Townies: Students Work for Brunswick, Topsham

Libby Szuflita ’15 and Violet Ranson ’16 are mapping parts of Topsham and Brunswick this summer to help local administrators make land-use decisions that will improve town life and reconcile the sometimes conflicting needs of residents, businesses and wildlife.

The students — who are both majoring in environmental studies and sociology — are working in the towns’ planning departments this summer. (Ranson is working for Brunswick; Szuflita for Topsham.) Both have Psi Upsilon Sustainability/Environmental Justice Fellowships from Bowdoin’s Environmental Studies program to fund their summertime jobs. The competitive grants are awarded every summer to students who intern at Maine environmental organizations, including town planning offices. Because these fellowships often require competence with GPS and GIS, Environmental Studies Program Manager Eileen Johnson offers a two-day course in mapmaking in early June.

While they are working in the planning departments of two small towns that sit side by side, Ranson’s and Szuflita’s tasks are quite different.

One of Ranson’s projects is to conduct an assessment of some of the town’s conservation easements. She checks for invasive species and activities that violate deed restrictions, such as dumping and unauthorized development. With town planner Jeremy Doxsee, she heads out with a GPS to walk the town’s conserved lands, and with their data, is making maps to present to the town’s Conservation Commission. Ranson is also creating a map of proposed zoning districts for Brunswick’s updated zoning ordinances. She said she hopes to parlay her internship and academic experiences into a career in environmental sociology, helping communities to be ecologically healthy and socially just.

Brunswick’s planning and development office has hired Bowdoin fellows each summer going back almost a decade. Doxsee said he appreciates Bowdoin students and the college’s partnership with the town, particularly the introductory mapmaking class Johnson offers, which she opens to students’ summer supervisors when there is space. “Bringing in interns in the summer infuses the department with energy,” Doxsee said.
On the other side of the river, Szuflita is assisting Topsham’s town planner to complete a pedestrian survey of the downtown. She and other volunteers walk along streets to check sidewalk conditions, speed limit signs, density of traffic and other street-side details. Szuflita is using this data to make maps for the town that pinpoint less-than-safe areas requiring improvement. She is also making a series of maps to identify natural areas in the town — e.g., wetlands and streams — that are important to protect.

Szuflita grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and would one day like to work in urban planning or for an environmental nonprofit — and she wants to do this in a city. Somewhat surprisingly, she developed a love of nature in New York City by exploring its parks and roof gardens. And it is where she developed an interest in how people shape and influence natural areas.

Szuflita also appreciates the work she’s doing this summer in Topsham. “You can make a large impact as an individual in a planning office for a small town,” she noted.

To see what other Bowdoin students are up to this summer, check out this interactive map by Nina Underman ’15.

thumb:academic fair