The UTSU, a work-in-progress

Cutting ties with the CFS is first on a lengthy accountability agenda

The UTSU, a work-in-progress

AS my first year of university draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the experiences that have shaped it; certainly, there was the novelty of meeting new people, developing interests, and exploring the city. 

Another influence, however, was more subtle: the experience of belonging to a union for the first time, and the behind-the-scenes workings of student politics. Although there have been considerable strides made by the union this year, accountability remains a considerable problem. 

Although I was not present for last year’s elections, I have seen how their results have affected the lives of U of T students. For the first time in over a decade, a slate of candidates unaffiliated with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) — Team Brighter -— won all executive positions of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). Since taking office, the executive committee has been working to clean up the messes of previous administrations, including revealing the $1.6 million that has been lost on the union’s health and dental plan (alternatives to which had gone uninvestigated for a decade).

For years, CFS-backed slates of candidates had cycled through the various positions available in the UTSU. There were instances of members of the York Federation of Students and Ryerson Students’ Union campaigning at U of T for other CFS affiliates. In turn, UTSU officials would campaign at other universities, including last year’s president, Yolen Bollo-Kamara, who took vacation days to campaign at Ryerson.

Beyond Toronto, the CFS has consistently taken punitive measures to prevent its member unions from leaving the Federation. In 2008, Sandra Hudson, twice UTSU president and, later, executive director, flew across the country to campaign against Simon Fraser University students voting to withdraw from the CFS.

I am far from the first person to raise concerns about the UTSU’s connection to the CFS. In July 2015, Ryan Gomes, current vice president, internal and services of the UTSU, wrote an op-ed for The Varsity criticizing the CFS’s decision to sue the Cape Breton University Student’s Union (CBUSU) after it voted to leave in 2008. The CBUSU will now be forced to pay $295,000 to the CFS, even though 92 per cent of its student body voted to leave. There can be no justification for this organization so completely disregarding the wishes of the students it claims to represent.

This is not to say that the current executive, or Board of Directors, are not without their problems. As has been previously reported by The Strand, grievances filed by students against vice president, equity, Sania Khan have gone unresolved in direct violation of the union’s bylaws. This is in addition to a grievance I myself filed in December.

The Varsity also recently reviewed the yearly attendance of the union’s Board of Directors, with the attendance rate sitting at 64 per cent. Meeting procedure and length were cited as deterrents for attending by several directors. Worrisomely, one director was quoted as saying that she “does not attend meetings because she no longer wants to,” and that she does not speak up during meetings since she feels “drowned out” by other voices. 

I find it difficult to feel sympathy for an elected official who simply does not want to go to meetings, or who doesn’t speak up for their constituents because they feel their voice will go unheard. While it is understandable that directors have many commitments, holding office should not be viewed as a burden.

Unfortunately, the election of Team Brighter represented a short-term solution, and not a permanent one. The UTSU is still paying $750,000 to the CFS each year. The longer the UTSU remains affiliated with the CFS, the longer U of T students will continue to be taken advantage of. Political culture at U of T is stagnant, and students must engage with the process to a greater extent if they wish to have any say in the way their student fees are being spent.

As we head into UTSU election season, it’s more important than ever to be wary of the promises made by those vying for our votes. Our student democracy cannot be a passive one — stay aware, stay informed, and demand transparency and accountability.

Reut Cohen is a first-year student studying at Trinity College. She is The Varsity’s associate arts and culture editor.

The rise of eSports

LoL is no laughing matter

The rise of eSports

There’s no question about it — eSports are exploding worldwide. The League of Legends (LoL) World Championship drew in 36 million unique viewers last year. To put this into perspective, that is nearly a third of the average United States television audience for the Super Bowl.

As a result, eSports are becoming a highly commercialized sector — proven by Amazon’s recent purchase of Twitch, a video game live streaming service that cost them $970 million USD. Despite their rising popularity, eSports are still facing significant resistance from traditional sporting bodies and governing officials. So the debate continues — are eSports actual sports? 

Robert Morris University argues in their favour. In 2013, the Chicago college became a pioneer in the eSports industry when they introduced the first official League of Legends Varsity team; they were followed subsequently by four colleges to date, including Columbia College in Missouri. It’s true — they created real athletic scholarships for students who played on their schools’ team, while pursuing a degree.

