How One Kid Stopped the Contamination of a River

Stella Bowles was 11 years old when she first donned her rubber boots to test for water contamination in the LaHave River, which runs beside her home on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada.

“I wanted to swim in the water, and Mom’s always said no,” Bowles told CityLab. But in 2015, after hearing her mom, Andrea Conrad, say that their neighbors were using illegal straight pipes, Bowles asked her what a straight pipe was. “She explained it’s a pipe from a home’s toilet into a waterway, with no filtration whatsoever,” Bowles recalled. “I had so many questions.”

Such as: If the river has poop in it from nearby houses, how many houses?

Bowles collected and analyzed water samples, running them through a filter funnel and putting the filter on an enterococci testing card. After 36 hours in an incubator, the colonies of fecal bacteria on the card turn blue. Bowles counted the blue dots. The results revealed levels of fecal contamination above Canada’s federal standards for swimming or boating. Among those sailing the LaHave waters at the time was Bowles’ little brother.

Conrad chimed in, “You were mortified.”

“I was,” Bowles answered. “So that’s the long beginning of how this all happened.” It turned out that an estimated 600 straight pipes were sending raw sewage right into the river.

Bowles won a silver medal in a Canada-wide science fair in 2017 for her project on the contamination, and she came in first place for her age group in Action for Nature’s 2018 International Eco-Hero Youth Awards. In the summer of 2017, she helped convince the Canadian government to commit to replacing all straight pipes to the LaHave River with septic tanks by 2023 at a cost of more than $15 million (Canadian), split three ways among the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. Officials plan to install between 50 and 100 septic systems in 2018, and up to 100 systems annually through 2023.

Not long after her discovery, Bowles put up a large sign on the nearby wharf cautioning that the river was contaminated with fecal bacteria. She also wanted to create a Facebook page to alert members of the community, an idea her mother later agreed to as Bowles continued to see people in the river.

Stella Bowles mounted a sign on the wharf to warn swimmers. (Andrea Conrad)

“People don’t necessarily take to that well, when you’re telling them to get out of the water,” said Conrad. “So that’s why we decided as a family, we’ll do the Facebook page and see what happens, and go from there.”

Bowles and her mom thought the page might inform 100 people that the river was unsafe, but they reached thousands within days.

“Everybody on the page was commenting, ‘This is disgusting. Are you serious? This is really happening?’ The comments were just going and going and going,” said Bowles. “It was definitely a huge talk in the town.”

“There was pushback, but not towards Stella,” added Conrad. “It was more towards the government and the lack of enforcement. And people who had straight pipes were obviously staying pretty quiet, right? Because they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact they had straight pipes.”

Bowles learned how to test the water from David Maxwell, a retired physician and former university professor who found out about the many straight pipes along the LaHave River after he moved to the area. The municipal district of Lunenburg (population just shy of 25,000) had conducted a survey in which 800 households self-reported using straight pipes, and Maxwell discovered that the house he bought was one of them.

“I proceeded then to get a septic system installed, because this horrified me as a physician,” said Maxwell. “I thought, ‘This is completely unacceptable.’”

He also realized that LaHave water was not being tested, and sprang into action. “I rounded up a group of fellow citizens to collect water samples, and turned my kitchen into a microbiology lab and generated counts of bacteria for a two-year period.”

Despite him sending the results to the government and publishing them as widely as he could, the findings failed to change the limited enforcement of the law barring straight pipes.

“People didn’t take to [Maxwell],” Bowles said, “but I think the fact that I was an 11-year-old kid saying, ‘This is wrong’—I was kind of shaming the adults, saying, ‘Are you serious? Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of our community?’—it kind of pushed them into a corner.”

According to the municipal district’s mayor, Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, the Department of Environment (a provincial body) handled regulation of illegal straight pipes using a complaint-driven system. Someone would have to report their neighbor to the department for it to take action, and considering the number of households with straight pipes, there was little enforcement.

