FESers in Cities

FES city Dwellers donut chart
A breakdown of where FESers spent their summers. Graphic by Starling Childs.

The streets in midsummer. There they lie! The sun beating down upon them all day long, until the stones are individually as hot as frying pans; and the gratings, as you inadvertently set your foot upon them, appear to be of the proper temperature to repeat the martyrdom of St. Lawrence on an unfortunate victim.” (The New York Daily Times, July 27, 1852)

This line appeared in a recent piece published in the New York Times on the lost journalistic art of capturing the visceral experience of city-living and extreme weather. Urban areas are the fastest growing human habitat with over 60% of people living in urban areas – that’s more than 3.5 billion people!)

To investigate these rapidly expanding urban ecosystems, a crew of Yale masters students set out across the globe to study, intern, and survive in cities. As part of our work with the Land Use and Urban Coalition at Yale (LUCY), we sent out a questionnaire to FES students working in cities in order to get a snapshot of their summer lives, from Beijing to Manila, San Salvador to Toronto, New York to New Haven… If we missed you, please add your thoughts and stories in the comments section!


Name: Alisa Zomer

City: Metro Manila, Philippines

Population: 12+ million

Average temperature and humidity: 85 F / 27 C; Humidity: 85%    (August – not the hottest month)

Quirky city fact: Metro Manila is not a traditional “megacity” and is actually made up of 17 local government units that act as different cities and are separately governed. Makes planning kind of hard.

Summer work: Independent research on urban climate change adaptation  in Metro Manila – a political science study of the obstacles and opportunities.

How has the city defined your summer? It’s a good thing Filipinos are known for their ability to laugh and make fun of just about anything. Located along the (drum roll) “ring of fire”, the Philippines is at the top of all the environmental hazards lists, including earthquakes, typhoons, and monsoons. In addition to these “natural” disasters, I would add traffic to the list of hazards that plague this country. When I arrive to an interview after two harrowing hours in commute drenched in sweat, choked by exhaust, and aching from stop-and-go whiplash, somehow my carefully studied research methods fly out the window. Each interview completed is a milestone and just arriving (on time or not) is a small victory. Ridiculous traffic is the normal state in Manila and Filipinos sure know how to make the best of it – with laughter.

How do you stay cool in the city? A handkerchief to wipe the sweat or a fan are your best weapons against the heat in Manila. Urban Filipinos flock to the malls to enjoy free air conditioning in the evenings and weekends. I hate malls, but have learned to embrace my inner-mall fanaticism for a moment of cool relief. There are no less than five malls right next to my office, one named after Muhammad Ali’s infamous fight “ The Thrilla in Manila”, and all of which I have shamelessly come to know intimately.

Biggest urban environmental challenge? Flooding? Air quality? Waste? It’s honestly hard to know where to start, but my gut says that the biggest urban environmental challenge is people and competing interests. Those in power blame the poor informal settlers for clogging up waterways and exacerbating flooding. The poor blame those in power for the seemingly endless cycle of poverty and lack of opportunities for jobs and housing. And those in the middle, sometimes take sides, but mostly are working hard to stay above the fray. The solution involves more integrated planning, which requires cooperation across the 17 local governments. And, we all know that working together hard, so perhaps some people power is needed to bring real change to the system.

Favorite city hangout (and why)? Fred’s Revolucion in Cubao Expo. Located in the last remaining indy hub in Quezon City, Fred’s is the place to be for a post-work San Miguel, fresh mango daiquiri, or bangers and mash of all varieties. Themed on a pseudo-marxist riff, the bar is the hangout of choice for hipsters and environmental NGOs workers. Just a few weeks ago I had a casual beer with F&ESer Rex Barrer and the Philippine Climate Change Commissioner (#NBD). It doesn’t hurt that Fred’s is located right below my host organization, Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC), and one of the owners happens to be the iCSC director.  By 4:30 PM the music starts and you can ring a bell to get a drink brought to your desk – once for beer, twice for whiskey. Yeah, it’s more fun in the Philippines.