The Varsity reached out to the University of Toronto League Association (UTLA) team manager, Reiyyan Nizami (Rei), to discuss the matter.

A recent graduate of the life sciences program at U of T, Rei notes the mission of UTLA is to promote the recognition of eSports so that student gamers across Ontario can pursue their unique talent on campus.

This 400 member club is also home to a five player League of Legends team that competes annually in the game’s campus series competition. Their most recent accomplishment was placing fourth across North American colleges in their division last year.

The UTLA League of Legends team is composed entirely of elite ranked University of Toronto undergraduates. They are presently ranked first in the University League of Legends (uLoL) Eastern Conference — ahead of universities such as York, Boston University, and even Harvard — the UTLA is looking to be strong contenders for the North American Campus Series Finals being held in Los Angeles in April.

Despite competitive performances the team receives minimal financial support and no varsity recognition.

The video game playing stigma is still pervasive among parents and peers. As Rei notes, it is difficult to pursue one’s passion and develop a unique talent when there is a lack of recognition for the level of skill and teamwork involved.

With an average of 200 to 300 mechanical actions per minute, critical, quick decision-making, seamless team communication, and strategizing, Rei argues that it is foolish to discount the skill set required to compete.

Despite the undeniable sedentary nature of video games, professional and amateur teams nonetheless practice like any other sports team. They also have coaches and analysts to dissect pivotal plays and execute unique formations to outwit their opponents. Additionally, the UTLA competing team is also incredibly multi-talented, being comprised of several gym enthusiasts and students looking into pursuing medical school.

The main attributes these highly advanced student gamers develop include patience, the ability to balance their academics with serious commitment to the team, mental strength, and quick-decision making, notes Rei. These are all skills that can be transferred to the workplace and are highly desirable to employers, which would allow gamers to continue to excel in the professional world.

Let’s not ignore the earning potential of professional video game playing either. Top performing League of Legends players’ earnings have been estimated to be in the seven figure range, inclusive of team salary, tournament winnings, brand partnerships, and streaming income.

Although the legitimacy of eSports is hotly contested, Rei notes debating whether it is technically a sport or not is futile. It is clear that student players need support to pursue their talent and passion, and millions of people enjoy this game worldwide and consider it a way to destress.

This may sound familiar to your typical varsity athlete; collegiate sports have always offered students the opportunity to enrich their post-secondary education. “eSports aren’t the future — they’re the present,” declared the president of Columbia College’s Varsity League of Legend’s team. It is time for U of T to make note and destigmatize eSports; a legitimate and rapidly growing student activity.

Sports Industry Conference

Conference helps students bridge the gap from sport enthusiasm to sport industry

Sports Industry Conference

Hosted by the University of Toronto Sports and Business Association (UTSB), the theme for this year’s sports industry conference was “Behind The Game: Building the Playbook.” Over 360 students from different universities across the province were in attendance.

Rookie season

There was a panel dedicated to mentorship and development that included Tyler Currie, —the director of international affairs for the NHL’s Player’s Assocation, and Rachel Bonnetta the host of Major League Soccer. 

The panelists agreed that mentorship was a key factor in the growth of the industry. “There is no substitute for a great boss,” said Saint John Sea Dogs president Trevor Georgie.

Currie spoke to the value of encountering what he refers to as an “anti-mentor.”    

Each speaker commented on the relationship between chance and preparation and the importance of honouring personal values. Each story emphasized that meeting a potential mentor is not enough to guarantee a smooth transition into the working world, but rather that students must make an active effort to engage with, and learn from, guidance.

No “I” in team

The second panel of the day highlighted the role of community and partnership in the industry. Jillian Svensson, vice president of business development and operations for You Can Play, explained that when it comes to removing barriers in sport, partnership is essential. Together, the COC and You Can Play have formed the “One Team” initative, which runs programs and promotes the acceptance of LGBT+ athletes in sport.