Bolivar-Getson said, “I really think the turning point was Stella Bowles—an 11-year-old’s science project.”

Maxwell noted the difference between his campaign and Bowles’s. “The essence of it is, how does the electorate influence their government? How do the people make their government do the right thing? … As an adult, I got nowhere. And as a kid with skills in social media and her own dismay at the failure of the adults, Stella really mobilized the political machine, because you can’t say no to a kid.”

Now 14, Bowles has co-written a book entitled My River that’s set for publication this September. She is distributing water-testing kits to other young people in Nova Scotia, paid for through grants and awards she received, and training them in how to test their local waterways.

“I want to show kids that science isn’t just a textbook like at school,” she said.

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Strategies for Sustainable Food Systems in Smart Cities

In addition to the needs on the entrepreneurship side, it also became readily apparent that the urban farming industry is siloed and frequently disconnected from the outside world. To address this we have created workshops and conferences that focus on bringing people of diverse backgrounds together and introducing urban agriculture to a wider audience than just ag-tech entrepreneurs.

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Utah Internet Service Highlighted in Promo Video

Spanish Fork, Utah, was recently highlighted in a promotional video touting the successes of its municipal Internet service. The video, produced by the trade group Internet Association, is all about economic development and growth — something this community of nearly 40,000 has seen since the municipality introduced the service back in 2001, and then subsequently upgraded to fiber.… Read More

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MapLab: Satellites on Fire

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox .

Not a neighborhood I’m familiar with. (Google Maps)

Though it was seldom-used by locals, the name instantly spread to real estate listings, restaurant descriptions, and newspaper stories. The same was true in other cities’ neighborhoods “rebranded” by Google, even when the names were fiction. “You see a name like that on a map and you believe it,” said Jeffrey Schneider, an L.A. resident who made up a “new” neighborhood name for his Silver Lake apartment listing and later found it on Google Maps.

Hit me with your screenshot: What are the Google Maps idiosyncrasies that drive you nuts? Does it get something wrong in your town?

Mappy links

ICYMI, civilians: Google’s location services are totally tracking you, all the time. (Here’s how to delete your data… sort of.)  ♦ ICYMI, nerds: Google Maps ditched Mercator, embraced the sphere. ♦ What does it take to map the whole damn country from your house? A master cartographer told PBS. ♦  The U.S. is very segregated: mapping Twitter data is one more way to show it. ♦ Maps in journalism are “a double-edged sword,” explains a ProPublica news app developer. ♦ We’re still just a speck: By measuring “the spectra of light emanating from galaxies,” scientists are building the largest 3-D intergalactic map to date.

Where else can you get this stuff? Please tell a friend to subscribe to MapLab. And send me your hopes, dreams, and MapLab story ideas.



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The Cities Where You Get the Biggest Bang for Your Buck

Towns with positive job growth, where residents get the biggest bang for their salary buck, are not your New Yorks or San Franciscos. They’re places like Duluth, Minnesota; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Lubbock, Texas. And even if you’re not about to up and move away from family and networks for these perks, there may be another city less than day’s drive away that has a lower cost of living.

A new analysis identifies those places and their relative benefits by salary and cost of living. Jed Kolko, the chief economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, compares cities based on their average annual salaries in the time period from July 2017 to June 2018. After controlling for the difference in the types of jobs available in each city, he finds that a city like San Francisco—unsurprisingly—offers salaries that are 19 percent higher on average than, say, San Antonio. The problem, though, is that this comparison doesn’t account for the fact that the cost of goods and services—especially, housing—is far higher in San Francisco. After adjusting for that cost, San Antonio’s average paycheck ends up being 11 percent higher than San Francisco’s. In other words, each dollar in a San Antonio resident pocket goes a lot further, all else being equal.