Name: Valerie Moye

City: Mysore, India

Population: 1 million

Average temperature and humidity: 81F / 27C; Humidity: 79% humidity (August)

Quirky city fact: The Mysore Palace is a sight to behold. Every Sunday evening the Palace and surrounding walls are illuminated with 100,000 light bulbs. The electricity bill for one hour is 80,000 Rupees ($1,400)!

Summer work: Survey local industries on energy, water, and raw materials consumption to determine the potential of industrial symbiosis as a sustainable urban development intervention.

How has the city defined your summer? I’m going to use “city” in the general sense here. Every few weeks this summer I was on the move to a different Indian city: Delhi, Kanpur, Mysore, Cochin, Coimbatore. At the expense of getting to know any one city really well, I know a handful of cities somewhat well. And collectively there are certain urban qualities that for me define Indian cities and summer 2013. Traffic, honking, beautiful clothing, petrol fumes, rain, heat, new languages, street food, potholes, monuments, religion, Café Coffee Day (the Indian Starbucks), body odor, cows everywhere, people everywhere!

I focus on Mysore in this post because I really like it, and because I am hopelessly drawn to small cities (funny how India distorts your notion of what constitutes a “small” city).

How do you stay cool in the city? Located on the Deccan Plateau, Mysore is blessed with a deliciously temperate climate. After spending 6 weeks in the summer inferno of Northern India, every day in Mysore is a gift to be savored, minute by minute. No AC? No problem!

Biggest urban environmental challenge? Relatively speaking, Mysore has few pressing environmental challenges. Yes, there are issues with leaking sewage infrastructure and challenges with solid waste management. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the successful environmental programs that this little-known city operates. Five zero waste centers collect household trash, recycling everything from toothpaste tubes and the little plastic/foil containers pills come in. The city contracts a compost center that removes over 90% of organic material from the city’s waste stream, selling the compost to farmers and saving landfill space and methane emissions. Wastewater is treated using a completely organic microbial process. Simply by switching from aerobic to facultative microbes the treatment plant lowered energy use to virtually nothing, as there is no need for aeration pumps. The city instituted a subsidy for solar hot water heaters, and nearly every roof is decorated with one. Mysore is recognized as the second cleanest city in India. But Mysore has yet to experience the mind boggling urban immigration that buckled infrastructure capacity in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore. Keep your fingers crossed for Mysore’s continued environmental leadership!

Favorite city hangout (and why)? My hotel room. Is that lame? I don’t care. Hotel Komfort Suites has a seriously comfortable bed, not to mention Wi-Fi and hot water. Second to that I would say Corner House Ice Crème parlor. And third would be the Mysore Zoo. This is a lovely zoo with well-designed animal habitats, the only gorilla in India, and the whole experience is heightened by Mysore’s glorious weather.


Name: Sonali Bhasin

City: New York, USA

Population: 8 million (2012)

Average temperature and humidity: 83-66 F / 28-19 C; Humidity: 66% (August)

Quirky city fact: The first 3D film to be screened before a paying audience was at Manhattan’s Astor Theater on June 10, 1915.

Summer work: Creating a white paper on ecology-based standards for the built environment for Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental design consulting company.

How has the City defined your summer? The city IS my summer – I work out of COOKFOX, an architecture firm that only takes on projects it can reach by public transport. My office is covered in models of buildings around the city, and every time we reach a theoretical rut, we try and imagine a building in New York, and how we could redesign it. The city is an amazing place to work, with co-workers who manage to look professional even after travelling on the sauna that is the New York subway. Walking and commuting here means that you’re constantly surrounded by people and noise, which can make you more curious, but also more claustrophobic. The city really COMMITS to summer with free films, food festivals, art, and music that bring people out of their homes and into the streets and parks. I’m just trying to keep up!

How do you stay cool in the city? I actually like the heat, and I try and spend a lot of my weekends in parks or near the river. Otherwise? Air conditioning.

Biggest urban environmental challenge? After Sandy last October, the city is facing redrawn floodplain maps released by FEMA, rising insurance premiums, and a $20 billion storm protection plan rolled out by the Bloomberg administration, and the big questions: how do we move from repairing after the storm to planning before? How long can we keep rebuilding in places that shouldn’t be built?

