For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Student Blog: Responsive Urban Environments in Italy

Written By Brandon Bajzath - College of Engineering

November 17, 2022

As an engineering student, you have countless opportunities to experience first-hand what being a professional engineer will be like once your graduate. You work in engineering design classes to create prototypes. You go on co-op to deepen your focus or learn how to work in an office or lab environment. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to travel to Italy to see how responsible engineering has the potential to revitalize a region.

I became part of that final group this past summer. One morning in late April, I checked my email and read, “Responsive Urban Environments Workshop — Lecco, Italy. Apply by May 2.” I applied in a frenzy before knowing what I was really agreeing to, other than hopefully the chance to eat gelato at sunset.

Lecco is a city on Lake Como, at the base of the Alps in northern Italy. All around Lake Como are tiny communities where clusters of warmly colored shops, homes, and restaurants dot the landscape for locals and tourists to enjoy. The natural beauty of this region is breathtaking and smoothly coexists with the built environment, with nothing taller than a church bell tower poking up into the mountainous horizon.

During the 20th century, Lecco’s location near a number of natural spring water rivers made it a hub of industrial growth, providing raw iron products international. But now, much of the area along the main water source, the Gerenzone River, is underutilized and inaccessible. The people of Lecco need responsible engineering solutions to revitalize the area while remaining true to the harmonious interaction between nature and the built environment.

I had the opportunity to study and live with 40+ Architecture and Building Design Engineering students from all over the world. We were hosted by Polytechnic University of Milan’s Lecco campus and took trains, buses, and ferries to dozens of villas, churches, and communities all around Lake Como.

The first week of our workshop was designed for us to observe and learn as much about Lecco and its surrounding cities, cultures, and identities before we dove too deep in introducing anything new to the revitalization zones along the river. This information gathering period involved site visits to the remote areas higher up the mountains, other towns along Lake Como, and a day trip to the historical city of Milan. In each of these locations, our design teams had the opportunity to learn from conversation with locals and lectures from practicing architects, historians, and other municipal professionals.

The second week was predominantly spent in the classroom preparing a final poster and presentation for our sustainable design plan. The final presentation was given to a panel consisting of the educators and curators that we met throughout the previous two weeks. Each design team was comprised of a student from each of the participating universities to ensure a diverse and well rounded approach to the project. There was a lot of freedom in terms of constraints and assumptions, which allowed for a lot of creative solutions with varying degrees of scale. 

Some groups reimagined the pedestrian experience in high traffic areas; others created outdoor gathering and learning spaces. My group proposed repurposing an abandoned industrial factory into an interactive community greenhouse. The neighborhood that my group’s site was in had good population density and multiple schools nearby, but terrible accessibility around the valley and across the river. After our visits, the main issues we identified were the lack of amenities and the poor accessibility between the public green spaces, affecting the connection between the built and natural environments. Our multi-purpose building would re-establish a protected walkway for pedestrians, provide residents with rentable garden space or fresh produce, and educate children or visitors on the local fauna and history of Lecco.

There was a good variety of projects and sites, but all aimed to provide a soft and clever design solution that connects the natural environment to the citizens and visitors of the area along the Gerenzone river.

As an Engineering student, I really appreciated the quality of discussion with my peers and professors. Not all students were as interested in the same discipline of engineering design, but most were passionate about improving our world’s infrastructure and creative enough to visualize a design strategy. This academic environment, combined with the experiences and capabilities of an international team, created an excellent environment to encourage new solutions or applications of existing engineering examples.

It is personally very inspiring and relieving knowing I can be excited about my work and colleagues in a professional environment. And it was rewarding to see how engineers can take different approaches to the same problem and come up with a variety of way to improve the lives of everyone in the region.

In my opinion, when traveling to new places, a successful experience is based on three things: where you are going, who you are going with, and what you are doing there. This workshop was the perfect balance of the three… a two-week academic retreat to Northern Italy to learn and explore the culture and needs of the area with fellow future engineers, architects, and professionals.