AquaHacking Reflections

We didn’t think we’d start a company. But hey, here we are.

I started the AquaHacking challenge by putting the word out among friends to see who wanted to get together and form a team. We had a few sessions in May where we brainstormed problems and ideas, and settled on one that we all liked and that we thought was feasible: a water quality testing kit focused on the presence of algae toxins. The need for the product came mostly from Jill and Nicole. Jill is an expert on cyanobacteria monitoring and has numerous clients, from cottager associations to water utilities, who want to know some basic information about their water quality. Nicole is very familiar with different testing techniques and what kind of data scientists use to make decisions about algae monitoring. We saw a gap in the market: for average people, it’s really hard to determine whether our water is safe to swim. There are tests that people can buy, but they are expensive, difficult to perform and impossible to interpret. The monitoring methods available are really only available to the scientific and institutional community – not your average citizen. At the same time, scientists need way more data on algae blooms to monitor and predict their growth – so they would benefit by having an army of citizens out there collecting data.

Then our interaction designer, Peter, got us really excited about microfluidics – which he learned about through “lab-on-a-chip” articles. Lab-on-a-chip really revolutionized how blood diagnostic testing was done, because now a small chip can give you your test results in minutes at point-of-care. We looked at whether this could be applied to water quality, and could see no reason why not, so we decided that would be our product idea.

microfluidics lab_3

Nicole with microfluidic device samples

We pitched the idea of CyanoSleuth – a citizen science water quality testing device and associated app – at the semi-finals in June. We didn’t expect much – we figured there would be teams who were much further along with product development or their business case. We were shocked and excited to be named one of the five finalists!

ImPONDerable_prize

At the June 21 Semi Finals

But also terrified… because now we had to do the hard work of figuring out how to advance this product, when none of us had any experience with product development or running a business.

Some of the main lessons we learned in product development over the summer are:

  1. We can learn anything we need to know – so don’t fret about the unknowns, just try to identify them.
  2. Someone’s done this already – find them and ask them questions!
  3. Partnerships and collaborations are key.
  4. Listen to the user to guide the product.
  5. Good people will come if the idea is strong – like our developer who joined us after the semi-finals!

After months of development work, we had a design for our test kit, a plan to manufacture it, collaborations with scientific product developers, and an app prototype with functioning colour-recognition. We went into the finals with a lot of confidence in our product, but sadly came in last place.

We are continuing on though – and likely would not be in this place if it weren’t for the competition. We are creating and refining our app. Over the winter, we will develop a beta version of the microfluidics testing device, and test that out with some initial beta users in summer 2018. We are still a long way from selling this device, and still need to learn a lot, like operating a business and working with manufacturers!!

We got this far, so why not keep going?

ImPONDerable

If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, you can email me at Sylvie@CyanoSleuth.com, and check out our product primer here.

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The Channel Beneath High Park

For an assignment for my class on water resource systems modelling, we were asked to go somewhere, observe flow, and write about it. I was advised to go check out a tiny pipe with a crazy back story in High Park.

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Stormwater Pond at High Park

At the Spring Creek footbridge adjacent to the off-leash dog park, two streams of water join and create one stream. One stream is from a stormwater management pond. Stormwater ponds are receivers of overland flow and storm sewers within a “sewershed” for an urbanized area. The land upstream of these stormwater ponds, so to the north, east and west of High Park, drains into this stormwater pond. The water colour in the pond is black/grey, and the surface of the pond contains silver strands that vary between being filamentous, streaks and blobs. The silver streaks may be organic (from algae) or from gasoline and oil from our roadways. The ponds have a strong sulphur smell, and that smell of sulphur permeates throughout the northern end of the park. There were a few items of garbage present in the pond when I visited, though none of it near to where people frequent. Sanitary sewers that overflow into the combined sewer system during rain events may contribute human waste to this pond, leading to the sulphurous odour when stagnant.

