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Green Roofs Toronto

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There is no doubt that buildings make the streetscape of a city. Buildings hold infinite potential. They can create a welcoming space, a barrier, a source of pollution, or a beacon of sustainability. Toronto’s Scott Torrance Landscape Architects created a space that was beautiful, welcoming and a tool of sustainability – a green roof atop the ESRI building located near the Don Valley Parkway. The architecture firm is being recognised with the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Green Roof and Wall Awards of Excellence at the Cities Alive: 8th Annual Green Roof and Wall Conference in late November 2010.

Greens roofs are being developed all through Toronto, even before the bylaw that mandated that buildings of a certain size make 30-60% of their roof green. Mountain Equipment Co-op is a well known green roof in Toronto. The green roof however is just one of the many aspects that make the building sustainable – for example, 55% of its building material is recycled. The Hugh Garner Co-op is another building developing a green roof. Once completed it will be the largest of its kind in Ontario. The green space provides energy savings but it also creates a space for the community to gather for meals and social events. The Co-op goes beyond its green roof – over the past summer it hired a ‘green champion’ to support sustainability initiatives for the residents in the building such as recycling and sustainable cooking.

Perhaps the most well known green roof is on our very own city hall, which was official unveiled earlier this year. There are many aspects of the roof that are appealing. It is aesthetically attractive, represents many native species and is functional, taking into account patterns of the sun and rain. Former Mayor Miller introduced the roof with pride. He could also be proud of the green roof bylaw which is part of the City of Toronto Act, the first of its kind in North America.

The notable thing about all these organizations is that their mandate of sustainability is far reaching and entrenched in their cultures and green roofs are one of many environmentally friendly policies. This is where criticisms of the green roof bylaw are often articulated. Green roofs are in themselves good, however they are expensive, restricted to certain buildings and may take money away from other initiatives. There are many talented designers in this city – Scott Torrance’s firm is a shining example – which could potentially produce innovative and creative designs that address the issue of green house gas emissions in a better way than green roofs.  With the bylaw, however, that choice in design is restricted.

Yet despite the challenges with the green roof bylaw the benefits are significant and it is an excellent start. City-making is a process and green building design can only get better assuming that there is the passion and the will for the continuous improvement.

I worry though that the passion for making a good city will be lost under the new mayor elect. Rob Ford’s voting record as a councillor was less than green. The Toronto Environment Alliance gave him an F on their environmental report card. He voted against the green roof bylaw among other green initiatives. While I am conscious that he is one vote on council, the mayor’s leadership can galvanize a council, for better or for worse.

What I don’t worry about however is the talent in this city. Scott Torrance Landscape Architects competed against firms worldwide for their award and rightfully so – their design is beautiful. I know that they are not the only ones doing amazing things and will continue to do so regardless who is mayor. Perhaps an additional role will be to share that passion with the new council. And if that fails there is always the option of a grassy picnic on the roof of city hall.

Photo by Gabriel Li



  1. Green Roof proponents need to do a better job of explaining the environmental benefits to laypeople. Like so many other earnest pieces, this article suggests that the point of green roofs is simply to make pretty gardens in spaces where no one will see them. The word “stormwater” is not even used.

    It would be more helpful if folks could just remember that green roofs and stormwater management are not about managing water. They are about managing shit and piss.

    In most of downtown Toronto, we have a Combined Sewer System, where the sanitary and stormwater flows are handled by one pipe. When there is heavy rain, the system tends to dump everything, including shit and piss, into the nearest lake or river. And then the shit washes up on our beaches.

    These overflows are a feature, not a bug, of the system. The alternative is to have shit and piss back up into your swimming pool or basement. These sewer backups will still happen when there is unusually heavy rain. In July of 2008, the Sunnyside-Gus Ryder pool was closed after the children’s wading pool was flooded with human shit.

    Green roofs and downspout disconnections help the city absorb stormwater before it is sent to the overloaded sewers and shit winds up on our beaches.

    If the words “shit” and “piss” and “your basement” and “your beach” were used more regularly when discussing the merits of green roofs, I think these features would be easier to sell to conservatives.

  2. bit confused by this post’s timelines: references to “Mayor-elect Rob Ford”, an “architecture firm is being recognized […] in late November 2010” and the City Hall green roof “official unveiled earlier this year”. I’m guessing this post was meant to go up last year?

  3. It’s always good to see an article that encourages the building of green roofs, but it would be great if the various projects cited were credited to the people who designed them. It’s no longer surprising when the mainstream media talks about design projects without crediting them (I’m looking at you, Globe), but I’m surprised Spacing would let this slip. 

    It would also be unfortunate if the casual reader mistakenly understood all of the mentioned projects to be designed by the same firm (the subject of the piece).

    MEC Toronto: Stone Kohn McGuire Vogt (

    Hugh Garner Co-Op: Monica Kuhn Architect ( with Perennial Gardens

    Toronto City Hall Green Roof Garden (as shown in Gabriel Li’s beautiful photo): PLANT/STIP/HSLA/ABUP (

    Scott Torrance’s firm received a well deserved award last fall for a lovely project and should get the credit they are due. If the objective of the piece is to encourage dialogue and a wider adoption of green roofs in Toronto, so should everyone else.

  4. If Scott Torrence’s work is so prominent in this article, why not show one of his projects, not Plant Architects. 

  5. Both conservatives and liberals need to want an attractive and beautiful city. If such an elemental goal in metropolitan city with so much potential like Toronto is politicized and polarized, we’ll never get anywhere. Nonetheless, there’s a practical side to green roofs mentioned by John that can’t be neglected no matter who you’re talking to. After all, they’re a major upfront expense.