa

Our room!

Looking out over Riva from the front balcony of the Villa

Courtyard – where Professor Hall holds class when we’re lucky

Rogue Parrot in our backyard I befriended

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Night trip to Lugano for the Euro 2012 Italy – Germany semi-final

Nine of us took the train to Lugano last night after dinner at the Villa for the Euro 2012 Italy – Germany match up.  Lugano sits on the northern edge of Lake Lugano, whereas Riva is on the South.  I’ve attached a screen shot from google maps for reference.

The trip only took about 15 minutes, and from the Lugano train station we walked down a switch back of stairs to the Lake’s edge.  We found a spot at an outside bar on the shore called Mojito just as the game was starting.  It was beautiful and the atmosphere was just right – the enclosed space was crowded, and the numbers inside the gate only grew as Italy took a 2-0 lead.  The game ended at 2-1 Italy; the crowd went wild and we celebrated Italy’s win with the entire bar (minus a few black, red, and yellow clad Germany fans).  We explored Lugano for a few hours after the game ended and watched the beginning of an outdoor concert in a nearby square before catching the 1:15am (and last until 6 am) train back to Riva.

Map of Lake Lugano (Lugano is in the top left corner, Riva (Capolago) is bottom center.

View of Lake Lugano from Mojito in Lugano, Switzerland

Celebrating one of Italy’s goals in Lugano

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I made it! (Conversely, “First Impressions”)

Hi friends!  This is my first blog post from Riva San Vitale, Switzerland.  I am studying here in Riva for a month as a part of a Comparative sustainability program called “Sustainable Europe” that is offered jointly by Virginia Tech and UVA.  Throughout the course thirteen other students and I (and two Virginia Tech Professors and one UVA professor) will be discussing, reading about, and researching the history and evolution of sustainable development and its core theories, assessing housing and community development policies related to (in)equitable growth patterns in socially excluded communities, examining how various nations and regions address negative externalities of development and challenges to sustainability, and thoughtfully positing our own solutions to some of our generation’s most eminent challenges (and this is by no means an exhaustive list).  In addition we will be meeting with the American Ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein in Bern, taking a weekend trip to Marseille to see the renovated Port neighborhoods, taking a day trip to Zurich, and exploring the municipality of Riva San Vitale.  It is my hope that not far into my time here, Riva will start to feel like home.

To say that I’m pumped would be an understatement.

As for an introduction to Riva – the municipality sits on the edge of Lake Lugano at the base of the foothills of the Swiss Alps, very near to the Italian border.  It is in the canton of Ticino and the district of Mendrisio, for you geography nerds out there.

I arrived in Riva yesterday morning at 7:52 am and got settled in the Villa Maderni, where I will be both living and taking classes.  The Villa is a historic building that was at the center of the Pieve of Riva San Vitale’s 1798 endeavor to form its own republic – the Republic of Riva San Vitale.  The Republic only lasted for 23 days – about as long as it took for the Swiss German’s to hear about what they were doing here and to reclaim possession of the area.  While Riva is now happily situated within Switzerland’s borders, the Villa retains its historic significance to Riva and is still visited by tourists.  Virginia Tech carefully renovated the Villa in 1991 and it is now home of Virginia Tech’s Center for European Studies and Architecture (CESA) – lucky for us.  Though Riva is small and while I was not familiar with it before I was given a brochure about this course, the municipality is also interestingly the home of the oldest church in Switzerland – the Baptistry of San Giovanni as the area was once home to a significant Roman settlement.  Due to it’s location, Riva is a part of Switzerland that speaks Italian.

In general, I’m very excited about the size, placement, and culture of Riva.  I spent last summer in Valencia, Spain, and the homestay I was placed in was a 45 minute walk from the school that I was enrolled in.  While this distance ended up being a blessing in disguise (I got to know the city far better than I ever would have – I rented a bike and knew the 45 minute bike ride to the beach like the back of my hand by the end of the Summer), I’m excited to be able to wake up one flight of stairs from breakfast, and one room away from my formal classroom (the comfortable library, the Riva courtyard, and greater Europe serving as my informal classroom).  I’m also excited that the course is small and will be discussion and project based – it is my belief that that is how I learn best.

