start of tour, view of CN Tower

WalkT.O. is a different kind of walking tour company. Started by a teacher/entrepreneur, Michelle Galea, and travel/environmental journalist, Crystal Luxmore, the company focuses on a different Toronto by looking at issues from our environment to the vibrant cultural mix of our neighbourhoods, as well as art and architecture through guided walks. Another unique aspect of these tours is that they are for groups of 10 or more, so you can’t just show up and hope to get on the next tour.  Their primary market right now is school groups and many of their tour guides are teachers, teaching students, or grad students who are very familiar with the Ontario curriculum requirements — hence, their ability to make the walking tours relevant to the geography, history and environmental curriculum. But these are also interesting tours for a variety of non-school related reasons. The tours delve into the physical and historical foundation of Toronto and help us learn about how the city has developed over its relatively young life.

Our Green TO walk was led by Master’s in Teaching grad student, Kim, who in addition to teaching, has also worked with Greenpeace and Mountain Equipment Co-op. She knows a thing or two about the environment and points out practical examples of what’s good and what maybe needs some improvement in our fair city. Below are some of the highlights of our tour:

Entrance to Metro Hall

Metro Hall. I know, Metro Hall in itself is no big deal, just a building that houses the resulting amalgamated municipal government –EXCEPT for the fact that it is also a customer of Enwave, a district heating and cooling utility company. In fact, Enwave provides heating and cooling for over 30 downtown buildings.Its system of underground pipes supplies steam heat in the winter and cooled water in the summer and tap water year round and the buildings it services have no need for boilers and chillers which frees up space and manpower in their facilities.

District heating isn’t new and has been in use in Canada for over 100 years, but what is new is the deep water cooling method Enwave developed. By bringing in 4C water from the bottom of Lake Ontario and using this water to provide cooling for all the buildings it supplies, the system provides benefits not only for the building owners and managers, but also for the local workday and residential population. Specifically, deep water district cooling

  • is 90% more efficient than chilling systems installed in individual buildings
  • reduces electricity demand by 61 MW annually
  • reduces coal-fired electricity demand, which in turn means that 145 tonnes of nitrogen oxide and 318 tonnes of sulfur oxide are not produced annually resulting in increased air quality (it’s like 20,000 cars off the road)
  • eliminates the need for CFCs because of the absence of individual chillers
  • reduces CO2 emissions by 79,000 tonnes/year.

To find out more about Enwave, visit their website.

Outside Mountain Equipment Co-op

Mountain Equipment Co-op: Probably the most successful retail co-op company in Canada, MEC is also a leader in corporate social responsibility. The company has been walking the environmental walk since its inception. Its flagship store at 400 King West, in the entertainment district, would likely qualify for LEED Gold, except that it was built in 1994, before the environmental certification system was even established. In this building over 55% of the the materials are recycled. Red steel beams come from an old radio tower that was being dismantled, the concrete pillars contain a mixture of Portland cement and slag from steel manufacturing (reducing the energy-intensive cement component), wood beams and flooring come from buildings about to be torn down, and it has Toronto’s first green roof (which isn’t accessible to the public). We didn’t get to see the roof, but the store itself is pretty neat. The latest MEC store, built in Montreal last year, contains over 90% recycled material.

The last two buildings on our tour are owned by a progressive development company called Urbanspace Property Group, founded and owned by Margie Zeidler. In this day and age when every old — not historical, just old — building in Toronto is being acquired by developers to be torn down and replaced with yet another glass condo (how many do we really need in this city anyway?), Margie’s vision is so enlightened because of a clear lack of greed and a complete understanding of how good spaces can promote creativity and collaboration amongst burgeoning businesses, social groups and artists.