Here’s a table of the top ten metros with at least 250,000 residents where cost of living-adjusted salaries are highest:

But here’s the bad news: Kolko points out that metros with the highest adjusted salaries aren’t typically the ones brimming with jobs—and may not be in the future either. Brownsville’s 7 percent unemployment rate, for example, is way higher than the national 4.2 rate. To produce a list of top ten metros that have high salaries, low cost of living, and positive job prospects, Kolko excludes those with below-national average unemployment and projected job growth. That’s how we get Duluth, Wilmington, Lubbock, and San Antonio:

As the map below shows, the towns with the best adjusted salaries tend to be smaller cities clustered in the nation’s interior.

Americans, especially lower-income ones, are moving less than ever. But it may not take a drastic cross-country move to live in a metro with similar job opportunities where salaries go further. Kolko also provides a list of metros with cost-of-living-adjusted salaries of metros that are less than 500 miles apart, and largely overlap in the kinds of job openings available. Birmingham, Alabama, for example, offers salaries are, on average, 22 percent higher than in Tampa, Florida.

“These are moves that get you a higher standard of living and similar job opportunities—all just a short flight or day’s drive away,” he writes in a blog post about his research.

      #                Higher adjusted salary of the pair Lower adjusted salary of the pair Difference in adjusted salaries
1 Birmingham-Hoover, AL Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 22.4%
2 Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA 20.9%
3 Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 17.6%
4 Columbia, SC Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 16.2%
5 Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 15.7%
6 Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 15.5%
7 Birmingham-Hoover, AL Jacksonville, FL 15.2%
8 Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 14.7%
9 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 13.9%
10 Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 13.7%

As with any comparative analysis of local economies, this one comes with caveats. The salaries data comes from the repository of annual salaries on, which may not be comprehensive and don’t factor in jobs listed by hourly wage rather than salary. For an apples-to-apples comparison between cities, Kolko and his team accounted for the different mix of professions in their salary averages. But in reality, the premiums offered in certain occupations will be much higher than in others. And finally, the cost of living data come from Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates from 2016, which means that they may be slightly different today. Still, the analysis gives a sense of how metros differ when it comes to the economic opportunities they offer.

Of course, the capacity to move to another city with lower costs is in and of itself often a luxury, whether because of family obligations, moving costs, or other factors. For other transient workers, so is staying put in any one place. Living in a city where the same salary goes much further has an obvious benefit: savings. But it’s important to note that the appeal of places that offer low cost-of-living-adjusted salaries may lie elsewhere. In Honolulu and Miami, it may be the beaches and wonderful weather; in New York City, it may be the diversity, professional opportunities, and access to various amenities. For many residents, those factors more than balance out the high rents.

In fact, some economists see location as an “asset” in and of itself. Even if living in expensive areas yields sparser real savings right now, it can be a beneficial “investment” for the future because it provides greater access to cultural benefits, educational opportunities, and jobs. In other words, a host of factors come into play when you’re evaluating the tradeoff of living in any place—and how they’re weighed depends on what we, as individuals, value.

“All else equal, a higher adjusted salary is better than a lower one,” writes Kolko. “But in job hunting—like so many other things—all else is never equal.”

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Tong-Wielding ‘Trash Runners’ Fight Litter in Shanghai

After sunset on a hot July night, the Shanghai Trash Runners moved quickly through a park along the Suzhou River, garbage bags and plastic tongs in hand. They scanned the sidewalk for cigarette butts, bottles, food containers, or any other litter that needed to be plucked from the ground and properly deposited into their bags. Zig-zagging through crowds of people out for evening strolls, through middle-aged dancers moving in sync to patriotic music, the Trash Runners left Shanghai a little cleaner in their wake.

Emelie Holmberg, who is a regular, remarked, “It’s really crowded here tonight. Maybe because of the heat.” She bent down and tonged a stray napkin into her bag. Asked how it works when you’re in the back of the pack—don’t the people in the front pick up all the litter?—she replied, “There’s enough trash for everyone.”

