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Monday, July 1, 2013

Today, we ventured across the Swiss Alps to Basel, a small city in northern Switzerland. It actually borders both France and Germany. Apparently their airport has three separate entry points, one from each of the bordering countries.  Because of its unique placement, there are a variety of influences incorporated into the city. Walking out of the train station, the first thing I noticed was the road. Their roads are extremely confusing, and they epitomize mixed use. There are trollies, buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians on any given road. On top of that, each road has designated areas for each of these modes of transportation. Thus, we found the roads a little challenging to navigate. However, the people of Basel understand the system and utilize these roads in an organized, efficient fashion. One thing I took note of, in particular, was the popularity of certain modes of transportation. For instance, in watching the road from the observation deck of the local hospital for about one minute, I saw two compact cars, one medium-sized car, two buses (one of which was fueled by biofuel), a trolley, around 15 bikers and another 15 pedestrians. All of this occurred on one road that was only slightly larger than two lanes—quite an impressive feat. The absence of cars (at least in comparison to the US) is due both  to a cultural tendency and a governmental tax. Basel has an annual tax on highway usage. While the overall amount is not substantial, it still incentivizes positive behaviors. The preference for use of public transportation or bikes/walking is particularly beneficial for several reasons. It reduces the amount of energy needed for transportation, limits carbon emissions, and is good for human health.

The second major point of interest for me was the architecture. In touring the city, it was common to see beautiful, old fourteenth century churches that had history and character. At the same time, however, we saw a significant amount of modern architecture. This seemed pretty counterintuitive to me until our guide explained the process of historical protection. In Basel, if you want to renovate an old building, you have to get the building surveyed. From there, the building can be placed under historical protection. If this is the case, the owners may only renovate the building within a strict set of guidelines. At the same time however, recent construction has been reflecting a more modern style of architecture. I found the new children’s hospital to be the best demonstration of their current preferences. This building was sleek-lined, colorful, innovative, and particularly sustainable. In fact, the roof was mixed with solar panels and green roofing. Nonetheless, this concept was not strictly limited to the hospital. Several buildings throughout the city integrated green roofing into their construction plans.

As we toured the city in the unexpected heat, their water fountains also stood out to all of us. They have hundreds of gorgeous fountains throughout the city that all provide clean water. People just go to the water fountains, cup their hands, and drink away. This seemed bizarre to us at the beginning, but by the end, we were all infatuated by them. While they were certainly interesting, they didn’t appear to be the most efficient means of transporting clean drinking water. They are constantly flowing and don’t recycle within a single machine. The wastewater then goes back to a centralized purification system and is eventually released in the Rhine. In the end, this leads to large amounts of excess water and energy use.

Overall, Basel appears to be a sustainable, green city. You see people biking to work, efficient public transportation, compact city centers, green roofs, and much more throughout the city. However, the Rhine River is the heart of this city. At one time, river was significantly polluted as a result of Basel’s strong chemical industry. The dichotomy of the city was perplexing to me. Ideally, it represents a city in transition. In the past, the chemical industry greatly polluted to river. However now, it is supporting a sustainable city full of conscientious citizens who are green and economically secure.

Guest contributor:  Allie Rhea

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