Green infrastructure designed as food gardens and meadows welcomed Olympic athletes to London in 2012

Green Roofs, Green Walls, Green Infrastructure: It’s Time to Ask Why Not!!

I have actively promoted green roofs and living machine technologies since 1993, when I was young enough to write a kick-ass manual for a green economy, the first of two editions of my bestseller, Get a Life!

But something about the attitude of people at this year’s May conference on moving from Grey to Green felt different.

For the better part of 25 years, the big question we have faced is Why would we want to try this.

Maybe it was because the Toronto conference coincided with Quebec suffering extensive flooding, Lake Ontario rising after a huge snow melt on Lake Superior, and people in nearby Lake Simcoe (which really deserves to be ranked as a Great Lake) in a quandary about how to manage their sewage so it doesn’t kill the lake.

But I think it had mostly due to the calm confidence brimming from keynote speakers, workshop leaders and conference participants alike.

We know our stuff, we can prove it works, we have it down watertight and airtight, we know this is where the jobs of the future are, we can show this is how the problems of today and tomorrow will be solved, we are primed and pumped…. and the big question now is…. Why Not.

Why Not is a very different kind of question from Why.

Why Not puts the onus of explanation of the people who want to stick with the old tried and untrue. But it also forces us as champions of a new, exciting and proven approach to figure out where the resistance comes from and how to deal with it. We have to become empathic listeners and figure out what our critics don’t understand. Because we are moving from Early Adopters to Early Majority, and we need to reduce the resistance.

Nature has been experimenting for at least 4 billion years


My first impulse is to say Big Business is holding back change.

But there’s got to be more to it than that when the March 17, 2017 issue of Fortune Magazine highlights “Mimic Mother Nature” as the first of five smart trends to get on board with, and warns its Big Business and wannabe Big Business readers that if “you’re not incorporating the most brilliant ideas from the natural world into what you sell, you’re leaving money on the table. Biomimicry is now going mainstream.”

If it were just powerful interest or class groups we were up against, we could checkmate them, all things being equal. After all, to take the case of Ontario, where the conference was held, 140,000 people are employed in a variety of landscaping and horticultural businesses, and just as many work as landscapers for universities, corporations and governments — and receive virtually no government money or even a place at the table of government meetings. These 280,000 workers compare to 10,000 working for Chrysler, which receives hundreds of millions of government funding at a time, few strings attached. Surely, if only plain old economics were at work, somebody on the green side could figure out how to bus some fraction of 280,000 people to a show-of-power demonstration.

Toronto City Hall’s green roof, a few hundred meters from where the Grey to Green conference was held

But, as Toni Gramsci would say of such economism, it fails to reckon with the hidden power of cultural hegemony, which is the effective cause of what’s holding us back at this juncture.


It’s time to look at the wall we’ve been butting our heads against, and the mindset giving that wall its staying power. When we understand the mindset, the wall will be greened almost as fast as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

When we decide to work on changing popular mindsets, including the mindsets of horticultural workers and businesses, we’ll engage with people on small but meaningful projects that build political will out of our Why Not attitude. Because we are not confronted by “Political Will” on the other side, but sheer momentum. What we have to overcome is Political Won’t.

Political Won’t is as impervious to new ideas as pavement is to rainfall and stormwater. We already know how to do porous pavement and other tricks of the trade to manage rainfall and stormwater. We can do the same with Political Won’t.

The three mindsets are far more resistant than concrete. They predate concrete by many centuries, and run deep in the cultural DNA of European cultures, and cultures colonized by Europeans. We need to actually devote resources to making these mindsets more porous because they prevent people from understanding, or even hearing, the case we make to support green infrastructure.

Calgary wetlands — a visual delight providing water storage and cleaning at an affordable price. But is this natural?


A language that regularly uses the phrase “natural resources” comes from a culture that makes a number of philosophical assumptions about Nature. As befits an English language shaped by the scientific revolution and Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s, the words define Nature as a storehouse of commodities and products for our use, which we must learn to pry from “her.”

