Intensive Study Abroad Class on Sustainable Cities Goes Online

A Drexel University course designed to look at the inner workings of cities and promote sustainable urban development is moving online.

Launched in 2018, Responsive Urban Environments (RUE) is a joint initiative started from the collaboration between Drexel and Politecnico di Milano, a technical university in Italy. Born as an intensive workshop for students enrolled in different degree courses of the two universities, RUE aims to stimulate interdisciplinary debate on strategies and technical solutions to generate positive impacts on the urban environment. Students taking the course in previous years had traveled to Italy; this term, the course will be offered as part of Drexel’s Global Classroom virtual exchange. The course is led by Eugenia Victoria Ellis, PhD, professor in Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

“This year’s pandemic created an unpredictable change in the way our society functions. Fortunately, we were positioned to rely on digital technology more than we were actually using it at the time. So that when the pandemic struck, we were prepared – it further boosted our use of the Internet and this shift in how we communicate and interact is likely to stay,” explains Professor Ellis. "While, unfortunately students will be unable to interact in person with their teammates from Italy, they will be working together to create a Resilience Hub, one each for both Philadelphia and Milan. This international teamwork collaboration that will occur entirely online will be an incredible experience for our students because it is possible or even likely they might be working this way in the future: remotely at an international multidisciplinary engineering firm”

The RUE initiative has taken its lead from Drexel’s Public Realm Plan developed in response to President Fry’s long-term strategic plan for Drexel University, which includes the development of the area around 30th Street Station into an “Innovation Neighborhood.” This urban revitalization project is at the nexus of entrepreneurship research and education at Drexel and our efforts to create a sustainable, resilient, and responsive Philadelphia neighborhood. As a Fulbright Scholar, President Fry will be sharing his profound vision for Drexel University and its relationship with the City of Philadelphia with the Politecnico di Milano next summer.

Within this framework, the city of Philadelphia and the city of Milan have joined the International Alliance C40, an important global network of cities committed to fighting climate change in order to improve the health of people, cities and the planet. The cities and the ways in which they will be able to adapt to the great changes taking place – demographic, climatic, technological, energy, etc. – are the main fields of action for future planners interested in contributing with their work to the sustainability of our planet.

RUE helps students understand the close relationship between the engineering design choices that take place at the scale of the building and neighborhood to the environmental impacts that occur at the wider scale of the urban level. Against this background, the focus of the RUE course is to promote high-profile educational activities to train professionals specialized in the construction industry, architects and engineers, to be able to manage the global challenges of high-density cities in terms of sustainability, and improve their capacity to respond to a changing context and climate. In other words, to provide our future engineers, planners and architects with the ability to design, engineer and implement Responsive Urban Environments that promote urban ecology, efficient use of energy and resources, and the preservation and extension of green spaces and biodiversity.

In the online course, Drexel students will be teamed with students from the Politecnico di Milano to develop a RUE solution for sites in both cities. Similar in size, Philadelphia and Milan both have approximately 1.5 million inhabitants and are excellent case studies for the RUE. In this 3-credit course, student teams will research a topic they consider to be a crucial aspect to consider for ecosystem management in our cities today to ensure a low-carbon future for our world tomorrow. Together, POLIMI/Drexel teams will propose strategies for Philadelphia and Milan.

“Developing strategies for the RUE is critical to ensure a low-carbon future for our planet,” Professor Ellis explains. “The percentage of the world’s population living in cities has steadily increased over the past century, and an estimated 70 percent of people are expected to be urbanites by the year 2050 – which is why RUE research is so imperative today.”

Check out the Responsive Urban Environments Facebook page for more information and previous classes.