Learning through the Intermediary of the World: A Sustainable Cities Tour

James A. Throgmorton. 1998. Unpublished manuscript available upon request from the author.

For three weeks during the late spring of 1998, several students and I conducted a study abroad course involving four cities in Europe and one in the United States. Although many universities offer students opportunities to study abroad, this particular course was distinguished by its purpose, structure, and results. We called it the “Sustainable Cities Tour,” primarily because it sought to learn what a select group of comparably-sized cities in the United States and Europe (Iowa City, Iowa; La Rochelle, France; Freiburg, Germany; Aalborg, Denmark; and Leicester, England) are doing to promote “sustainable” patterns of urban and economic development. The course proved to be a resounding success. We met with 32 or more officials, 4 professors, and several students; we received briefings about land development projects, transportation policies, national and European planning systems, and technological innovations; and we took part in field tours of new developments, waste management systems, pedestrianized city centres, innovative resource conserving houses, and natural areas. We also had time to explore each city on foot, by bike, and by bus or tram, and hence to gain a much deeper, richer, and more personal experience of each city. Part of that richness derived from a dozen or more “magical” encounters with ordinary English, Danish, German, and French people. In the end, I would characterize it as a superlative “whole body” learning experience that was great fun too.  One of the students who participated in the tour later said that the “images of model European cities were ‘burned in their minds.'”

In this brief paper, I seek to answer four questions that we were repeatedly asked before, during, and after the trip: (1) why did we conduct a “sustainable” cities tour, and what did we mean by sustainable? (2) why did we choose these cities? (3) what did we see and do in the cities, (4) what did we learn, especially in terms of what might be directly relevant to cities in the United States?

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