Societal Sustainability | A Question of French Feasibility

After Ralph Hall’s module 1, there was much preparation to be done in Derek Hyra’s Module 2 prior to our trip to Marseille.  While Ralph’s section focused mainly on the broader subjects of sustainability and its relation to economics, Derek’s module focused mainly on housing—in particular, gentrification and the rise of mixed-income housing in both the United States and Europe.

Meeting with officials concerning sustainable legislation and practice in Bern, Switzerland

By the time we actually arrived in Marseille, we had a good idea of what to expect in terms of the housing.  We rode a bus into what seemed like the heart of town, and also the ghetto, to be quite frank.  These neighborhoods were composed mainly of foreign populations, as the roads were dotted with Corsican restaurants and kebab kiosks.  There was an air of poverty, as there were many people loitering on the streets (as opposed to the more composed cafe settings seen in the more gentrifying neighborhoods) and the smell of trash dominated.

Disheveled shopfronts dominate these lower-income, diverse neighborhoods

I think it was good that we were confronted with this part of the city initially.  Because, (other than Barcelona), until now, we had mainly only seen the beautiful, immaculate towns in Switzerland, which are ridden with affluent residents who place the imagery and cleanliness of their surroundings at top priority.  It was in class after our travels that multiple students were complaining about the dirt and grime that exists in the city of Marseille.  These initial perceptions weren’t helped by the fact that we spent the night after Marseille in Nice, which is known for its reputation as a spot for affluent vacationers.  Anyway, it was upon these complaints that JP countered that he appreciated the “grime” and argued that it indicated that the cleanliness of the city is the last thing on the foreign population’s mind, below such other priorities such as equality, employment, et cetera.  It wasn’t so much what JP’s final point was that struck me, but more some of the underlying themes.  I really did appreciate Marseille because it is a living city.  It includes inhabitants of all socioeconomic statuses and all walks of life.  I think these qualities are necessary to maintaining a truly sustainable city.  Sure, Switzerland’s government really has it together with their scheme for sustainable legislation and jurisdiction.  However, their model is mostly applicable to a state of affluent inhabitants.

Common residential aesthetic as seen in Bellinzona, Switzerland

This is not to say that Marseille doesn’t have many problems with the current residential condition.  As some neighborhoods continue to gentrify, it is apparent that an even greater divide will be created between these communities of differing incomes.   In addition, the communities of different races and nationalities within these low-income neighborhoods have little contact with one another, as stated by the reading material on Marseille.  Through these observations, it becomes apparent that Marseilles could benefit from some form of mixed-income development, but its feasibility is highly questionable, from what I can tell.  As old buildings continue to be renovated, there is a high dominance of an “out with the old, in with the new” approach.


Out with the old, In with the New

This approach may be considered highly successful for new nigh-income residents and investors alike, but its effects on the overall societal health of Marseille is what should be further analyzed by higher officials.  This element of displacement of less fortunate factions is what may alter the overall character of Marseille in the long run.  Some of this alteration may be acceptable and desirable, as French culture can continue in the bourgeois fashion.  However, to completely displace some of these lower-income factions, rather than integrating them in an effort to improve overall quality of life and to also encourage further integration, interaction, and “leveling of the playing field” so to speak, would be actions against societal sustainability in the long run.


In one final note, I would like to thank professors Hall, Hyra, and Dukes for extending their vast knowledge to the class, as well staff at the Villa Maderni for making our stay there as pleasant as it could have been.  Riva, I will miss you.  Arrivederci.

Last minute gift: Sketched from the Garden outside the Villa Maderni


Wisdom Gained from Meetings with Diplomats, Baroque Architecture, and Hostel Life

Before Module 1, I had a few preconceptions of sustainability that were mainly shaped by my architecture background.  These included concepts that were mainly related to sustainability in its relevance to design.  Features such as solar power, expansive green space, and self-reliant buildings were some of the first things I thought of when it came to sustainable practice.  Because of learning strictly in an atmosphere that was the architecture school, meaning also that I am constantly surrounded by like-minded colleagues, I retained this narrow scope until I came to study abroad in Switzerland.

