Sustainability Abroad

It has clearly been way too long since I’ve done a blog post! The summer has slipped by way too fast and suddenly Fall is looming. In addition to an action packed summer at work, I was extremely fortunate to be able to take a twelve day trip to London, Brussels and Paris with my husband in late August. I hadn’t been to Europe in over a decade and one of the things I was very curious about was how Europe was progressing on all things sustainable. Were they on-pace with the US? Leaving us behind? So, in addition to checking out some amazing historical sights and architecture and eating some incredible food, I made sure to keep my eye on common practices  around sustainability and sustainable design.  We were in some pretty progressive, large cities, so I am sure that they are not completely reflective of all or maybe even most parts of Europe, but I did have some take-aways and observations that I wanted to share.

Food and Drink

  • I was completely spoiled, especially in London, by the availability of local and often organic produce and meats.
  • Europeans tend to shop for food every couple of days which reduces the amount of space needed for food storage, reduces the use of food preservatives and ensures food is as fresh as possible.
  • The largest soda available is usually around 16 ounces max, but it’s not uncommon to be able to buy much larger glasses of beer!
  • Temporary, semi-permanent and permanent markets abound! Every neighborhood seems to have it’s own market. Many specialize in produce and meats, but other have wide selections of prepared foods and other products as well.

Building and Building Systems

  • Hardly any buildings in the cities we visited had air conditioning. We were in London during one of the hottest periods they had had in years’ so there were a couple times that heat was a problem, but, overall, buildings were well designed for ventilation and heat was not an issue. Think of how much less energy these building use without air conditioning!
  • Elevators were not prevalent except in very modern buildings. Escalators were rare as well. Get ready to take on some stairs!
  • Spaces and living units in general seemed a little smaller and more compact. Cafes squeeze the maximum number of seats as possible and personal space expectations seem to be smaller.
  • Nearly all WCs were dual-flush. It was highly unusual to find one that was not.
  • All of the cities we visited had gorgeous stocks of historic buildings but most had been elegantly updated over time for efficiency and changing needs. Building reuse instead of replacement is clearly the norm and expectation.

Transportation

  • All of the cities we visited were extremely walkable and all also had extensive, easy to use public transit in the form of both buses and subway systems.
  • Public transportation was well used by locals and tourists alike. It would have been extremely easy to live in any of the three cities without owning a car.
  • All three cities all well connected to much of Europe via high speed rail networks which is how we traveled between cities.
  • Parking is at a premium everywhere and cars are, in general, very compact and consequently fuel-efficient. I could have probably counted the number of full size sedans or SUVs I saw in Paris in particular on my fingers.
  • Each city had its own system of bicycles that could be rented for short-term use at terminals located around the city.

Materials

  • The EU flower label was prominently displayed on many of the products we came across from soaps and shampoos to paper paper products. This label speaks to many aspects of sustainability including some aspects of lifecycle assessment.
  • Plastic bottles were somewhat prevalent in London but everywhere else seemed to use almost exclusively glass and aluminum for drink packaging
  • Recycling infrastructure was available, but not nearly as evident and easy to find in public places as it is becoming in the US.

I am sure this is not a complete list, but, as you can see, there are lots of positive sustainable systems that seem to be ingrained in many of these European cities. I think there are a lot of things Americans and American companies can learn from the processes and habits in Europe, but I think there are also some ways that the US is ahead of the curve as well. I feel so fortunate to have been able to really see some of these differences in action and know that they will influence my future designs!

 

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