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