The very term expresses a them and us attitude to Nature — usually referred to as a her, never as a him, free for the taking. The tools to access the resources are invariably hard, not soft, a description that still applies to hardware, and is still symbolized by the iron rings worn by engineering professionals. The resource to be taken is invariably a bundle of products and commodities, such as fish, timber or oil, not services that come from being in, or part of, Nature.

Nature was not up to much, which is why spendthrifts have long been warned that money doesn’t grow on trees, and wayward youth were warned against getting a soiled reputation.

These are strong cultural headwinds to sail into, and illustrate what we are up against when we present proposals to use soil, plants and trees as workhorses of green infrastructure and living architecture. While there are partial exceptions, the term “ecosystem services,” often relied on by promoters of green or living infrastructure, did not really have a firm place in business-or policy-related conversations until 2006 , when it was used to describe a UN commission.

Can this actually be a workhorse of green technology, cleaning air and water better than machines or sewage pipes could do?

Campaigners who come onto the scene with the wind of the culture in their sales do not need to explain their terms, but we do. We have to review the basics before we get to the particulars. We need to explain that ecosystem services refer to four standard types of free services:

  • the provisioning services most people know as commodities, which Nature has pretty well handed to us, such as fish and lumber
  • the regulating services, such as the ability to modify climate or floods, such as a green roof that can cool an area in the course of evaporation, or retain rainwater during a storm, keeping it far above the streets and sewage mains below
  • cultural services, such as bird-watching or nature photography
  • supporting services, such as soil that breaks down food waste and converts it into plant nutrients

Far from recognizing such generosity, the Gross Domestic Product, the standard way of measuring economic progress, a measure broadcast regularly in the course of business news, accords no value whatsoever to services from Nature, even when such services come from people, as in the case of breastmilk.

Tony Giovanni of Landscape Ontario, a keynoter for the opening session of the conference, referred to this problem as “plant blindness” — a preventable disease which green infrastructure supporters need to help cure. Plant blindness refers to people asked to name what they see when they are shown a picture of a lion crouched in a savannah. They will say “a lion.” No-one will mention the lion is perfectly camouflaged in the savannah grasses, which are prime lion habitat because the savannah also feeds the animals the lion eats. Our eyes are drawn to top predators, which are rarely plants. They are the wallflowers at a party thrown by the cement industry.

Due to plant blindness, the industry’s reality as an economic powerhouse 280,000 employees and $14.5 billion a year in economic impact is a “well-kept secret,” Giovanni says. “Our job is to cure plant blindness,” he said.

Most people in North America and Europe are plant-blind, as are most people the green infrastructure industry deals with. An official weighing infrastructure bids who does not “get” the idea of free ecosystem services cannot figure out why someone should be paid to harness plants and soil to manage, steer and orchestrate the way forces of Nature affect an area. Telling the landscaping firm to take a hike is as close as it gets to appreciating one of the cultural services listed under ecosystem services.

Plant blindness: who’d have thought urban agriculture could be part of green infrastructure? Edmonton food writer Jennifer Cockrall-King did!

Yet harnessing ecosystem services is at the heart of what living technologies do. Soil is much handier to have around during a rainstorm than cement. Soil soaks up water and stores it for a dry day. The less the soil has been compacted by people or machines tromping on it, the more compost has been used to condition the soil, the more air pockets the earth has to hold water. The more trees that are planted on top of the soil, the more leaves there are to hold raindrops, and the more roots there are to hold the soil in place. The more rain barrels atop the soil, the more water will be stored for later use. And the more rain gardens that have been landscaped to retain water below ground, the more water available to cool the city with evaporation a few days later, when it’s hot and dry.

It took Hurricane Sandy to provide this $32 billion science lesson to officials in New York City in 2012, but now, sadder but wiser, they get it, and are a model for other cities who now know what to do to avoid all the damage a storm can wreak when too much infrastructure is made of cement hardware, and not enough comes from harnessing software. Since Sandy, NYC has installed 2000 bioswales; lacking such an aha moment, Toronto has installed 6.