Shooting hoops

The first keynote panel of the day explored basketball and its growing popularity in Canada. Canada Basketball president and CEO, Michele O’Keefe explained that, while it will be a while before basketball reaches the level enjoyed popularity of hockey in Canada, the number of participants in the sport is on the rise. TSN insider and panel moderator Jack Armstrong recalled the evolution of basketball in Canada, from generating practice players to athletes “with the skills and athleticism to start and get drafted to the NBA.”

Former resident and current manager of the Toronto Raptors and Phoenix Suns Bryan Colangelo, added that he would like to see more funding coming from the federal government to encourage the sport’s growth.

Money ball

The third panel of the day, Data and Analytics: Staying Ahead of the Curve, featured industry insider Jason Rosenfeld, the director of basketball analytics for the NBA. The panel, which was moderated by Scott Cullen an analytics columnist for TSN, highlighted the importance of analytics and statistics in sports.

“The NBA needs to translate international statistics to NBA statistics [and] use data to see what is wrong and how to improve on that,” said Rosenfeld. He mentioned that fans are slowly but surely becoming interested in sports statistics. “It’s great to have fans excited about stats and data in the leagues; it’s fantastic.”

Going for gold

The fourth panel of the day, The Pinnacle of Sport: Sports at the Highest Level, discussed how far sport has come in Canada, and the importance of specific endeavours in that development. Masai Ujuri, general manager of the Toronto Raptors, was praised for his direction of the country’s sole NBA franchise. Johann Koss, founder of Right to Play, remarked that behind every successful sports team are multiple people and organizations who helped make the success possible. He suggested that “To build a successful team, [one should] build relationships and establish young communication with everyone you work with.” Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto FC general manager, added that when creating long lasting success, “trust with the players is crucial.” 

Over time

The final talk of the night, International Expansion, saw TSN’s Leafs Lunch host Andi Petrillo interview NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Daly, who was named the deputy commissioner in 2005, spoke about the potential for two new teams to emerge in the NHL. “We are discussing it, still in the early stages. Either [it] will be in Quebec City or Las Vegas,” he said.

Overall, the conference was a huge success. When asked if he believed this type of event was helpful to delegates, Tyler Currie said that a passion for business and sport is what brought the delegates to the conference.

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Blues finish flawless season

Women’s volleyball finish 21-0

Blues finish flawless season

The Varsity Blues women’s volleyball team completed a perfect season on Saturday evening defeating crosstown rivals Ryerson Rams and successfully defending their OUA banner for the second year running.

The squad won 3-0 in the final match-up against the Rams at the Goldring Centre, marking their first perfect season in nearly 20 years.

The tournament started off slowly for the Blues, who were repeatedly rebuffed by the McMaster Marauders in game one of the OUA final four on Friday evening.

The Marauders, who have several players on the OUA’s individual leader board, came out hot from the start and took the first three points of the set in quick succession.

Despite hard hits from 6’1” left-side hitter Caleigh Cruickshank, the Blues couldn’t get a hand under strong serves from the Marauders’ outside hitter Joanna Jedrzejewska and hits from Maicee Sorensen. Plagued by what appeared to be championship nerves, the Blues dropped the first set 19-25.

A kill from rookie right-side hitter and OUA East Player of the Year Alina Dormann opened up the scoring in the second set, and the Blues finally began to look comfortable on the court. In a set characterized by the complete dominance of Cruickshank and Dormann, the Blues would maintain the lead throughout and finish the second set 25-16.

Despite opening the score in the third off a serve from Sorensen and a bit of back-and-forth play, the Marauders couldn’t pick up where they left off in the first and dropped the third set by six points to the Blues.

The match came alive in the fourth set; when both teams refused to give in. The Blues and Marauders battled back and forth over the lead for the duration of the thrilling set, which climbed to 30 points.

A huge kill from left-side Anna Feore would save the Blues, tying the set 26-26.

After regaining, and tying the lead twice more, Dormann brought the crowd to their feet by completing her nineteenth kill of the game — winning it all for the Blues in a spectacular 30-28 showdown. 

In a relatively anticlimactic match, the Blues didn’t disappoint in the OUA final against the Rams, taking all three sets (25–20, 25–20, 25–13).