Favorite city hangout (and why)? The Brooklyn Bridge Park – every Sunday in a tobacco warehouse from the 1870’s, they have Smorgasburg here, which is a huge food festival, and new home to the Ramen Burger (basically, the best thing ever). The view is spectacular, and if you get tired of looking out at the water and instagramming the skyline, there’s Jane’s Carousel, art exhibitions, movie nights (I’m going to watch Roman Holiday here this week), lots of engaged couples posing for photographs in ridiculous outfits, and the best chocolate chip stout cookie I’ve ever had.


Name: Starling Childs

City: Toronto, Canada

Population: 2.615 million (2011)

Average temperature and humidity: 68 F / 21 C; Humidity: 62% (August)

Quirky city fact: Toronto is home to the largest population of Tibetans, outside of Nepal.

Summer work: Advance the development of Citiesense, an online resource for listing public real estate assets in a format that promotes value added growth and achieves the economic development goals of communities. Track our progress at www.citiesense.com or with Twitter @citiesense.

How has the City defined your summer? Having lived in Toronto for more than 4 years of my life, I have spent many a summer day praising the mild, drier climate that this city enjoys, relative to east coast cities like New York City, Boston and Washington DC.

How do you stay cool in the city? Paddle boarding in the harbor, a trip to my friend’s ice cream parlor “The Big Chill”, or hopping in one of the many rooftop pools such as the one on the roof of the Thompson Hotel.

Biggest urban environmental challenge? Toronto has been growing steadily by 30,000 new inhabitants each year, which is primarily a result of Canada’s broad immigration policy.  Recently surpassing Chicago to become the fourth most populous city in North America, a substantial challenge for Toronto is and will continue to be the management of growth and smart city building.  I no longer live in Toronto, however I visit regularly, sometimes spending more than a week at a time visiting with friends and pursuing future business connections.  Whether I arrive by air via the downtown Billy Bishop Island Airport, or by highway on the Gardiner Expressway, the approach to Toronto is always awe-inspiring. The skyline seems augmented by new condos each month and the number of cranes scattered throughout the downtown is impressive to say the least.  Fortunately, Toronto has already taken a substantial step in the right direction- implementing a growth boundary.  It has several planning exercises to target appropriate areas for growth, and applied a strategic approach to planning for appropriate forms and densities to accommodate a seemingly insatiable demand for residential downtown condo living.

Favorite city hangout (and why)?   Distillery District?  King Street West patios? Ossington and Queen? The Drake Hotel?


Name: Will Georgia

City: Beijing, China

Population: 20.18 million

Average temperature and humidity: 77 F / 25 C; Humidity: 77%

Quirky city fact: While car ownership in China is growing rapidly, Beijing has been known as the bike capital of the world! Bicycles are very popular here—the city has designated separate lanes for them everywhere.


Researching opportunities for using Smart Grid to manage energy demand in several pilot cities in China, as well as distributed energy, with The China Greentech Initiative www.china-greentech.com

How has the City defined your summer? The city has defined my summer by growing my environmental footprint. Beijing’s sheer size makes it very hard to walk, unless you live close to work and choose not to go out at night. An 8-lane road within the downtown area is common, and a cab across town can take a half an hour and burn up a lot of gasoline. I try to take the subway as much as possible, along with millions of Chinese residents, but because it shuts down at 11pm most days I have been forced to take more taxis home from dinners and nights out with friends. Furthermore, the water in Beijing is not really safe to drink, so I have had to drink bottled water from Nestle or some other foreign brand, which basically never happens at school. I feel like I’m committing an FES crime.

How do you stay cool in the city? When it comes to staying cool in the summer, I like to hang out in coffee, tea shops, or restaurants in Beijing’s Hutongs, famous communities leftover from earlier periods of China’s history. You can’t go wrong with the food here, and there are many types of cuisines to sample. I also visit quite a few historical buildings, which keep you out of the sun, but after coming here from DC, where I lived for 6 years, the summer heat here isn’t so bad aside from the air pollution.

Biggest urban environmental challenge? The biggest urban environmental challenge is the air pollution. I mentioned moving about the city as a difficult issue, but the level of fine particulate matter here that comes from byproducts of fossil fuel-burning reacting with the atmosphere is dangerously unhealthy. While US standards for maximum limits for a given day are 35 micrograms per cubic meter, Beijing averages closer to 100 or 200. It makes breathing and seeing the outdoors their own challenges.