This is where studying abroad in this format is significant to my learning experience for a number of reasons.  I’ll first touch on the previous mention of the fact that I am accustomed to learning in a virtually monolithic environment in terms of interest diversity, where everyone is trying to implement sustainability into an architectural context.  So it is important and highly significant to my learning that I was able to interact with students from different backgrounds, in including but not limited to architecture, urban planning, economics, and foreign policy.

I often find myself having a hard time grasping some of the overarching concepts of sustainability, especially in its relation to economics, which in itself contains many theoretically explained concepts.  So it was great having some of my colleagues around to jump in and explain topics from their perspective of interests and experiences.

Then there is the other aspect that is contained within the inherent nature of studying abroad.  I can’t really think of a better place than Switzerland to be studying these types of subjects. Even on my initial train ride from the Zurich airport to the villa at Riva San Vitale, I was amazed at how apparent sustainability is just through viewing the lifestyles of Swiss individuals from afar, whether it was exhibited through the cleanliness and convenience of the public transportation, or simply experiencing the great pride with which the Swiss view and treat their natural surroundings as made apparent from the many towns we passed through. As Ralph mentioned to me in a meeting, Switzerland is obviously a leader in sustainable thought, implementation, and practice, meaning that the brains behind it must be some of the best in the world.  This is one of the reasons that I think having the opportunity to meet with these officials was so valuable to my learning and overall understanding of sustainability on the European forefront.

When we arrived at Bern, I was automatically intrigued by the “German” sense that was definitely much less apparent in the Italian Ticino region, where we reside at the villa.  There is definitely a more serious air in the city, with the German Baroque architecture against the backdrop of the overcast sky.  We first met the United States Ambassador to Switzerland and a number of his representatives for a meeting concerning sustainability and his role regarding the United States’ involvement concerning the Swiss’ efforts.

One common aspect to all of our meetings that I noticed was the friendliness of the officials and their willingness to entertain any of our questions, regardless of the content or level of specificity (or lack thereof at times).  The ambassador was happy to answer all of our questions.  Some of them were involving overarching sustainability subjects in relation to how the ambassador has observed its role and treatment within the Swiss government.  The ambassador was very frank but eloquent, and was easily able to relate to us (and definitely vice versa) since he himself is a Virginian.  The theme that he and his colleagues emphasized is that obviously, Switzerland, and most European countries as a whole, are far ahead of us in the race of sustainability and its implementation.  But it is so very important to realize and visualize that we are dealing with two completely diverse economic structures (especially when it comes to tax/income proportions) along with literally the size and population differences between European nations and all of the United States.  However, I think another interesting point that was brought up in this meeting was concerning David’s question, of whether sustainability in Switzerland operates more from the top down, where initiatives are made by the government, or the bottom up, where initiatives are made by the individuals themselves.  His answer was worded, “I think both,” and this really made me begin to see how Switzerland does a pretty fine job of finding harmony between the micro scale of the individual interest and wants with the macro scale of legislation and implementation for the entire government to follow.  This goes back to my earlier statement about how sustainability is so apparent in the Swiss’ everyday lives.


Train station in Bern’s center, juxtaposed with the
Baroque architecture of centuries past

Vintage style trains transport people around the city, while underground supports transportation out of the city