The two teams went back-and-forth for the first two sets. Sneaky tips from fourth year setter Madelyn Mandryk and precise on-the-line kills from middle Tessa Davis helped the Blues break Rams all-star Theanna Vernon, who lead the OUA in kills per-set. 

Two consecutive aces from Dormann and a game ending kill from Feore in the third capped off the win for the Blues, who are currently ranked second in the nation. Third year middle Tessa Davis took a match high 12 points and nine kills and won OUA player of the game honours as well as championship MVP.

The Blues travel to Brandon University in Manitoba next weekend where they will be the only team to represent the OUA in the CIS national championships.

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Is your Fitbit spying on you?

Accuracy, privacy concerns plague wearable fitness tech industry, find U of T students and researchers

Is your Fitbit spying on you?

If your New Year’s resolution was to be more active, you aren’t alone. The emergence of devices like those produced by Fitbit, Jawbone, and Apple have people reexamining the role technology has to play in achieving their fitness goals. Dr. Greg Wells, an exercise physiologist and assistant professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, refers to these devices as “quantified self-trackers,” which allow you to measure things like sleep, distance traveled, and steps taken.

Step counting is commonly used as a measure of activity with a frequent goal of 10,000 steps a day. According to Statistics Canada, only a third of Canadian adults manage that many.

Traditionally, step count was measured by a waist worn pedometer, which have evolved into wrist worn devices that use accelerometers to detect movement.

The accuracy of these wrist worn devices is questionable, however. A recent study by the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education concluded that pedometer apps are not accurate and that pedometers worn on the waist are still the most effective method of counting steps. Despite the inaccuracy of wrist worn devices, they help give an estimate of activity levels, with some devices enabling you to compete with friends.

Naima Salemohamed, a U of T graduate student uses her Fitbit Charge and says it helps her reach her fitness goals because of its competitive features. “I always compete with my friends who live in Vancouver. I like to have that aspect. Moreover, it ensures that I do 10,000 steps because I am constantly checking how many steps I am doing,” she says.

After using Nike’s Fuel Band for a year, primarily because it was sleek and had a display unlike other fitness trackers at the time, I found that the activity stats were inaccurate. Simply moving my arms triggered the device, whereas attending a spin class or running on the treadmill did not.

U of T student Kara Place found her Fibit to be inaccurate, however, she feels it generally gives a decent estimate. “Sometimes my band will vibrate to let me know I’ve hit 10, 000 steps when I’m putting on a sweater,” she said.

In addition to questions of accuracy, a recent report by U of T’s Citizen Lab found that users’ personal data may be at risk of being leaked to third party sources. Wells confirms that privacy risks are significant and that people should be aware that the data collected by their device are accessible to the company who made the device.

Place is also concerned about her privacy, but says it will not deter her: “We live in a world where we are all at risk of having our privacy breached or being tracked… so though this is annoying, I’m sure there are already other ways for people to gain my geographic location.”

Although wearables are inaccurate, both students feel that their Fitbit has helped them stay active. Place says, “If I see that one day I was less active then I’ll try to step it up the next day to compensate!.”

In terms of predicting future health, assistant professor of digital health Dr. Jayson Parker says, “the new ‘smoking risk’ is sedentary activity: the more you sit, the greater your cardiovascular risk… devices that remind you to stand to interrupt long periods of sitting, or to encourage you to spend more time moving, have pretty obvious benefits.”

Dr. Leah Hiller, a sports medicine fellow at the David L. MacIntosh Clinic agrees with doctors Wells and Parker that fitness trackers aren’t all bad, and that the benefits they provide in terms of connecting with a community of other wearers is valuable.

“Fitness trackers often provide forums for connecting with other people about activity, which can be beneficial,” she said, adding that “for the purposes of improving health outcomes, a five per cent discrepancy in reported activity level is likely inconsequential. What is more important with regard to health outcomes, is that people are being active.”

Parker says that “people can learn a lot about our patterns, sleep, people just needs to be aware that they are not entirely accurate. Early tech with limitations so take it with a grain of salt.”

Shape-shifting cancer

U of T’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering researchers have discovered a way to make nanoparticles “shape-shift”

Shape-shifting cancer

Dr. Warren Chan of UofT’s  Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, along with PhD student Dylan Glancy and postdoctoral fellow Seiichi Ohta, have managed to “shape-shift” nanoparticles in their most recent study.