Favorite city hangout (and why)? Favorite city hangout has been a tie between the local dumpling place a couple blocks from my office and the Lama Temple. They dumpling place has the best dumplings I have had in the city, which has been confirmed by many Beijingers, so I am always happy to eat there. The temple is an incredible place because it is a very famous Tibetan Buddhist Temple in China, which survived the Cultural Revolution. It once was home to one of China’s emperors, and now is a place of worship as well as home to a group of Tibetan monks. Being there makes me appreciate some of China’s more historical places and religious practices. It also houses an 18 meter tall Buddha statue carved from a single tree, which is not only a great religious artifact but a breathtaking sight.


Name: Beth Tellman

City:  San Salvador, El Salvador

Population: 2.29 million

Average temperature and humidity: 77 F / 25 C; Humidity: 77%

Quirky city fact: The greater metropolitan area of San Salvador nearly doubled during the 12 years of civil war (1980-1992), when nearly 1,000,000 salvadorans migrated internationally (mostly to the USA), and 800,000 to the capital to escape violence in the countryside.

Summer work:  My research measures and maps the impacts of Land Use/Land Cover Change, mostly deforestation and urbanization on headwaters of coastal watersheds, on flood risk for rural communities downstream. I work in the Balsalmo Mountain Region, where the wealthy class is escaping the crime and heat of San Salvador and driving the expansion of suburbanization onto the forest of these mountains (check out my map of watersheds, land use change, and satellite imagery, or this video showing a timelapse of land use change from 1984-2012). I am working with NGO CORCULL , where results of my research will be used to help develop a watershed management plan and land use policies for local governments.

How has the City defined your summer? Living in San Salvador, a necessity for me mainly due to safety, internet reliability, and its central location between my research site and the communities where my NGO works, has meant lots of time in my car.  Having a car here has been clutch for me, because I could NEVER take my GPS unit, google android for data collection, or cellphone in a bus without it being stolen. San Salvador, ranked as #20 on a recent “most violent cities in the world” list, nestled in the middle of El Salvador, the 2nd most violent country in the world (El Salvador held the unwanted designation as the world’s most violent from 2004-2009, but was one-upped by Honduras last year), means I have to live by special rules to stay safe. This includes avoiding riding the bus, driving with my windows up at night in my (A/C-less) car, running red lights after 11pm to avoid being robbed at stoplights, not walking outside after 6pm, not taking my laptop outside my house (except to go to the airport), etc.

How do you stay cool in the city? San Salvador is actually higher in elevation (600-1000 meters above sea level, or MASL) than most of my study site (0-100 MASL), so returning to the city is often the coolest part of my day! When I am not out doing fieldwork, if I get really hot in San Salvador I try to sneak in a cold shower at 11am, right before my water shuts off for the day (we get water from 4am to 11am in my part of the city).

Biggest urban environmental challenge? Disasters! El Salvador ranked as #10 on a list of countries most vulnerable to disasters, according to the UN’s 2012 World Risk Index. This is concentrated in San Salvador due to high population density (up to 10,000 people/sqkm), but is also a country wide phenomenon- I founded an NGO here in 2009 (CEIBA)  to build community resilience to disaster in peri-urban communities. There are no zoning laws, no land use regulation, and no water laws. Water contamination is so bad in San Salvador’s Acelhuate river that it could be profitable to mine the water for heavy metals, according to a colleague of mine at Geologos del Mundo. Corruption has led to urbanization of some of last remaining protect forest near San Salvador- El Espino. According to recent studies by the Ministry of the Environment, the land use change from forest to upscale shopping malls increased urban flooding in San Salvador so much so that the accelerated speed and quantity of water in rivers during an average rainstorm caused a flood that swept an urban bus into the river in 2008, killing 32 people. Unregulated deforestation and development of the San Salvador volcano, such as the controversial construction of a new Walmart increased the risk of urban landslides in frequent rainstorms and earthquakes.