Soon after lunch in a local food court (which was an interesting way of observing Bern citizens’ day-to-day routine, we arrived at the Swiss government building, known as the Bernerhof, to meet with Daniel Wachter, Daniel Dubas, Stefan Ruchti, and Lorenz Kurtz.  Stefan was an official for the Federal Office of the Environment, while Lorenz was an official for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.   I have to say that I was quite intimidated by their titles and obvious knowledge on a topic which I had barely studied for a week.  Like earlier mentioned, these are basically some of the top dogs in the world of sustainability, considering Switzerland’s status and reputation on the world front in efforts toward sustainability.  It was interesting that this meeting took on a little different format than the previous meeting with the ambassador.  Instead of giving us the opportunity to ask questions from the beginning, the meeting was composed in a lecture format, where each speaker was called to present some relatively in-depth information about the Swiss stance and plans of action on sustainability.  Switzerland practices a “weak sustainability plus” model, which, by its name implements some qualities of “strong” sustainability while still practicing weak.  While the previous blog post explains in detail the definitions for strong and weak sustainability, I still find the effectiveness of “weak sustainability plus” a bit confusing, and I still wonder if this is a term that the Swiss coined on their own to accommodate their situation.  So, this is a concept that I still wish they had clarified during the meeting.  However, other students questions tended to be relatively more specific than this, so I didn’t know whether the question would have been appropriate.  I am inclined to believe that the answer to the question is that the Swiss formulated their definition of “weak sustainability plus” to accommodate the structure and needs of their own small nation.  In any case, the model appears to be effective for them, at least in the race with other nations such as the United States, who has trouble even inspiring public morale for sustainability, largely because of our population, and sprawl, which leads people to act in their own best interests, forcing the use of automobiles and “conspicuous consumption,”  a concept which was brought to the surface by the ambassador, and which stuck in my mind throughout the day, and as Fabian showed us the University of Bern, where we were able to see a glimpse of the lives of Swiss people that share our age in common.

The Bernerhof

Aside from the complicated and confusing process of obtaining lunch, (mainly because we were unfamiliar with the system by which the food prices are calculated), the tour of the University was very interesting and enlightening, especially as we observed the overall relaxed atmosphere that is cast over the student body of the University, along with their use of public space.  There were many similarities that we could draw with our own respective universities, but also many differences.  Finally, we were left with a couple remaining hours in Bern.  So I decided to visit a shop where one can choose from a vast selection of regional alcohols, and select a custom bottle for them.  I bought a dear friend of mine a Swiss Plum Schnapps to bring back to the United States.  We had to run back to the train with great efficiency, as Swiss trains are ALWAYS on time, yet another reminder of the ever-apparent sustainability in Switzerland.

Turning Tables, a More Engaging Learning Experience | “Weak” and “Strong” Sustainability

Last week at the villa, we spent a few days learning about sustainable development in its different forms.  I quickly realized, as Ralph pointed out, that the subject contains within it a collection of subthemes, some of which are very specific, while others serve as sort of “umbrella” terms that encompass the more specific themes.  As with many subjects within the fields of sustainability and economics, (or in this case, sustainability and its direct and indirect relations to economics),  many of them tend to lean to the theoretical side, making them open to scholars and actors alike for interpretation and definition through implementation.

I chose to research and discuss the very over-arching concepts of “weak” an “strong” sustainability.  As earlier implied, many of the other themes and topics discussed by my fellow students begin to fall into these categories of “weak” and “strong” as they are defined.  The following points show a mixture of basic information concerning the concepts, along with some more specific findings that I came across through my reading and research, and finally some relationships I drew between the concepts and their corresponding extremes.


  • Sustainability with focus on economics, growth, and capital
  • Environmental sustainability
    • How much yield can be extracted from a renewable natural resource while maintaining the possibility to extract stable outputs also in the future.
    • Sustainability applied to social development as a whole during the 1990s, then came “weak” and “strong” sustainability.

Weak Sustainability

  • Founded within the body of neoclassical capital theory
  • Conventional, mainstream economic theory
  • Assumption that sustainability means maintaining economic output over time
  • Focusing on sustainable growth
  • Basic rule:  Under certain conditions, maintaining the aggregate capital basis (manmade, natural, and human capital) intact allows justice towards future generations.
  • Capital basis is also referred to as welfare potential