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Outlet of stormwater pond (right) and outlet of Laurentian Channel (left)

The other stream of water is sourced from groundwater. Groundwater is higher in minerals and metals than surface water, due to the contact between soil and rocks that contain these minerals. The red staining from the oxidation of iron is evidence of water with high mineral content, and so this is why I assume that this source of water is groundwater. Based on conversations with Helen Mills (from Lost Rivers TO), and searching on the internet for discussion, I find that my observations are correct. Even more interestingly, this is the outlet of an underground creek, called the Laurentian Channel, that is 110 km long and 30 km wide at some points[1]. In 2003, there were construction workers present for some work on the ponds, and while draining the ponds, they found several capped wells, which indicated this natural spring. They also dug a borehole to investigate this spring, and a geyser erupted from that borehole, indicating the huge pressure the confined aquifer must be under.

I hope you enjoyed this random water post. I was glad to have the push needed to go out and explore new and cool aspects of our water systems.

[1] High Park Nature Newsletter, November 2012, written by Karen Klaire Koski. http://www.gordperks.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/High-Parks-Hidden-Waters.pdf

WATER CONNECTIONS – FROM CANADA TO THE PHILIPPINES

Just re-posting a blog I wrote for Waterlution! Original post is here.


I’ve known Maricor for more than 10 years. We were in the same class in environmental engineering and both stayed in the Waterloo area after graduation. She has completed a master’s degree and is nearing the finishing line for her PhD, where she’s specializing in drinking water treatment technologies for emerging contaminants. I’ve been working in environmental consulting and recently went back to grad school for research in stormwater management. We have a lot in common – mostly our passion for water and making that a reality in all of our projects.

I’ve learned a lot from her, and she is someone I regularly go to or advice. I asked her about grad school – she said go for it – and provided me with templates for reference letters and scholarship opportunities. Now I’m doing grad school and loving it. She recommended Waterlution’s Water Innovation Labs (WILs), and so I went to India for that. I even picked one of my post-WIL travel buddies on her advice!

When Maricor and I were getting together for another catch-up, she told me the most amazing story about her latest water initiative. She told it to me in a very humble way – as is her style – and I was so blown away that I just had to share it – and that’s what this post is about.

Now I’m going to bring Maricor in to have her tell that story.

 

Sylvie: Tell me about your experience at your first WIL in Kananaskis in 2013. How did that experience lead you to understanding your connection with water?

Maricor: I was finishing up my Master’s thesis (focusing on water research) when I came across the WIL Kananaskis web application and thought that a free trip to Banff would be a great way to end the grueling stress of thesis-writing. On Day 1, we were asked to gather around in circles and share our thoughts about our personal motivation of attending this workshop. I listened to a number of responses and was really touched by most of the answers. I obviously felt like such an idiot. For one, I thought water research was just a solid career choice and it did not have any relation to how I feel about water. So I was emotional and told everyone that I grew up in the Philippines, home to >7,000 islands but never felt the connection to water up until I heard everyone else’s responses. By the end of WIL 2013, I decided to dedicate my entire career to water research – not because it was a good career choice – but because water has such an important value to me and is worth protecting.

 

 

Sylvie: Tell me about your background in the Philippines & why you want to give back to where you came from.

Maricor: I was born and raised in the Philippines. My family moved to Canada when I was 18 in search of better opportunities. In the small Philippine town where I grew up (about 80,000 people), water issues were really not a priority for us since there were a lot more socioeconomic aspects to worry about. I came to the realization that no one really talked about major water issues, or asked themselves “Is there something we can do to protect our drinking water?” when there were so many other problems taking precedence.

 

 

Sylvie: Tell me about the scholarship you set up at your former school in the Philippines. Why did you want to do this? What are the questions that you asked?

Maricor: I started my PhD four months after I attended the WIL Kananaskis. I’ve had many dreams and visions that I want to put in place in my hometown since WIL. Maybe someday, I will go back and conduct a research project in the town I grew up or encourage the residents to just talk about water. But I really couldn’t think of any concrete plans. I was very fortunate to have received numerous scholarships during my PhD that helped with my grad school life substantially. So, I decided to pay it forward by sponsoring a scholarship essay competition that will hopefully encourage young minds to establish their connection with water – an opportunity that I did not have while I was there. It would also be a chance for me to learn about the watershed there. We called it “The Future of Negros Water Scholarship Competition”. “Negros” is the name of a Philippine island where my hometown, Victorias City, is situated.