401 Richmond: Urbanspace bought 401 Richmond in the 1990s when a developer was going to demolish it and turn it into condo towers. In the end the developer couldn’t do it and sold the building to Urbanspace. Urbanspace needed to do very little work to restore the building. It is a beautiful structure with wide hallways, high ceilings and deliberately developed in the warehouse model to allow flexibility for each tenant, as well as new tenants coming in. The purpose of this building and The Robertson Building up the street, is to provide low-cost, beautiful spaces for artists, NGOs, start-ups, entrepreneurs, and the like, to do their work. All tenants fit within this philosophy, and you can clearly see that on the wall in the lobby of the building where tenants are listed. The building contains a lot of galleries, as well as a great coffee shop, a daycare, and a fantastic Rooftop Garden which is open to the public. It’s a great building to go and poke around and explore the different art galleries. Kim pointed out Musideum to us, which houses all kinds of different instruments, and great for kids. Unfortunately it was closed for summer break when we were there.

The Roof top garden has slowly evolved over the years. According to Kim, the caretaker has a love of plants and once the warmer weather hit, wanted to give the building’s plants some fresh air. He suggested the roof, Urbanspace said yes, it grew from there. Now the roof is a wonderful garden deck with plants, a long trellis providing shade, tables and chairs. There is also a greenhouse up there now where some of the plants are stored in winter. On the part of the roof that is structurally not able to hold the weight of the deck, it is covered with seedum, providing both an additional insulation factor for the building below, as well as absorbing rainwater, preventing less runoff into sewers.

Seedum on foreground structure, greenhouse in back (white dome), on 401 Richmond's roof

Seedum on Roof of 401 Richmond, looking east.

Trellised and shaded rooftop garden on 401 Richmond

Before we entered the building, which we did from the back instead of the usual entrance at Richmond and Spadina, Kim showed us an experimental new driveway system the building’s put in place. A company in Oshawa is providing strong plastic grid work, embedded in the ground. Between the plastic grid grass grows. The benefit is three-fold: pavement can be converted into green space which helps reduce heat island effect in the city, the permeability allows for water to be reabsorbed into the ground instead of run-off into sewers, and it still provides a place for cars to park without impacting the soil. It’s still in experimental stages, but it could be a significant, low cost alternative to paved parking lots in downtown areas.

Early stages of plastic grid embedded parking space. Grass is just beginning to grow.

The Robertson Building: In 2002 Urbanspace bought the Robertson Building, yet another building that was slated for demolition but offered up by the developer at the last minute when funding fell through. Urbanspace’s tenants are again a variety of NGOs, start-up companies, and other small, progressive businesses that benefit from being in the same building.

Living wall in the lobby of The Robertson Bldg

Marshland "development" on The Robertson Bldg Rooftop

There is a living wall in the lobby providing fresh oxygen and moisture. Fans circulate the oxygen produced by the plants amongst the first floor. Across from the living wall is a list of tenants, many of whom are inspiring and doing great things such as Carbon Zero, Playwrights Canada Press, and the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.

The Green Roof on this building is different from the one on 401 Richmond. There is less room for congregating and it is used for some experimental plantings. For instance, the roof actually  looks like Ontario marshland. Marshland provides many benefits to local ecosystems providing habitats for wildlife and acting as a filter for freshwater. It is also the fastest disappearing part of the Ontario landscape. Research is being done on a rooftop in downtown Toronto, that will benefit our natural environment.

As with both buildings, rent is kept low in order to allow for these kinds of businesses to afford creative and beautiful spaces in which to work. In a witness statement in which Ms. Zeidler testified before the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) about the fate of another building back in 2006, she noted that her buildings make enough of a profit for her to live on, the tenants are responsible about paying their rent and there is a waiting list to get into both buildings. If you have a chance, read her witness statement as it talks about the importance and value of rehabilitating old buildings, and not just the historical or pretty ones, but ones with years more useful life in them, it’s very inspiring.

This is where the tour ends. We said our goodbyes, and I popped in to the Dark Horse Cafe, one of my favourite coffee spots in the city, which also happens to be a tenant of The Robertson Building. While I ordered my small latte disguised as a cappucino, I had a lesson from the well-spoken barista on the difference between a machiato, cappuccino, and latte. While each has two ounces of espresso, the amount of milk increases per drink. Aha. I never knew that either.

For more information about WalkT.O., visit their website.

For more pictures from the tour, visit BEC Green’s Facebook Page.

BEC Green

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