Monday, November 30, 2009

Trinity College Green Roof - Friday November 20th, 1:20 pm

The Trinity College green roof is located at St. Hilda’s College Residence, at 44 Devonshire Place. It can be reached by a door off the second floor staircase. The roof began as a project conceived by the Trinity College Environmental Club and was built in the summer of 2008. The green roof is a desolate place on a Friday afternoon in November. The weather is overcast and a little chilly. Noise from cars and people on St. George to the west and Hoskin Street to the south drift upwards, but are muffled by the surrounding buildings. The roof has no artificial lighting. Western light filtering through gaps between the Rotman Centre and an Innis College residence is weak at this time of year.

The roof is the size of a small backyard, about 25 feet by 25 feet. It is contained by a fence made of glass and green metal. A path made of wooden slats stretches from the roof door to a wooden platform at the western end. On this platform sits a long three-sided wooden bench beneath two wooden canopies of differing heights. Next to the bench is what appears to be a large wooden storage chest. The roof itself is covered in a thick layer of leaves and woodchips, although grass grows in its place during warmer months. Four of five clusters of small bushes dot the space, but there is no other plant life. There is also one green metal bench. There are no birds, and the roof’s height makes it difficult for squirrels to reach. The two windows that open directly onto the roof are encased in wooden lattice. No one is occupying the space.

The reason that no activities are taking place on the roof is because the door that leads to it is locked and chained. Although the roof is part of a residence, it is supposed to be accessible for all Trinity College students. When I inquired about the roof at the St. Hilda’s porter’s lodge, I was told that the roof is only opened when an event is being held there. I was told to contact the Dean’s office or the office of the Bursar if I wanted to access it. A custodian overheard this and asked how long I needed the roof for, and I explained I needed to observe the roof and take photos for an anthropology project. The custodian called the Dean’s office to approve my request, and then escorted me to the roof and waited while I took photos. I understand that the College may have security concerns about who is visiting the roof and when, but protocol as extensive as I experienced effectively prevents students from accessing the roof at all.

The rooftop garden is the most personal of my ethnographic sites. Two years ago I lived at St. Hilda’s college, in one of two rooms whose windows opened onto what is now the green roof. I was living there when construction on the roof began in the spring of 2008. Although walking on the roof was forbidden, it was still a nice place to sit on warm nights, store drinks and food to keep them cool, and to watch the sun set. I attended the Environmental Club meeting to discuss the rooftop. Although I was somewhat disappointed that I would be losing what felt like my private rooftop, I was glad that the College was actively involved in such a green initiative, and that other students would benefit. On the Trinity College website, a page is devoted to the green roof, written before its construction. It claims that the proposed garden would be “a leafy sanctuary for busy students and staff, but it would also act as insulation, cooling the building in the sweltering Toronto summers”. I am aware that because of this personal connection, my interpretation of the roof may be biased, and these observations are based on my singular experience with the green roof. However, I think it is fair to say that this particular goal for the green roof – student accessibility – has not been met. Although the green roof may carry out its organic function, no one is there to enjoy it. While the same may be said for an isolated forest, the roof garden was purposely built as a natural oasis for staff and students.

What I noticed immediately when I stepped onto the roof was that the window of the room I used to live in is now enclosed by wooden lattice for privacy purposes. This measure is made redundant by the fact that there is no activity on the roof necessitating additional privacy, save for the occasional event. While I was looking at the site, I was mentally overlapping it with my memory of what it used to look like. The green roof is undoubtedly an improvement, but what did strike me is that students living where I once lived can no longer see the sun set - a welcomed vision in downtown Toronto.

Above: The roof before construction began
Below: A view of the sunset

In class we discussed Trinity College’s quadrangle and a few students mentioned that Trinity’s reputation of exclusivity was reflected in the quad’s design. As a Trinity student myself, I suspect that this could be a factor in the college’s decision to close the green roof, as any safety concerns could have been addressed before construction began. In “Outdoor Space and Outdoor Activities”, author Jan Gehl discusses the importance of “optional activities”; something outside of work, school, and other obligations. Gehl explains that well-planned outdoor spaces are important because they encourage people to spend more time outside. This has positive consequences for social contact, active living, and psychological health. The Trinity green roof is an attractive, well-designed space, and could have positive effects if it were as accessible as it was intended to be. The green roof is evidence that the College is willing to support projects that do not relate directly to academic or administrative functions, but serve people’s social and biological need to be outside in nature. If it were opened up to staff and students, the green roof could fulfill its potential as a “leafy sanctuary” for people to relax, interact with one another, and enjoy nature.

I would argue that the Trinity College green roof is not constitutive of a human/nature relationship. Clearly the roof requires a human presence in the sense that it is a constructed and controlled natural space. However, if no one is actively using the space, does maintenance alone really constitute a relationship? As Jan Gehl’s discussion proved, the demands of urban life have definitely bored holes in people’s relationships with nature. The only way for this site to bridge those gaps between humans and nature is to allow greater access to it.

Link to Trinity College’s Official Website – Green Roof Page:

Below: The green roof as it looks now

Mount Pleasant Cemetery - Saturday November 28th, 3:00 pm

Mount Pleasant Cemetery is split into two halves, bordered by Bayview Avenue to the east, Yonge Street to the west, and divided by Mt. Pleasant Road. I visited the eastern half of the cemetery. The weather is increasingly cold, but the sunlight is bright. After a few minutes walk into the cemetery, the hum of cars on Mt. Pleasant Road is virtually the only noise you can hear. Out of respect for visiting families, the noise level is very low here. The road into the cemetery forks just past the entrance, curving north and south toward other plots of graves. Graves are marked by headstones and flat stone markers, and many graves have flowers, wreaths, photos and candles placed in front of them. There are large trees of many different species throughout the cemetery, and flower beds which are empty at this time of year. Many of the older trees have metal plaques at their bases which identify the tree’s species (in elementary school my class came here on field trips to collect leaves from these trees).