Sylvie: What did you learn from the respondents about the island where you grew up?

Maricor: I was impressed by their responses – I definitely didn’t think the same way they did when I was their age (16 years old). Population growth, urbanization and the lack of water policies were considered the major drivers of the water quality issues in the watershed. All the entries definitely recognized the need for government involvement in providing access to clean and safe drinking water. At the moment, there are no watershed programs currently in place on the island.

I asked really broad questions about the watershed and clean drinking water. The questions were maybe a little bit long for a high-school essay competition – I will keep them shorter and more direct for the next scholarship round.

I will sponsor a second round of scholarship at the end of this year. A few family members I spoke to about this are already planning to contribute to the award. I am so excited.

 

 

Sylvie: Who did you award the scholarship to and what will they be doing with the funds?

Maricor: The recipients of this scholarship were even more deserving of recognition than I initially thought, as they not only demonstrated hard work and deep thinking, but they did so in the face of significant personal adversity as well. The funds will hopefully help all the winners with their university education expenses.

 

Sylvie: Do you have any final words on how to foster connections to water?

Maricor:  Start the conversation, talk about water, and inspire young minds as early as possible!

 

by Sylvie Spraakman and Maricor Arlos

Bios: Sylvie Spraakman is an EIT working on researching & implementing low impact development for stormwater management systems, and Maricor Arlos is a PhD candidate studying how changes to wastewater treatment technologies can affect emerging contaminants. They both love volunteering with community, environmental & political initiatives, and being subservient to their cat masters.

Toronto #PasstheGlass

The Great Waters Challenge has a Level 2! For level 2, I went to a Toronto organizing workshop, and helped organize a water & storytelling event. The video below is my entry into Level 2 – wish me luck! – the top prize is a trip to Brazil for the World Youth Parliament for Water!

The Challenge of Bringing People Together – My Reflections on GWC #1

I wrote this for Waterlution’s blog, and I’m just re-posting it here. Here is the original post. Thanks Waterlution for featuring my blog and for the GWC Level 1 prize


“This is going to be easy!” was my first thought when I read about the Great Waters Challenge. It’s just writing some blog posts about interesting water stories, I love reading & learning about water, I can do this in no time. Getting into the meat of the challenges, it ended up being so much more than “writing blog posts” – I had to wrestle with what was the best way to bring my water stories to others and figure out how to present them creatively.

What I hoped to get out of the challenge was a way to connect my passion for water with reconciliation and #Canada150. It’s important in all the work that we do, that we recognize where the land comes from, and what actions settlers need to take to ensure reconciliation happens. The first challenge was learning about the land I live on (so the traditional territory) and its connection to water (so which watershed I’m part of). The next challenge involved doing some exploration or research to find history and water stories in my community. I told the story of Garrison Creek, which was buried during the development of the City of Toronto.

The third challenge was to bring that water story to a group of people – I decided to do a “lost rivers walk” – imitating an awesome organization that runs walks about water history in Toronto (see: lostrivers.ca). Preparing for this challenge is when I realized that this is going to be more difficult than I anticipated. I needed to bring people together – so I needed to make an event that people wanted to come to – and I wanted to impart stories on them – so I needed to convey my message in an interesting way. It’s one thing to care about issues yourself, it’s another thing to get other people to care about them!

 

 

I sent an email out to nine friends inviting them on a walk of the lost Garrison Creek that I would be guiding on a weekend in March. I figured there would be lots of drop-outs: some not interested, some not available, and some who say yes then would think “naaaah” on the day of, preferring the comfort of their own bed on a chilly Sunday in March. So I estimated two people would show up.