Extensive research on nanoparticles has demonstrated a strong potential for the small objects to contribute to the highly localized delivery of drugs in the treatment of cancer. Some researchers speculate that within half a century, we will look back at the practice of injecting freely transported drugs into our circulatory system as a crude convention of the past. While having Aspirin molecules freely floating in your blood is usually benign, one cannot say the same for commonly used chemotherapy drugs. 

Nanoparticle design has two primary issues: first finding, and then interacting with the correct cell and not its neighbours.

Nanoparticles must survive the trip through the blood stream, evade the body’s immune system, and, in the case of cancer, penetrate deep into dense tumor tissue and into individual cells. 

Once there, the right cell is targeted through the use of  “lock and key” arrangements, where the nanoparticle snugly latches on to a specific molecule, unique to the affected cells.

Unlike most nanoparticles, those developed by Dr. Chan and his associates have the ability to switch shapes, from a rod to a sphere. “Rod-shaped nanoparticles for example are good at penetrating tumors, while spherically shaped ones are absorbed by cells more easily.” explained Glancy. “Most of the currently existing dynamic nanoparticles might permanently lose an outer layer or increase in size under different conditions, but they don’t change shape, and they definitely don’t do it reversibly.”

This reversibility will be helpful in the removal of the nanoparticles from out of the tumor and into the blood stream after they have done their job.

This shape change is brought about by the use of flexible adhesive strands of DNA known as “biological Velcro.” There are two core nanoparticles of different sizes strung together by DNA, with the larger core being “orbited” by smaller “satellite” particles. All of the particles have sticky DNA threads attached to their surface. 

Introduction of loose DNA can help link the DNA on the satellites simultaneously to both core particles, and not just one. The introduction of additional competitive loose DNA helps break the linkage between the satellite particles and the larger core by removing the original linker DNA. This graceful displacement, described by Glancy as “DNA origami,” results in an elongation of the resultant structure from a sphere to a rod and vice versa. 

The beauty of using DNA is that it can be designed to simultaneously adhere to specific DNA molecules expressed by faulty cancer cells. Alternatively, the particles can additionally be decorated with proteins that are known to interact with other proteins found on the surface of cancer cells, due to the large surface area of the nanoparticles. Examples of “lock and key” pairs suggested by Dr. Chan include the popular antibiotic Herceptin and HER2 receptors, as well as folic acid and folate receptors, both of which are receptors commonly displayed in breast cancer cells. 

“This can be very useful in targeting cancer cells that have metastasized, which are extremely hard to localize through surgery for example” added Glancy, “and since they are usually found closer to blood vessels, they can fortunately be easily reached by the blood transported nanoparticles.”

Once the nanoparticles are engulfed by oblivious cancer cells, they can release their drug “pay-load.”

Good things come in small packages, and thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Chan and his associates, our newest way to attack cancer may come in a small, shape-shifting, package.

Science around town

Your guide to the top science-related events this week

Science around town


Special lunches and cooking classes will be hosted at several locations across the St. George campus this week to mark UeaT’s Nutrition Education Week. More information, as well as the event schedule, can be found on the UeaT website. 

Monday, March 7 — Friday, March 11


This hands-on event is aimed at providing interested attendees with some introductory lessons in designing and printing 3D objects using tools such as Sculptris and Autodesk 123D Design.

Monday, March 7


Digital Innovation Hub

Fort York Branch

Admission: free with registration


The Ryerson University chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) invites graduating students to attend a professional development seminar featuring presentations from Dr. Vincent Chan, an associate professor in Ryerson’s department of mechanical engineering, and Derek Smith, Career Experience Manager at 

Tuesday, March 8


Oakham Lounge

55 Gould St.

Admission: $5, includes meal


The 2016 Health and Human Rights Conference hosted at OISE will address several facets of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. 

Friday, March 11–Saturday March 12

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

252 Bloor St. W

Admission: $10 deposit, $8.40 refunded at event

T.O. Bee or not T.O. Bee

Toronto to take a step closer to becoming Canada’s first ‘Bee City’

T.O. Bee or not T.O. Bee

Home to over 300 species of bees, Toronto is considered a bee hot spot in southern Ontario. Protecting our native bee populations benefits the resilient pollinator community in and around the city, while simultaneously preserving biodiversity.

