In addition to rest, relaxation, and reflection, winter break can also be a time for learning and self-development through a wide variety of programs offered during Harvard’s Wintersession period before classes begin. Breaking the monotony of a winter in suburban New Jersey, I decided to do just that, by taking part in a ten-day collaborative course with the Escola Politécnica da Universidade de São Paulo (Poli-USP) and Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in the lively city of São Paulo.

Pictured at the front table are each of the faculty who organized and led the course, in a classroom in Poli-USPPictured at the front table are each of the faculty who organized and led the course, in a classroom in Poli-USP

The course’s head lecturers and faculty began with an overview of the course’s objective and the goings-on for the coming ten days. The course, titled “Sustainable Cities,” combined lecture and site visits throughout the state of São Paulo. These included visits to Aquapolo Ambiental, the largest water reuse project in the Southern Hemisphere; the Operational Control Center of the city’s overcrowded metro system; the Emergency Management Center for forecasting and monitoring of weather conditions; the University’s of São Paulo’s own Photovoltaic Systems Laboratory and Program for Rational Use of Water (PURA); the Cantareira reservoir system; and a General Electric facility for wind power. 

Somewhere in downtown; translation: “against the genocide of black youth”Somewhere in downtown; translation: “against the genocide of black youth”

Hurrying across the street with new friends, I snapped a photo of this marking in downtown São Paulo. It was a quick reminder that the world is watching, even in cities thousands of miles away, but also hinted at issues of race in Brazil.

São Paulo, a melting pot with one of the highest populations of any metropolitan area, is home to people of German, Jewish, Portuguese, Japanese, African, Latino, Brazilian, and mixed descent. During student introductions, the group’s geographical and cultural diversity reflected, at large, the diversity of the two countries. Our varied backgrounds brought varied perspectives and skills, key for formulating our final group projects on different aspects of urban sustainable development.

All fourteen students from Harvard and fourteen from Poli-USP enrolled in the course. Photo Credit: Jill LarsonAll fourteen students from Harvard and fourteen from Poli-USP enrolled in the course. Photo Credit: Jill Larson

Soon after the introductory lecture, we took a tour of the university’s campus. With over 1,000,000 square feet housing 103 laboratories and 15 different engineering departments, the university is a hub of teaching and research in the immediate São Paulo metropolitan area and the world.

Banco Santander Brasil, a Santander headquarters in São Paulo. Photo Credit: Jill LarsonBanco Santander Brasil, a Santander headquarters in São Paulo. Photo Credit: Jill Larson

One of our first site visits took us to the headquarters of Santander, an international financial service with roots in Spain. The building—a skyscraper, really—is an “intelligent” building, with LEED certification and many initiatives to drive down greenhouse gas emissions in all of its scopes.


A decorative light fixture at a Japanese restaurant near our hotel.A decorative light fixture at a Japanese restaurant near our hotel.

With one of the largest Japanese populations outside of Japan itself, São Paulo is home to a number of Japanese restaurants. Though rodízio typically refers to an all-you-can-eat service in a Brazilian restaurant, with waiters constantly on the move, we were treated to just the same at this Japanese restaurant. Chatting under the glow of the light fixture, we sampled small plates, fish, and sushi for hours. For, in Brazil, dinners are a long, social affair, and this restaurant provided just the atmosphere. 

GE Energy Management. Photo Credit: Jill LarsonGE Energy Management. Photo Credit: Jill Larson

One of our next site visits brought us to a General Electric wind power facility outside of the immediate city. Personnel first gave a lecture on the workings of the plant, and later a tour of wind turbine warehouses and equipment.

Brazil, already quite renewable with 90% electricity supplied by hydroelectric power, has growing potential for wind power, especially in months of lower rainfall. Thus, wind power currently is a supplementary source for hydroelectricity, although work by GE and other companies demonstrate wind power’s transformation into a more primary source. 