To my complete shock & excitement, nine people showed up, and we had an amazing walk. I had taken myself on the walk the day before, to rehearse where to go and what to say, so I was prepared with the kinds of stories that I felt my friends would be interested in: there was a mix of engineering (I pointed out the above-ground vents for the sanitary sewer) and cultural (such as the community canoes that mark the Garrison Creek path, a project that informs us about the indigenous land we are on, and are also pollinator gardens).

It was a lot of hard work to prepare and host people on this walk (and for food & drink afterwards) – but I learned that if you focus on making an event special and interesting, people will come, learn your stories, and share them with others.

Get out there, and share your water stories!

 

I want to say thank you to Waterlution’s Youth Advisory Board for leading & judging the challenge. Plug: Waterlution is currently recruiting new Youth Advisory Board members, details here.

Greening Exhibition Place

I recently participated in WEAO’s 9th Annual Student Design Competition. The challenge was to come up with innovative stormwater management solutions for Exhibition Place, Toronto. “The Ex”, as it’s known locally, is a bunch of parking lots and buildings that house major events that attract thousand of visitors annually.

The problems are:

  • poor water quality of stormwater runoff – because of all of the cars and asphalt and no pre-treatment before the runoff enters Lake Ontario
  • urban heat island effect – hot days then feel VERY hot
  • flooding on Lakeshore Boulevard, which is south & downstream of Exhibition Place. The sewers on Lakeshore Boulevard receive runoff from Exhibition Place and the Gardiner Highway, so two very impervious areas that would have high peak runoff converge underneath Lakeshore
  • the systems underground are old and not necessarily “designed” for conditions like peak flow
  • the subsurface soils are mainly fill (because this area was Lake Ontario before it was filled in!) and likely contaminated
  • the groundwater level is probably pretty close to the surface, since Exhibition Place is so close to Lake Ontario – which means infiltration won’t be so easy
  • they need all the parking spots they can get!

Seven student teams from across Ontario went forth on solving this problem for the City of Toronto (our “client”). Our designs all implemented green infrastructure solutions – like bioretention, permeable pavement, green roofs, surface and subsurface detention (like cisterns for catching roof runoff). We showed that it was possible to reduce peak flow and runoff volumes from Exhibition Place by retaining it first, releasing it slowly. We also showed that we could improve water quality by filtering it, and reduce urban heat island effect by having lots of plants around.

The price tag was super high though! The range of estimates that our student teams came up with was between $5- and $12-million!!!

I’m left wondering if the City of Toronto will implement something as ambitious as this. I’ve seen many pilot projects get built to demonstrate the effectiveness of low impact development (LID) technologies – but it seems that there is some conservative faction that says “we don’t know enough, need more data, more time, more regulations” – and so we don’t build LIDs out at the large scale. Anecdotally, we’re often told that LIDs don’t work in the winter, or don’t work in urban areas, or need the best infiltrating soils possible to be effective. That line of thinking holds us back, especially when there are countless studies that prove the opposite.

What we proposed in the Student Design Competition is far more than a “pilot project”. I think it’s the right time to move beyond pilot projects for LIDs though. We have a lot of them already, we need to move into “normalizing” LIDs. That means including them in City development plans, ensuring that municipal operations staff (those folks who make sure streets are swept and sidewalk trees don’t fall on people) know what they are and how to maintain them. LIDs don’t work everywhere – I don’t think they are a be-all-end-all solution. But to adapt to climate change and reduce environmental and societal impacts of flooding, we need to normalize some new solutions that we know work.

I hope that Exhibition Place takes on the ambitious project of a green infrastructure re-design! And what better place for it? There are many green initiatives there already, like LEED buildings, waste management plans, and solar panels on roofs. The next step to normalizing LIDs is to implement them site-wide at a place visited by thousands of people every year – Exhibition Place.

 

Reflections & Future Vision

For the last challenge (Challenge #4 of the Great Waters Challenge), we are tasked with reading blogs of other folks in the challenge. Youth from across Canada have been blogging about their water stories – check out this awesome map of where they all are!