Like other Chinese cities, Shanghai is struggling to cope with the increase in waste that has resulted from surging economic development. In 2016, tons of garbage choked a major reservoir; the year before, three deer at the city zoo died from eating plastic. The city has relied on a network of informal recyclers to stem the tide, and recently introduced smart bins on city streets.   

Trash runners gather around Yinan Shen and Kate Sogor (middle) to take the customary end-of-run photo. (Ryan Krull)

Though it was a relatively small group that night (about 10 people), the Trash Runners have been growing steadily since their start just four months ago, part of a global movement to pick up litter while you exercise, also known as “plogging.” Some of the Trash Runners’ events have drawn more than 50 people, and their group on WeChat (the Chinese messaging app) has grown to more than 500 participants. Within its ranks are ultra-marathoners as well as folks for whom trash running is their only running. Everyone I spoke to said the real appeal of trash running was not the exercise, but the sense of connection and community—no small thing in a city of over 24 million.

Several paces ahead of Emelie was Huang Qi, from the Yangpu District of Shanghai. She’d read a recent article about the group on WeChat and thought it sounded like a good way to meet new people, in particular people she might not otherwise get to know. “I love it,” Qi said. “I already know I’ll definitely be coming again next week.”

The Trash Runners left the park and ran into a business and residential area of Putuo District. They elicited a number of befuddled looks from passersby, although thumbs-ups were also common reactions.

At one intersection Tan Yinghuai, whose nickname is Simba and who has been a Trash Runner since the beginning, caught back up to the group and said he’d stopped to give their WeChat information to a woman who wanted to join. Another runner said she’d just done the same thing.

A man on a bicycle stopped to ask the Trash Runners what they were doing. Co-founder Kate Sogor explained the concept, saying that he should join on his bike. “But,” she joked, “you’ll need extra-long tongs.”

Kate, who is from Hungary and has lived in China and Taiwan for the past eight years, said she was initially a little worried the Trash Run would be received as some sort of criticism of Shanghai. “We’re not trying to lecture anybody,” she said. “What we want to do is just a social fun run in our neighborhood, and if anyone who sees us thinks twice before they throw out anything, then we’ve beat our goal.”

The group, which is about half Chinese nationals and half foreigners, runs one night a week at a central location in the city, and gathers each month for a more ambitious weekend excursion outside of town. Due to Shanghai’s chronic air pollution, it curtails runs when the Air Quality Index gets too high (150 or higher).

One of the most active members of the group, Tan Yinghuai, also known as Simba. (Cheng Xiaowen)

Yinan Shen, another regular and a Shanghai native, said that running in general and triathlons in particular seem to be taking off in China. Thanks in part to government subsidization, marathons and trail runs are being held all over the country, even in relatively isolated rural areas. Running groups, too, are growing in number in Shanghai. But this is the only one that picks up trash.

For the first trash run, in March, Kate and co-founder Celina Eisenring, along with eight others who responded to a notice on WeChat, went to run and pick up trash at Dishui Lake, about two hours south of the city. They planned a 20-kilometer (about 12-mile) route, which was too long, in hindsight.

“We didn’t think it would be so tiring,” Celina said. “All the stopping to pick up trash and starting again.”

Some of the runners finished with the help of bike shares. “We never saw most of those people again,” Kate said. “We lost most of them, but not Simba!”

It was through Simba that Kerry Ding heard of the group, and she joined not long after, arriving at her first Trash Run straight from work and still wearing heels.

“My first reason for being here is the people,” said Kerry, who moved from Guangzhou in southern China to Shanghai for work. “It’s great talking to more people about culture, meeting people from Germany, America, France. You learn a lot more this way than online.”

The group snapped their customary selfie with the collected trash, then headed for a nearby bar to chat and play games. They’d run a little more than 5 kilometers (3 miles plus) in about 90 minutes—not bad, considering all the stops.

“Sometimes we go to places that are rather clean,” Celina said. “And sometimes we’re at places that are almost too trashy, and we can’t really run. Tonight was a good mix.”

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