Workshop presenter Peter Olney explained how New York’s Javits Convention Center renovated its old roof with a green one, which has stood the test of retaining 66 per cent of the water from heavy rainfalls, and keeping it away from swollen sewers.

6-storey biofilter cleans the air and cleanses the spirit at U of Ottawa

The interesting thing about plants is Nature works as well indoors as it does outdoors. That accounts for the rising interest in bio-filters, like the 6-storey one shown here from the University of Ottawa, designed by one of Canada’s premier architecture firms, Diamond Schmitt Architects. Just as an oxygen-pumping meadow can make outdoor air resonate with freshness and vitality, so a vertical meadow can do in a highrise — with no worries about mechanical breakdowns

Regrettably, such projects cannot speak for themselves. When we are in Why Not mode, we need to explain why, so it becomes part of a modern mindset.


The second major mindset problem faced by the living architecture sector is that it is multifunctional. It solves too many problems at once, and doesn’t belong to any one problem.

Treehugger Steve Peck of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities says officials live in silos

Wait a minute! From a common sense point of view, that sounds like an advantage. Not in a world of silos, says Steve Peck of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, which organized the Grey to Green Conference.

A typical green infrastructure project has as many as ten benefits — something for everybody. A green roof, for example, retains rainwater and keeps it out of the sewer, which is a big saving for the sewage department. If it’s open, it provides a nice amenity for tenants of the building — a private and safe space to garden and look over the city. Or, it can provide an attractive commercial space for the building owner, like a restaurant lounge with a fantastic view.

Building owners also like the fact that the life of the roof is extended, because it’s not exposed to UV rays of the summer sun or the freeze and thaw of winter. Building owners and anchor tenants also like the fact that a scenic roof attracts free or “earned media,” and turns the building into a destination. City planners like the fact that the destination adds to the place-making impact of the building. Conservation groups like the fact that green roofs are a harbor for bio-diversity, as medium-rise buildings attract a wide range of birds and bees. Clean air champions in the public health department like the fact that all that greenery captures particulate that might otherwise end up in lungs of residents.

The city’s sustainability department likes the fact that the green roof has a cooling effect on hot and dry days, when the water stored during a rainfall is released as evaporation which leads to what’s called “passive cooling.” This reduces the “heat island effect,” the raising and extension of heat during the summer as black pavement attracts heat and concrete stores it. Solar energy fans like it because photo-voltaic panels can be set up over greenery, shielding plant growth from harsh direct sunlight. The city finance department also likes the fact that the green roof increases the property value of nearby buildings, increasing tax income.

And gardeners like the idea that more space is available to grow things, such as food, which can be served fresh to guests at the restaurant below, a popular trend among hotel restaurants. Many hotels also use their green roof as a place to compost food waste from their restaurants.

Vancouver food is tops!

The most important, but most frequently overlooked, example of green infrastructure multi-functionality is food. Green infrastructure allows you to “capture water and use it to grow plants, especially food plants,” Steve Peck told the opening session of the conference. Most cities have fewer than three days’ food supply at any time, and in the event that flooding interrupts food imports from afar, the food grown on roofs and in rain gardens can tide a city over and avoid dealing the reality that most cities are, in Peck’s words, “nine days from anarchy.” Having food on the roof and along the streets could be key to a city’s resilience, Peck said.

This was the argument I always made as manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, a leading champion of the city’s green roof bylaw. There are so many benefits to green infrastructure that “food is just the icing on the cake,” I used to say. On the other hand, who wants a cake without icing? (For two earlier articles I wrote on these themes, see this and this.)

Now what could ever be wrong with projects that combine all these benefits?

The benefits illustrate what are called “the economies of scope.” The functionality of the green roof is that when calculations are made for all the functions, it makes financial sense and provides a good Return on Investment.

They used to call it teamwork; now we call it interdepartmental collaboration. Whatever it’s called, it’s missing for green infrastructure.