Then, we are asked to creatively show our vision for the future of water, and show how we plan on getting there.

First, though, I learned from others by reading blog posts of other participants.

Penny F from Toronto thinks there’s a disconnect between urban people and their water. Jelena, also from Toronto, is great at making maps and analyzing data – she found possible correlations between development and river level changes in the Don River, and also discussed fish species. I learned from her that the Don River is stocked with salmon for sport fishing. Stephanie was the winner of the first round of GWC Level 1, and I learned from her explorations of the Humber River that it is stocked with Pacific Salmon, since the Atlantic Salmon are no longer in this river on their own. The Pacific Salmon survival rate is very low, so this re-introduction experiment isn’t working out. Stephanie also brought together a group of people to discuss water in a spiritual and emotional sense, guiding them through activities such as associating words with water, drinking water “infused” with emotions, and discussing personal relationships to water.

Kaylyn lives in High Prairie, Alberta, and has some super awesome stories to tell about scuba diving in deep lakes in Alberta (which I never knew was possible and now really want to go and do). She did an awesome job of bringing watershed issues to her group of board game lovers. I agree that nerds of all stripes love learning new things, so that was a great environment! Alli M explored Vancouver in much the way I explored Toronto, as cities in Canada have developed in similar ways: ignoring the environment, realizing its power, trying to restore it! Courtney, Brooke & Braidy in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, asked their school mates about what they thought of the Arctic Ocean, and many responses related to hunting, fishing, the Northwest Passage as gateway between oceans, and the extreme cold!

Among the City folks, the main thread that connected them all was the influence of development on water. Development, growth in human population, industrialization, urbanization, colonialism – I find these are all words associated with disconnecting humans from their water, and putting the environment second. Among non-City folks, human influence on water resources was also evident – such as the issues around lake levels in High Prairie Alberta or sea ice loss in Nunavut.

This Challenge and these reflections bring me to what I would like to see as my vision for Canada’s water future, and how I plan on getting there. The video explains more.

Thanks Waterlution for putting on this challenge, and thank you to all the Youth Advisory Board Members and fellow challenge participants for making it happen! I am looking forward to Level 2!

Walking Garrison Creek

On a cold and bright Sunday afternoon, I gathered nine friends to go for a walk along the former Garrison Creek. I wanted to share my excitement for discovering new things in the City, and also to hear from my friends about their connections to water. The day went like this: walk and tour along Garrison Creek, end at my apartment where we warmed up, then we went through an exercise of collecting watermarks, then ate some good food!

If you haven’t heard of a “watermark” yet – you should! Lake Ontario Waterkeeper started this fabulous initiative to collect stories of our connection to water across Canada, and map them corresponding to their water body. Just browse the map to see what stories are being told about your favourite water body. I see this as an amazing tool for demonstrating how regular people care about the environment around them, and as a way to vocalize a person’s commitment to protecting their local water. You should submit your watermark today!: https://www.watermarkproject.ca/submit

Now onto the Challenge…

I am still so excited that my friends joined me for this! I had old and new friends, so not everyone knew each other, but they were all interested in different parts of the walk. When I put the invitation out, I thought maybe 3 people would come, because they see it as lame or they’re not available at that time. There was lots of availability and lots of interest – so community river walks are definitely something young people want more of! We talked about stormwater, permeable pavement, history of Toronto’s development, fish species, how the river could be “daylighted” – and just so much more. I learned from them as well, and that made the walk richer.

Here is a video I made of our day walking around Garrison Creek, and below is an outline of the walk I gave (if you want to know in detail about the history of the creek – or you can check out my previous post about it here) and the sources I used for putting together the walk.

Sources:
http://humanriver.ca/about/garrison-creek/

http://www.lostrivers.ca/content/GarrisonCreek.html

https://www1.toronto.ca/city_of_toronto/parks_forestry__recreation/trails/files/pdf/DW_Garrison.pdf

http://lostrivers.ca/content/thirsty-city-walks/garrison-creek.html

http://www.vanishingpoint.ca/garrison-creek-sewer-overflow

http://www.vanishingpoint.ca/garrison-creek-sewer

Walk Outline

Here is the text for the walk I guided, so if you wanted to do this yourself, feel free to steal this! It is essentially a combination of the sources listed above.