Strong Sustainability

  • Can be referred to as ecological value principle
  • Need to preserve natural capital in its own right, regardless of how much man-made capital is produced. – basically definition of decoupling
  • Another definition – maintaining the economy’s material resource base intact for production through time, and protecting the natural environment as our life support system.
  • Environmental sustainability must be measured in distinct biophysical units
  • Strong Sustainability Rules (Herman Daly)
    • Renewable resources should not be used faster than regeneration rates
    • Non-renewable resources should not be used faster than substitutes become available.
    • Pollution should not exceed the assimilation capacity of the environment.
    • Based on these, one could conclude that strong sustainability strictly follows environmentally conservative guidelines, while weak sustainability allows for any actions or lack of actions, as long as the total capital remains the same, in whichever form, whether it be human, environmental, or manmade).
    • Overall debate between if environmental systems and resources should be kept intact by themselves, or if the environment can decline as long as the overall value of society’s economic capital is kept intact.
    • Safe minimum standards (controls on materials) – very strong sustainability – stationary-set principle
    • Critical Natural Capital – includes functions of environment for which no or only poor substitutes exist. (most important to protect)
      •  CNC can be described as a point of degradation in an ecosystem past which it can no longer support its biodiversity or species populations. The concept originates from the idea that there is a certain minimal amount of natural capital necessary for ecosystems to continue to function and provide services for its inhabitants. Below that point, even human-made capital, such as technological substitutions, cannot replace the loss of welfare-sustaining ecosystem services. Natural capital is comprised of the environmental resources and services that can be used for life and factors of production. In our case, we are particularly concerned with an ecosystem’s ability to support an adequate standard of living for humans which includes drinking water, food, shelter, a moderate climate and resources for production.
      •  To apply a practical example, take croplands which have historically supported a reasonably stable agrarian economy society. If they begin to lose fertility and become desert or saline through overuse, farmers can apply fertilizers, crop rotation or erosion control (technological substitutions) to produce the same yields as before degradation. Because of ecosystem resiliency, there may be a stable level above the CNC that allows for these substitutions without further natural capital degradation. This level can be considered a sustainable economy. If however, degradation continues further than the technological substitutes can make up for, an unsustainable economy is created. As the unsustainable economy progresses, eventually there is too little viable farmland left for technology or other human-made capital to create a reasonable substitution, and the point of critical natural capital has been passed. If the society does not migrate it will face hunger and starvation.
      • The concept of critical natural capital lies in the strong sustainability argument that natural capital (natural resources and ecosystem services) and human-made capital (technology and intellect) are not fully substitutable. (Jansson, et al. 1994, p. 5) Although there may be some degree of substitutability, the possibilities are limited and tend to become more and more costly with increasing degradation of natural capital.   Taken from:


  • Some things to keep in mind: 
    • Not all degradation is critical
    • So a boundary must be drawn

Sustainable Development

  • Need for limitation on economic development
    • Determined by: institutional arrangements and technologies that are under control of social and individual decision makers along with the current capacities of the environment
    • Debates between weak and strong sustainability become difficult when the essence of what “total capital” actually is takes on different perspectives.
      • Human-made capital (economic)
      • Non-renewable resources (natural)
      • Renewable resources (ecological)

Back to Strong Sustainability

  • So with the earlier definition of strong sustainability, “maintaining the economy’s material resource base intact for production through time,” material resource base refers to both renewable and non-renewable resources.
  • Non-used renewable resources are still important, because they will factor into the overall environmental quality
  • Implies balancing the depletion of non-renewable resources with enhancing the ecological capital base.
    • This is only feasible if the rate of regeneration of used resources is increased.
    • Or, if additional resources would be developed to enlarge the base of resources used in economic transformation processes.

Very Strong Sustainability – uses extremes to help further define weak and strong?

  • Stationary-state principle – define
  • Requires limiting human scale and zero economic growth
  • Enforcing technological process that reduces throughput of matter and energy, and compliance with “safe, minimum sustainability” standards
  • May be sufficient for steady state economy, but not viable for sustainable development as change.