Corujas, a community garden in Vila Madalena, a neighborhood in São Paulo; translation: “Here one can learn and one can teach—an exchange that benefits all.”Corujas, a community garden in Vila Madalena, a neighborhood in São Paulo; translation: “Here one can learn and one can teach—an exchange that benefits all.”

A patch of green in the concrete jungle, Corujas prides itself on being a garden for the community, that is, accessible to local residents to grow and to harvest there the goods that they please. Guiding the tour, Claudia Visoni, a founder of the garden, stressed that the garden was also a place in which one could learn about and teach gardening to others, regardless of his or her expertise. She told us that, for many people, gardening is very experiential, so the wide biodiversity of Corujas owes to the experiences people have had with different fruits and vegetables throughout their lives.

The Atabainha Reservoir of the Sistema CantareiraThe Atabainha Reservoir of the Sistema Cantareira

São Paulo currently is in the midst of a drought, despite its ongoing rainy season. Though rain falls often in the city center, it does not fall where it is needed most, in reservoirs like this. With inadequate rainfall in the coming 40 days, nearly half of the city faces a dire water shortage as this reservoir, at mere percent of its total capacity, empties. Here, I was reminded that water is, in fact, a limited resource, though we often do not think of it being so. I was reminded that much of the world faces both issues in the management and treatment of its water—issues our changing climate only serves to complicate.

The São Paulo See Metropolitan CathedralThe São Paulo See Metropolitan Cathedral

On a morning without lectures or site visits, we decided to do a little tourism of our own in the downtown area. Walking through snug, picturesque alleyways, we passed several neo-gothic buildings, including this impressive cathedral of the city’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Later, we took a tour of a busy farmer’s market, tasting whichever fruits and juices we were offered by the vendors.

Elevator pitches on social entrepreneurship, with presentations by Profes, Kekanto, Geekie, Olhos da Cidade, and Dr. Consulta. Photo Credit: Jill LarsonElevator pitches on social entrepreneurship, with presentations by Profes, Kekanto, Geekie, Olhos da Cidade, and Dr. Consulta. Photo Credit: Jill Larson

One of the last days of the program brought us to see a series of five-minute elevator pitches by professionals of all spheres of development—healthcare, technology, education, and even media. The event gave Harvard students a glimpse into the social entrepreneurship movement in Brazil. The short presentation style also offered each student the chance to converse with these professionals after they each spoke. Ideas—on starting a company, building a consumer base, and the nature of businesses for social change—bounced left and right.

A group discusses their final project. Pictured in the foreground: Avinash Saraf (Harvard), Layla Nunes Lambiasi (Poli-USP), André Holzhacker Alves (Poli-USP), Vincinius B. Pietratonio (Poli-USP), Maurício Salles (Poli-USP), Adrian Jones (Harvard), and me. Photo Credit: Jill LarsonA group discusses their final project. Pictured in the foreground: Avinash Saraf (Harvard), Layla Nunes Lambiasi (Poli-USP), André Holzhacker Alves (Poli-USP), Vincinius B. Pietratonio (Poli-USP), Maurício Salles (Poli-USP), Adrian Jones (Harvard), and me. Photo Credit: Jill Larson

This group, focusing on distributed energy resources in Brazil and the United States, completed a project that outlined collaborative efforts between the two countries to foster biogas generation from wastewater. Other groups completed projects related to urban water management, green buildings, disaster preparedness, and urban mobility—all key players in the much larger conversation of urban sustainable development. Each group’s final presentation to the course faculty was complete with a practical project proposal to continue the collaboration between Harvard SEAS and Poli-USP

In its lectures, site visits, and the final project, the course gave me time to reflect upon issues in sustainability in the United States and Brazil, both countries moving at the quick paces of urban development. And throughout those activities, I interacted with students around the world as invested in these problems as I am. Our approaches to sustainable development as multicolored and interconnected as this graffiti, we parted ways on the final day, exchanging our goodbyes, or, for some, a “see you later.”

I interacted with students around the world as invested in these problems as I am.

Read more about the workshop and the students' experiences in the Harvard Gazette.