(1)
Start at Christie Station. The Christie Reach of the Creek is from Davenport Road to Harbord Street. From the front of Christie Station you can look into Christie Pits Park, where the creek was once at the surface. The Garrison Creek sewer dates originally to 1885. This is a combined sewer. The creek was getting very dirty and so it was put underground to keep the rest of the City looking cleaner. An interceptor sewer was installed in 1910-1912 that would carry excess flow from Bloor-Trinity-Bellwoods area during storm events to an outlet to Lake Ontario at Bathurst Quay. This is an overflow sewer, and only sees flows during large rain events. The creek was fully buried in 1915 and runs under the park in sewers now.

(2)
Walk down Grace Street to Bickford Park. Walk around the west side of Bickford Park. The slopes of Bickford Park give away that this was once a valley. At the southern end of Bickford Park at Harbord Road, this used to be the old bridge that spanned the creek. The City buried the creek and the bridge in 1930. The sewer in this area had to be narrow, so they chose an arch design.

Walk down Montrose Avenue until it joins Crawford Street and then follow Crawford Street.

(3)
Cinder Lane, just south of College Street behind the Metro – in the 19th and 20th century, cinders and ash were picked up along laneways and dumped into ravines. The poor would scavenge among the cinder and ash remains to find any usable coal for their own heating needs. Now laneways aren’t used in the same way, they are often just paved places that contribute stormwater runoff to our combined sewer system. What if we converted all of these driveways and laneways to permeable pavement? All that stormwater could be soaked up instead.

(4)
Follow Cinder Lane into Fred Hamilton Park. In the Park, Garrison Creek is in a sewer right under the diagonal pathway on our right. Walk to the top of the laneway behind the first row of houses at the park’s edge. WaterHarvest is a project to collect water from a new park building, and store it in a cistern for use in the community garden. Notice the cluster of pots with butterfly friendly pots and a saucer of damp sand – a puddling site for butterflies.

Continue west across Fred Hamilton Park, down the former Garrison Ravine bank, and head south on Roxton Road to Harrison Street. Notice the community pollinator garden and fruit trees at the south end of the park.

(5)
At the corner of Roxton and Harrison Roads, we are very close to the confluence of Garrison with Denison Creek, we can hear and smell the rushing water under the sewer grate. You are on top of the Garrison Creek trunk sanitary sewer; it runs day and night regardless of rainfall, because it carries not only rain, but sewage from the surrounding houses. The green sewer vents at the corner release methane gas from the sewer below.

Walk down Roxton Road until you reach a parkette, and enter the parkette, walking east. Notice the slopes, and a large willow that likely has its roots in one of the two sewers under this parkette.

(6)
In the laneway behind this park, deep below the alley is a combined storm overflow sewer that was built because the original sewer on Garrison Creek was overloaded. Until the 1990’s it regularly overflowed into the lake but now it is diverted into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel where contaminants settle to the bottom and water that flows into the lake is treated with UV light. The City’s Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan, a billion dollar strategy to manage combined sewer overflows, uses a combination of source controls, conveyance controls and end of pipe holding tanks to prevent spills into the lake.

(7)
Continue south to Dundas, turn east to Shaw Street, and cross south at the lights. Head south on Crawford Street, to the information plaque about the Crawford Street Bridge, and images of the lost fish of Garrison Creek inlaid along the street.

Just north of here, at Dundas and Crawford, the Garrison Creek sewer meets the Mid Toronto interceptor sewer on its way to Ashbridge’s Bay Sewage Treatment Plant. The plant is the largest surface water polluter in North America (13,679,710 kg of pollutants in 2006).

There have been many plans to daylight this creek, including one in 1994 by Brown and Storey. They imagined a permanent pond in the bowl, which is now primarily a dog park, and sloped areas that would collect rainwater from the local area.

