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what’s green on top

by Janet Somerville | May 10, 2006

Three women lead the charge to build a green roof on a 350-resident downtown building called the Hugh Garner Housing Co-operative.

The co-op has gone a long way towards showing that their project can be done:

  • Ontario’s Trillium Foundation has awarded it a grant of $100,000.
  • The co-op members have agreed that they can afford to contribute the cost of replacing the roof in a conventional way (estimated at about $450,000).

Given the cost of such a large green roof, that leaves about $500,000 to be raised elsewhere. And, with the first phase of the project already completed, there is added urgency to sprout some donations.

Fundraising isn’t easy from a social-housing base. Kids have held candy sales in the co-op lobby, grown-ups have sold paintings and pottery and lovely photos, and in such ways a small money pot is growing. But the funding gap remains frightening to a community of people whose financial resources average out to meagre.

There’s a firm commitment that the shortfall will not be met by raising the co-op’s housing charge. As one member said emphatically at a general meeting, “This is affordable housing, not the Taj Mahal!”

So, what are three cool women doing about it?

wait a minute, what is a green roof?

It’s at least four inches of earth, bearing appropriate plants, irrigated and able to absorb rain water, as plain or as fancy as you make it, resting on a thicker-than-usual architectural membrane on any flat-roofed building able to bear the extra weight.

what does it do?

Well, it cools the surrounding air. It filters out quite a lot of air pollutants. Its greenery converts carbon monoxide back into oxygen for all of us. It takes the Kyoto Accord seriously by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, partly because the residents of the building under it need less air conditioning in summer and a bit less artificial heating in winter. And, with a good design, it looks beautiful, and lasts at least forty years.

who are these women, and what do they want?
  • Monica Kuhn is not just after architectural change. She understands why we need a revolution in the way we grow our food, in the way we eat, in the way we run the global economy, in the way we treat the tiniest back yard. She has been involved with the Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery; the Food Policy Council, Foodshare, and Field to Table. She is also a board member for Greenroofs for Healthy Cities. She's married to a biologist, and their children are the fifth generation in her husband's family to live in the same Cabbagetown house, right in Hugh Garner’s neighbourhood.

    A course on permaculture, offered by an ecologically oriented centre on Cortez Island off Canada’s west coast, helped launch Monica Kuhn's career in an alternative direction.

    “Permaculture concepts can be applied anywhere. They’re all about designing self-sustaining year-round systems for any kind of habitat arrangement – garden, farm, house, business, or the world economy. Of course the vision underlying permaculture supports green roofs, but there is much, much more to it, and there are so many points where you can make a start. Green roofs in the city core is one of those starting points,” she says.
  • Beata Domanska believes that North Americans need to change the way we treat the natural environment. She has distant memories of how it could be otherwise. As a child in Poland, she saw a country that “was not a consumer society. There was no garbage problem, no over-packaging. People hadn’t forgotten how to grow things. But that was then. Now that Poland has turned around to face West and is joining the European Union, it has all our pollution and junk problems.”

    It’s Beata Domanska’s ecological passion that convinced most residents in Hugh Garner Co-op to vote in favour of a green roof on their downtown building to replace the old one. “When you just focus on the seriousness of our environmental problems, you can get paralysed. But a green roof is something concrete, something you can actually do. I’m going to focus on that, because it can make a real difference. People will get excited. Other co-ops will want to try it on their buildings – public buildings, too, and private homes. Like some European cities are beginning to do. We only need to show that it can be done!”
  • Eleanor McDonald was a member of the incorporating board of Hugh Garner Co-op as the building and its population grew from idea to reality. One-hundred and eighty-one new homes found shape and space in the building. The name Hugh Garner honours a colourful Canadian short-story writer who lived and wrote in this historic working-class neighbourhood of Toronto, just south of what is now the dense high-rise St. Jamestown area. McDonald moved into the new building as it opened on November 1, 1982, and became the president of the first residential board of the co-op. She has been president three times since then.

    McDonald is deep into the co-operative movement, representing Hugh Garner Co-op at the city and national level of the Cooperative Housing Federation. Local community work is also crucial to her, so she works with groups such as the St. Jamestown Family Literacy Services Board and the Prospect Street Group. She also indulges in two life-long interests: pottery (she’s a founder of the Woodlawn Pottery Studio, among other clay-based accomplishments) and gardening.

    Where does a person garden when she lives in a downtown apartment building without so much as a balcony? Well, on the roof, of course! Long before the folks at Hugh Garner began dreaming about an official green roof, the sun was shining on huge roof-top planters ablaze with blossoms. McDonald, now in her eighties, has made roof-gardening a normal part of the committee life of this busy urban enclave.

From there, it’s not such a stretch to the dream of a green roof. With three very cool women leading the way, Hugh Garner has a good chance at succeeding in this bit of urban ecological pioneering.

All they need is that small matter of $500,000.

If you like the idea of their green roof, Hugh Garner’s cool women would be delighted if you decided to help out financially. It’s all tax-deductible. And it’s part of making Toronto even cooler for everyone. Check out the website Hugh Garner Green Roof, and you’ll find out all you need to know.

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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