After I arrived I checked in with Daniela, The Managing Director of CESA.  The core group of students arrived the day before, so I had some quick catching up to do.  I said goodbye to my family who was kind enough to drop me off, got my key to the Villa, was given an abbreviated tour by Daniela, and scarfed down a bowl of granola and drank a few compulsory cups of coffee before I took my seat in class in the Villa’s courtyard at 9 am.  That’s right – the Villa’s courtyard.  It was unreal.  I can say without hesitation that I have never before taken a class in so beautiful a setting.  After taking time to get to know each other as a class we jumped right in to the course content and compiled and presented our initial intuition definitions of development and sustainable development and explicated what we felt were the ‘measures’ of each.  After our presentations and before a somewhat technologically impaired conference call with the Professors of the second and third course modules (the course is divided into three parts – each is taught by one of the three course Professors) during which we discussed the course syllabus all twelve of us and Professor Hall went on a tour of Riva with Daniela as our guide.  Everything is truly beautiful – both the man made structures and the municipality’s natural surroundings.  I was so enthralled by my whereabouts that I went on my first run in a few weeks in order to familiarize myself with more of my new home after class ended for the day at 5.  I was not disappointed by what of Riva I had yet to see.  After my run I met some of the other students at the lake swimming area and relaxed until dinner at 7.

My first breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Villa were superb – it’s going to be hard to take trips on the weekends knowing what I’ll be missing out on.  If you don’t know any German, the title of my blog is “More cheese, please”.  It will then come as no surprise that I will probably never love anything as much as I love food, and that the foods I encounter will be prominently featured in my future blog posts – in text and picture form.

As a regression, you might be thinking – 7:52 am?  Exactly?  Yes, exactly.

Let me explain: My Dad taught a workshop in Rome a little over a week before this course began and my family decided to join him and to use his work as an excuse to tour around Europe.  After leaving Rome we rented a blue Ford sedan and drove up the coast to Cinqueterre where we stayed and hiked to four of the five towns, we drove to and spent a night in Bellagio where we explored and admired Lake Como, we crossed the Swiss-Italian border without so much as being asked to show our passports, and we eventually made our way to Interlaken where we spent a few days hiking.  In order to squeeze all that we could out of the trip, my parents and brother and I woke up at 4 am on Tuesday morning and high-tailed it from Interlaken to Riva.  I received an e-mail the night before we left from Professor Hall instructing me to arrive at 8 am, and I nervously watched our Garmin’s ETA gradually climb from 7:39 as we hit traffic, made a wrong turn, and carefully navigated our way over the spine of the Alps.  We made it with minutes to spare.  As such, I remember exactly what the clock said when I first stepped out of our rental car.

In a perfect world, the only thing I would add to this course would be a language component.  I learned so, so much last Summer and became much more comfortable speaking Spanish.  So, as a proactive measure, I am going to include an Italian phrase / word and German phrase / word I learn (or teach myself) in every blog post I publish.  Hopefully I can make some Italian and / or German speaking friends here that can teach me a thing or two before I leave.


To kick things off, the essentials:

Italian phrase / word(s) of the day: 

Hello: (Good Morning) Buongiorno, (Hi) Ciao

Please: Per favore

Thank you: Grazie

Goodbye: Ciao

Yes: Sì

No: Non

This is delicious: Questo è delizioso

and of course – I don’t speak Italian well: Io non parlo bene l’italiano

German phrase / word(s) of the day:

Hello: Guten tag (Good day) or Hallo! (I had to add this one for my family.  They traveled to Germany after dropping me off and called me to tell me they said Hallo to everyone they met in Bavaria just so that they could hear the Germans say it back)

Please: Bitte (in the title of my blog!)

Thank you: Danke

Goodbye: Tschüs (pronounced: chuuss) or Auf Wiedersehen (formal) (pronounced: owf VEE-der-say-en)

Yes: Ja

No: Nein

This is delicious: Das ist köstlich

and of course – I can’t speak German well: Ich kann nicht so gut deutsch (pronounced: ikh kahn nikht zo goot doytsh)


And so ends my first substantive blog post ever.  I’ve added a few pictures for your viewing pleasure.  I did bring my camera to Europe with me, but it promptly died after I took one picture.  My subconscious was under the impression that cameras run on fun and sunlight in Europe, and I thus unfortunately excluded my charger from my packing list.  For that reason, all of the pictures I upload were taken with my iPhone.  Please bear with the quality!  (I haven’t taken any pictures in Riva yet, so all of these are from my family’s excursions.  I’ll post pictures of the Villa, Lake Lugano, and the surrounding area soon!)

The largest of twix bars at an Autogrill near Pisa, Italy


Looking back at Vernazza from Corniglia [Cinqueterre], Italy

Riomaggiore, Cinqueterre

Riomaggiore, Cinqueterre

Bellagio, Italy

View of Lake Como from Bellagio, Italy

Hiking above Grindelwald, Switzerland

Schlithorn, Switzerland

Restaurant at the top of Schlithorn, 2970 m

Hiking in Mannlichen, Switzerland

I made a friend – unfortunately he didn’t speak Italian or German



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