U of T training and research program to focus on green roofs, other 'living' infrastructure

The DLIFES network provides training in the design, construction and management of engineered vegetative systems such as rooftop gardens (photo courtesy of the Daniels Faculty)

A new initiative at the University of Toronto is training students in the design, construction and management of engineered vegetative systems for cities facing the impacts of rapid urbanization and climate change.

The Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory (GRIT Lab) at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design recently launched the Design of Living Infrastructure for Ecosystem Services (DLIFES) Network. It’s a five-year-long NSERC CREATE program that will train more than 50 undergraduate, master and PhD students, as well as post-doctoral researchers.

“Governments and private property owners across Canada and worldwide are investing heavily in living infrastructure in order to address current and future challenges of environmental degradation, pollution, habitat loss, and extreme climate events,” says Liat Margolis, an associate professor of landscape architecture.

“This presents a tremendous opportunity to develop 21st-century approaches to education and professional practice that are interdisciplinary by nature, empirical, hands on and engaged with regional urban policy and industry practices.”

The GRIT Lab, which has been in operation for a decade, is an international hub of interdisciplinary and experimental research on living green infrastructure that was spearheaded by Margolis in collaboration with Jennifer Drake and Brent Sleep in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, Scott MacIvor in U of T Scarborough’s department of biological sciences, and Sean Thomas in Daniels’ department of forestry.

The first of its kind, the DLIFES network was launched last summer and extends throughout Canada, with academic partners at U of T Scarborough, Ryerson University, Saint Mary’s University and the University of Saskatchewan.

The network also collaborates with eight other universities in the United States, France, Israel, Australia and Japan that are well known for their green infrastructure experimental labs.

The NSERC funding will provide participating students with opportunities for research exchange abroad. Several industry and government partners contribute to the project through technical instruction, advisory board membership, field work opportunities and in-kind material donations.

Two men install a felt backing for a green roof on the roof Daniels

Recently constructed, sloped green roofs provide new research opportunities (photo courtesy of the Daniels Faculty)

The DLIFES inaugural summer program was delivered online due to COVID-19. It kicked off with its first annual symposium in June. The symposium brought together project partners to share research findings and insights on project implementation across a broad range of contexts and climates. A virtual networking event allowed students to connect with experts in design, construction, environmental legislation and conservation fields.

Over a period of four weeks, interdisciplinary coursework delivered by academic, government and industry partners offered technical training to 22 students in landscape, forestry, engineering and biology. Students had opportunities to develop command of green roof and low impact development design and construction, including soil design for bio-retention and green roof growth media, as well as subsurface urban hydrology.

Over the next four years, the program's coursework will cover a range of technical aspects related to landscape design and construction, plant biology and ecology, soil physics and bio-material sourcing and processing, storm water management, treatment and reuse, sensor instrumentation design and data visualization.

“This program offers the specialized and practical field-based training that is currently lacking and absolutely critical as technologies and new regulations are rapidly changing,” says Drake, a DLIFES principal investigator. “For example, the 2017 federal budget designated upwards of $20 billion in green infrastructure projects over the next decade. New York City’s green infrastructure plan has allocated US$1 billion for new projects to reduce combined sewer overflow. And, in 2019, they legislated a green roof bylaw like that of Toronto’s as part of their commitment to the Green New Deal.”

Cistern-collected runoff versus potable water irrigation systems are tested on the roof at One Spadina (photo courtesy of the Daniels Faculty)

Second-year Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) student Howard Rosenblat studied environmental science and corporate sustainability before joining the graduate program at Daniels, giving him a unique perspective on the green industry.

“I love peeling back the layers to look at different systems, and I find that design is often disconnected from functionality,” he says. “That is what I loved about these courses. They really make you question the why and how.”

Madison Appleby is also in her second year of the MLA program.

“The DLIFES summer program fostered connection and the exchange of information, helping to bridge the gap between disciplines and prevent mistranslation,” she says. “The exposure to innovative research and industry practices, as well as a critical approach to ‘green design,’ is a way of thinking that I will carry forward into my schoolwork and eventual practice.”

In addition to the summer courses and annual symposium, the DLIFES Create Program is leading a number of cutting-edge research projects, one of which is the study of cistern-collected surface runoff for reuse in green roof irrigation. This will provide insight into the role of green roofs in mitigating urban pollution and linking site hydrology between the landscapes at the ground and roof levels.

Another major study being undertaken as part of DLIFES is a survey of the city of Toronto’s green roofs since 2009. Forestry PhD candidate Wenxi Liao and MLA students Rosenblat, Appelby, Allison Smith, and Stefan Herda employed remote sensing techniques to geolocate roughly 700 green roofs, evaluate their endurance or decline over time and measure the overall effectiveness of green roof practices in Toronto.

The new GRITlab at One Spadina was constructed in part thanks to funding from the University of Toronto Lab Innovation for Toronto (LIFT) project. The experimental facility was designed by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects (BSN) with in-kind donations by industry partner Bioroof Systems.