Favorite city hangout (and why)? El Barrio, the bohemian hangout of San Salvador, is where I spend every Friday night. We find anything from a packed salsa dance floor at Cafe la T, which never has a cover and is packed with students, or go next door to Clandestino, owned by our good friend who works for the very leftist environmental NGO UNES, for live music (either a local salsa band or Batucada, a drumline), or go down the block to “La Maga,” a bar owned and operated by women’s cooperatives from the most marginal parts of San Salvador. The night usually ends in a street burrito and $1 beer.


Name: Bailey Johansen

City: New Haven, CT, USA

Population: 129,500

Average temperature and humidity: 81 F / 27 C; Humidity: 95% (August)

Quirky city fact: Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephones were installed and the New Haven District Telephone Company’s first list of subscribers – the first phone book- was printed. A New Haven telephone book believed to be the first one containing more than a single sheet of names sold at auction in 2008 for $170,000. (This fact and others found here: http://www.nileguide.com/destination/new-haven/overview/local-info)

Summer work: Greenspace Community Forester Intern at Urban Resources Initiative (URI) (http://environment.yale.edu/uri/)

How has the City defined your summer? New Haven is the focus of my summer. I work with community volunteer groups throughout the city, mainly in underserved neighborhoods. I work with them to facilitate their goals for neighborhood environmental restoration and beautification. I have been able to experience the successful mingling of races in places where this has typically been a source of conflict, and I have seen the dedication of these group members towards neighborhood improvement they never thought possible. Between my seven groups, I have planted 29 trees, dozens of shrubs, and hundreds of perennials!

How do you stay cool in the city? Well, all those street trees I’ve helped plant certainly contribute to keeping New Haven cool! I’ve also been drinking a lot of Tang as a way to rehydrate with just a splash of sugar and salt restoration. My favorite way, though, is by going out to eat and enjoying all the delicious foody options available! Any kind of food I’m craving can be satisfied here! I enjoy the East Rock neighborhood favorite: Archie Moores for wings and beer, Thali and Thai Taste are great ethnic options, while Cast Iron Soul has great southern comfort food!

Biggest urban environmental challenge? The biggest urban environmental challenge in New Haven revolves around the wealth disparity between neighborhoods. This leads to preferential treatment and funding for certain areas, while ‘less engaged’ neighborhoods are forgotten. This also creates unacceptable environmental justice issues. Urban Resources Initiative actively and intentionally works against this stigma. Their work and presence alerts residents in these areas about available resources for them to utilize and make changes for themselves and for their neighbors. There are many anecdotal success stories at URI of vacant lots or parks where prostitution, drugs, and gangs were once the only use of the space. After a Greenspace group arose to fight, all such problems dramatically decreased. An important factor has been to get youth involved in the Greenspace group work because this fosters an appreciation and sense of ownership for the space, which amazingly discourages them from vandalizing it. Several murals that were painted by neighborhood kids have never been tagged. Finally, building community connections in these neighborhoods has been proven to decrease crime–another major issue in New Haven.

Beyond the social element, a big challenge is water quality. The Quinnipiac and West Rivers are major water sources that travel through the city. Unfortunately with New Haven at the end of the rivers, the water quality is polluted by industrial and residential activity upstream. There are some motivated groups of people working on comprehensive watershed plans, but these require cooperation between city agencies both in New Haven and in every town through which the river passes. Bureaucratic red tape and slow moving governments make immediate action impossible.

Favorite city hangout (and why)? It’s not really a hangout, but I really enjoy the Yale Repertory Theatre! They showcase amazing productions which great writing, acting, and stage sets. They have an amazing student pass deal where for $60 you get seven tickets. There are only six shows in a season so this allows you to see a great performance again, or to bring along a friend. This season’s line up looks exciting, and I can’t wait for it to begin!

Another hangout I love is the Yale men’s hockey team! The women’s team is worth seeing as well, but the men are now defending National Champs! There is such an incredible energy inside the Whale that you can feel in your soul! Also “The Whale” itself is worth experiencing.

LUCY - Land Use and Urban Coalition at Yale

LUCY is a student interest group dedicated to the planning and practice of sustainable land use management, and its implications for human settlements and resource allocation.

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