Over the years certain honey bee and native bee populations have declined in North America, which has had various economic and ecological consequences. The decline of the honey bee population driven by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has motivated much of our discourse surrounding bee conservation. 

James Thomson, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto explains that while the commercial beekeeping industry has always been affected by winter losses, CCD “seemed to have different hallmarks in that it [is] presented as an absconding of the bees from the hives. So you came in and instead of finding dead ones, you found [that] they were gone.” 

“Real CCD is probably a subset of winter losses, but the terms have basically been conflated and most winter losses seem to be talked about… as a pathology,” added professor Thomson

For beekeepers, CCD means having to order and build up replacement colonies in the spring, but it is not the kind of ecosystem collapse that it is portrayed to be. What is more worrying is the decline observed among native bee populations.

At this point, their population trends are not well characterized, but certain species of the bumble bee, including Bombus affinus (rusty-patched bumble bee), which used to be very common, are now critically endangered. Other species of bumble bees, however, appear to be doing fine.

“In my view, those declines are much worse than Colony Collapse Disorder because we’ve had an animal that was part of the natural system –— [unlike honey bees] it wasn’t just brought in as an agricultural tool from the Old World — it was doing well until very recently [and] then suddenly it crashed,” he continued.

The fact that several of these declining species are closely related suggests there is a genetic component to susceptibility. One possible cause is pathogen spillover, which occurs when a pathogen such as Nosema bombi (a microsporidian) becomes established in commercial bumble bee populations and is subsequently transmitted to wild bees. 

Toronto has played an active role in creating sustainable habitats for its pollinators. Existing initiatives include maintaining pollinator-friendly habitats in the Don Valley Brickworks, the Franklin Children’s garden and High Park’s Black Oak Savannah, and native species plantings on private and public land.

Professor Thomson says it’s “hard to imagine how [native species plantings] could go really wrong. But anything you plant is going to help some species more than others. For example, the Ceratina bees nest inside sumac stems so if you want more Ceratina you plant more sumac. But sumac isn’t particularly good for other species… ” The bottom line is that ecosystems with minimal human disturbance tend to support a higher diversity of flora and fauna, as well as bees.

The ‘Bee City’ certification is viewed as the next logical step, which, according to the Bee City website, “endorses a set of commitments… for creating sustainable habitats for pollinators.” The program was first implemented in 2012. Since then, 15 American cities have been certified. A successful application to Bee City Canada would result in habitat protection and increased awareness regarding pollinator biodiversity and food production. 

Dr. Scott MacIvor, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of biological science at U of T Scarborough hopes that the Bee City designation will “build upon the world-renowned research and best practices already ongoing and in development in our region. It would also promote the plight of wild bee declines and encourage all citizens to find ways to support our native bees.” 

As for honey bees, MacIvor hopes that “the Bee City Canada endeavour will be focused on the plight of our native species not a non-native that requires no ‘help’ in Toronto. Honey bees are useful in agricultural landscapes but keeping them in the city contributes to competition with our native species and could undermine biodiversity.”

Honey bee colonies comprise between 20,000 and 50,000 individual bees, which can forage over one kilometre from their hives. “As a first approximation, if you have a honeybee feeding on a native flower, that basically means the food that the honeybee fed on is not there for a native bee to feed on,” says Thomson. As a result, honey bee hives can actually contribute to decreased pollinator biodiversity. 

When asked about any safety concerns associated with robust native bee populations, he responded that in general, “you really have to rile [a colony] up to get a real defensive reaction. So I would say for native bees, essentially, there are no likely dangers.”

Honey bee colonies also appear fairly innocuous given that the provincial requirement mandates only 30 metres between the hive and property line. It is important to note that many of the nastiest stings come from yellow jacket wasps (genus Vespula), which are similar in appearance to bees, but are biologically and taxonomically distinct.

Regardless of your opinion of bees, they remain an important part of our ecosystem. With the Bee City designation, Toronto may be able to find ways to balance its urban ecosystem.