About a hundred metres east into the cemetery is an administrative building. Behind this are a cremation garden and a mausoleum. A few hundred metres south is a visitor’s centre and funeral home that is still under construction. In front of this is a heritage seed garden. A sign at the edge of the garden describes it as a “living gene bank” designed to “preserve our horticultural diversity for future generations”. The garden was created through a joint initiative by the cemetery and Seeds of Diversity Canada and contains organically grown rare plant species. Several people can be seen jogging and cycling, and there are many squirrels eating and preparing for winter. Wildlife is prominent - on other visits I have seen rabbits, foxes, skunks, and raccoons. There is one maintenance truck driving back and forth, and four or five parked cars. There is one family leaving the mausoleum.

Walking into the cemetery, the first thing I noticed was the lack of walking paths, trails, or any type of sidewalk. I have relatives buried here and my family lives well within walking distance, but we always visit by car. I had never really questioned this until now. The cemetery accommodates cars much better than it does pedestrians, although joggers, cyclists and people going for walks seem to enjoy it as well. It is relatively tranquil and safe, has well-maintained roads and is a beautiful example of nature in midtown Toronto. However, these activities are informal, and secondary to the cemetery’s main purpose – a burial place where families come to commemorate their friends and relatives. The cemetery is easily accessible by TTC, but with no walking paths or sidewalks, visiting on foot can be tricky, especially in winter and for elderly visitors. This may be a way of discouraging joggers, but it also limits travel options for people visiting a loved one’s grave.

The roads that wind throughout the cemetery act as a guide, scripting one’s visit. Upon entering the cemetery, the main road - which is lined with meticulous flower beds – leads you to a large stone monument of a crucifix. As you continue along this road, you come across several other impressive monuments, such as a life size angel, before reaching the administration office/welcome centre. The graves closest to the entrance are the oldest; many are from the 1920s. The headstones belong almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon men, whose relatives are listed below them. The relative wealth of the people buried here is reflected in the large, elaborate headstones that are prominent in this section of the cemetery (former Prime Minister Mackenzie King is buried here). These types of graves and their position along the main road lend the cemetery an atmosphere of exclusivity and privilege. This “official route” through the cemetery is often overlapped with more personal ones. I unconsciously headed in the direction of my grandfather’s grave, ignoring the set or “scripted” route.

In “Domesticating Urban Space”, Dolores Hayden discusses the Victorian concept of public and private spheres. She lists ways in which urban spaces can be redesigned to better accommodate families, particularly children and the elderly. Hayden’s analysis of both urban accessibility and urban domesticity relate to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The cemetery, although public, is a site of mourning, one of the most private acts humans engage in. This paradox can create tension, which is reflected in the cemetery’s design. The lack of pathways between grave plots makes visiting the cemetery difficult for the elderly and for families with strollers. Although the roads are built to accommodate funeral processions of cars, very few elements of the cemetery are designed with the everyday mourner in mind. For people who visit here frequently, the cemetery is the “home” of their deceased family and friends, not an impersonal public space. The cemetery understandably cannot cater to joggers or people using the grounds for non-mourning activities. However, for visitors arriving by bike, public transit, on foot, or with strollers, the cemetery does little to assist.

In many ways, a cemetery is the ultimate human/nature relationship. A grave is a space designated for the human body to decompose and literally become part of the earth. This relationship is complex and somewhat paradoxical. Many of the elements that make up a cemetery are designed to ease grief by distracting from death and obscuring natural processes. For example, the practice of embalming delays post-mortem decay. One very obvious example is the dichotomy between natural and artificial plants, and the purposes of each. Floral tributes, both real and fake, inspire questions about why humans use plants to commemorate their dead. Historically, strong smelling flowers like lilies were used to mask the scent of decomposition. Now, they are a popular way to pay one’s respects to the deceased. Many graves are adorned with wreaths and potted plants. More often than not, these are artificial. These arrangements are practical – they do not require care or watering, and can be left alone for months between visits. Like embalming, they are a way of interrupting the natural process of decay.

These plants look gaudy in comparison with actual nature, which abounds in the cemetery. The heritage seed garden, for example, could be analyzed as an attempt to interrupt loss, by preserving plant species and ensuring their future. Some of the plaques found at the base of trees bear a person’s name in memoriam. The act of using a tree as a memorial is significant. Trees are often thought of as timeless and permanent, and the tree is a universal symbol of life and of family. In naming a tree after a person, it is as if the tree can act as a living acknowledgement of the memory of that person. Unscripted examples of nature are also plentiful. A variety of animals have made the cemetery their home. Many families do plant living flowers and shrubs next to graves.

Although death is the reason cemeteries exist, it is life that dominates. I have always found this cemetery to be full of beautiful plants and animals, and in this sense it is more of a celebration of the circle of life than a symbol of death. In Mount Pleasant cemetery, death, life, order and nature, all coexist.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1991.

Wheeler, Stephen M., and Timothy Beatley, eds. The Sustainable Urban Development Reader. New York: Routledge, 2009.