Walk to the community centre at the southwest part of the park.

(8)
Before urbanization this area had many springs and wetlands and was described as “a perfect paradise for sportsmen” who hunted black duck, mallard, pintail, teal, wood duck, geese, plovers, sandpipers, woodcock, and passenger pigeons. This early version of a rain garden receives water from the community centre. It’s not very exciting to look at and doesn’t compare with what once was here, but since it keeps rainwater out of the storm sewers and has some biomass, it has ecosystem functions.

Walk along the diagonal park path and stop at Gore Vale Avenue, to see the plaques for Garrison Creek.

(9)

This reach is named after Trinity College, which was a private college. It joined with the University of Toronto and moved closer to the rest of campus (which is what we know as Trinity College now), and for some reason they took down the old beautiful building, and only the gates remain.

The main course of Garrison Creek flows southeast under the tennis courts at this point. A map of the creek is inlaid in a plaque on the sidewalk on the corner of Queen Street and Gore Vale Avenue.

(10)
Cross Queen Street and follow Walnut Avenue South until it ends, then take Wellington to Niagara, to Bathurst. Walk south down Bathurst until Fort York Blvd. This was the former outlet to Garrison Creek.

This was a very industrialized part of the City. Breweries and slaughterhouses were set up to take advantage of the clean creek water at their front doors. With creek burial and land reclamation, remnants of the creek and its tributaries at this reach are very difficult to find. Sewers at this point deliver combined sewage (storm and sanitary) to the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant (in the eastern part of Toronto), but during heavy rain events, these combined sewers overflow directly into Lake Ontario.

Community engagement ?

I’ve written several posts about community visits taken on our WIL-India trip – now I’m going to look more critically at these and offer some reflections. Thankfully we also had the opportunity to discuss our thoughts with the group also, so this is informed as well by my learning from other participants. 

It was awkward going into communities that need development solutions and not offering anything. It was also awkward to think critically about that village when it’s a place that people genuinely live their lives, despite challenges. Without having deep connections or understanding of context, there is nothing I can offer besides a kind face and a listening ear. I really was a tourist on these visits. 

The other awkward part was that the trips were meant to be experiential learning. I was experiencing something, true, but it was more voyeuristic than hands on. I didn’t live with them, cook with them, work in the fields with them. 

This learning was supposed to lead to understanding of problems in order to propose solutions to complex problems. So it was going back to my time in international development (I was in Malawi with Engineers Without Borders in 2008 – for more on that see the equally originally named blog sylvieinmalawi.blogspot.com). How do I really know anything as an outsider (I don’t)? And is it even useful at all to take foreigners around to tour village life, just for the sake of their personal learning? Could I learn this in another way? Could I have the same understanding and compassion if I read a really good article about it? 

What I learned from the facilitators of WIL-India is that practicing your intention can make an impact on communities visited. The first step is to “look with an appreciative gaze”. Seeing abundance and beauty , instead of problems and solutions, allows for a faster and more open relationship to develop. People are happy to share their lives and what they are proud of. 

The appreciative gaze practice can be criticized for its lack of critcism. Isn’t this just glossing over and ignoring problems? The reason it’s a first step for newcomers is that we have been there too short a time to understand the social and cultural dynamics at play. And for us who are on tours, we are also not there long enough to do anything about the problem. If you can’t spend time to understand and work on the issue, you shouldn’t bring it up, because really that’s just rude! 

So the appreciative gaze is a perfect first step for brief visits, and means that a short tour can be a learning journey for me and a chance to teach and brag for a community. 

Doing anything deeper though requires strong facilitation. Our trip facilitators are also involved in warriors without weapons – a non profit that uses facilitation processes to determine and realize the collective dreams of a community. 

All in all, I learned new things about how development could be done, and practiced techniques for community engagement on a small scale. It felt beautiful. 

My community visits were summarized in yhes blog posts :

Lessons from a Fishing Village

Making salt in the desert
Tribal village visits in Rajasthan