Very Weak Sustainability

  • Solow Sustainability
  • Requires generalized productive capacity to be transmitted across generations to maintain a constant level of consumption per capita.
    • Rawl’s principle to intergenerational equity and intertemporal capital accumulation with non-renewable resources.
    • Income by definition is sustainable.
    • Solow sustainability requires an initial stock of total capital big enough to support a decent standard of living, or else it would perpetuate poverty.
    • Blind to the dynamic properties of ecosystems and working in a framework of stationary-state conditions that, apart from non-renewable resource depletion, and accumulation of reproducible capital, provide a rationale for constant consumption per capita through time, given  the initial stock of renewable resources
    • If this principle is relaxed, growth per capita income is enabled
      • Introduces economic efficiency as an additional criterion for the evaluation of sustainable development boundaries, or a “sustainable development corridor”, and that economic growth doesn’t conflict with any sustainability criterion

Back to Weak Sustainability

  • It’s the integrated framework of the ecosystem principle of strong sustainability and the “very weak” principle of economic development
  • Doesn’t need that either stock of ecological capital or economic capital should remain intact.  But that some suitable defined value of services of these stocks should be maintained over time.
  • Changes in environmental quality can be evaluated against changes in income.


  • Principle of weak sustainability is crucial for making sustainable development a meaningful and operational concept.
  • Minimum – requires no decrease in economic activity and environmental quality from one generation to the next.
  • However, weak sustainability isn’t sufficient for sustainable development, it must be integrated
  • Strong sustainability is ecosystem resilience
  • Sustainable Development requires both ecological and economic minimum conditions satisfaction of preferences beyond these limits.
  • Problem is that it’s often based on different perceptions of capital, as mentioned before
    • Difference between used and non-used environmental assets, which both play a role, part of economy’s generalized productive capacity, which ultimately factors into economic quality.
    • Economic and ecological capital bases are overlapping
    • Technological process or environmental improvement must be sufficient for sustainable development.
    • Economic development results in continuous degradation of the ecosystem capital.
    • Sustainable development requires stabilization of ecosystem capital at a level compatible with minimum standard of ecosystem resilience.
    • Trade-offs between economical and environmental quality are higher vauled than in a traditional weak sustainable model.
    • *Sustainability takes the rentals, purely refined to a non-renewable resource and invests those rentals.
    • Reliance on renewable resources is crucial


For the most part, I was able to convey the concepts of “weak” and “strong” sustainability to the class.  Over the course of my reading and research, I was able to get a strong grasp of the characteristics and distinctions between the two topics, so it wasn’t such a challenge to define them separately.  However, it became much more complicated once it was time to describe such subtopics as integration, and also the varying levels of validity between the two types of sustainability depending on context and application (for instance, Switzerland’s government practices “weak sustainability plus” as their actions toward sustainable law and practices).  So, I ended up running way over time trying to explain these relations between weak and strong sustainability.  I could tell that the class, as a result, while they may have understood, like me, the general differences between the two concepts, that they, too struggled to see when and where certain levels of each were appropriate.

First Impressions in a New, but Old Place

sketched from the arcade of Riva San Vitale Town Hall

Hey all!  I couldn’t think of a more suitable place to spend my first time in Europe (or even overseas for that matter) than the Italian region of Switzerland.  I can’t recall a time that I have been more taken aback by an eclectic juxtaposition of landscape and architecture.  I am a double major in architecture and architectural history due to my deep interest in past generations.  Riva San Vitale is a small town in the Italian region of Switzerland that dates back  to before 1000 AD, as Switzerland’s oldest Christian baptistry is built upon Roman ruins.  The town has aged beautifully, as consecutive generations have added their architectural and cultural layers to the condition.  It is this aspect that many European cities share that I find so profound in its relation to sustainability.  By definition, we have realized a need to preserve our world, not only for the needs and desires of our current generation, but of generations to come.  With my passion for history, I realize that everything I see and experience here in Europe was facilitated by the past, and more importantly, the past’s participants.   I’m excited for what’s ahead, as studying topics of sustainability in a setting like this helps one realize the importance of continuation through preservation and conservation.  I’ll end this with a sort of microcosmic image on the idea–Yesterday, I was posting the first round of pictures to Facebook for my friends and family to see, when some 30 minutes later, the picture on the left, received a comment, containing the picture on the right.  A friend had taken an almost identical shot, evening including Ralph Hall, the year prior, while he was studying abroad with the previous “generation” of Virginia Tech and UVa students.   I plan to keep this theme in mind as I continue to learn and explore over the course of the three modules.  Until then, Arrivederci!           


Sustainable Europe 2012  |  Sustainable Europe 2011