This economy is what allows innovation in universities to bloom, with new departments in food studies, women’s studies, Black studies, Canadian studies and equity studies built on the cheap because they draw on faculty from several departments. It is also central to the boom taking place in research on bio-mimicry (it could be argued that green infrastructure is an expression of bio-mimicry). MIT in Boston is an outstanding leader in this field, and a defining characteristic of its team (aside from genius) is its multi-disciplinary nature. Cutting edge aviation research and development was also marked by such interdepartmental teams, referred to as “skunkworks.”

Surely a bio-mimicing leaf can be borrowed from such trees when crucial infrastructure is being planned!!

Alas, our accounting methods and departmental organizations are not set up to appreciate the economies of scope. They prefer the economies of scale, which are generally funneled through one group.

For organizational reasons, the economies of scale always trump the economies of scope, because the economies of scale motivate a champion who has a strong stake in one outcome. By contrast, the public health department may not send someone to join the delegation supporting the green roof, because there are too many other priorities for scarce staff time. Without magnetic leadership, a multifunctional project is at risk because its beneficiaries are spread too thin.

Green balconies make sense in the policy world only when policymakers adopt a whole of government/whole of society viewpoint

Green roofs and green balconies typify what are called “whole of government/whole of society” issues. Indeed, almost all the so-called intractable problems of today are whole of government/whole of society issues. Most complex issues are whole of government/whole of society issues.

Most so-called “wicked problems” of today are whole of government/whole of society problems. They are complex and intractable because they can’t find a champion who can bring diverse groups together and build “collaborative infrastructure.” Surely, the challenges of tomorrow will suffer the same wicked results if we do not develop the social innovation to deal with Nexus issues that can only be understood and be proactive about if we understand that food-water-energy are inextricably interlocked.

A champion is not an easy thing to be. A champion needs clout, even though they don’t have one base or stronghold that provides clout. They have skills that allow them to punch above their weight.

For a movement at the Why Not stage, finding champions who can build bridges is a top priority. The food movement, where multi-functionality is an equivalent “problem,” has been described as one where champions are “warriors, workers and weavers.”

The green infrastructure movement, in which workers predominate, needs a few more warriors and weavers.

You won’t get tired of these people-friendly bits of green infrastructure that can help with place-making with people-friendly spots


Another advantage of green infrastructure — or is it a disadvantage?? — is that it is people-friendly.

How could that be a disadvantage? Well Virginia, there is no Santa Claus and power does not gravitate to people who use and pay for a service. Students do not have as much power in a school as teachers and administrators do, for example. Patients do not have as much power in a hospital as doctors and administrators do — check out the food if you doubt that! Eaters do not have as much sway in the government’s ag and food department as farmers and processors and “vested interests.”

The users of a service don’t have the staying power or homogeneity of special interest groups, and don’t have the long-term needs that bind producers together, and don’t make campaign donations.

These problems are compounded by the fact that people skills are not highly valued in many organizations. People skills are called soft skills, rather than hard skills. They go with caring occupations, not professional occupations. Many organizations promote people on the strength of their technical skills, not their people or managerial skills.

Attention is seldom given to how certain environments support healthy behavior. behavior is usually seen as a product of individual personality, not environment or skills. Christopher Alexander, the brilliant architectural philosopher who wrote The Pattern Language during the 1960s, explained how buildings and structures could animate life and energy in people. It’s sad that today’s Internet shows no signs that his seminal work is being discussed or debated.

But before we despair, let’s take a look at the way a green infrastructure project benefits people. My favorite workshop at this conference featured Kees Govers of LiveRoof Ontario, who helped landscape the roof of Bridgepoint Health, a 462-bed rehabilitation center that helps people getting over strokes, heart attacks and accidents.

The Bridgepoint Health roof, open to patients, staff and the general public, helps rehabilitate patients and link them to daily activities and neighborhoods

A green roof was just what the doctor ordered. The center needed a place where neighbors might drop by — whoever heard of neighbors dropping by a hospital??? — so the normal life and interactions which patients would soon be returning to were always front of mind. As well, there were always people for patients to talk to, even if they had no visitors that day. Loneliness does not help people going through rehab; they need social support. Having a green roof also made it easy for patients to host several friends at the same time, without having to worry about making a lot of noise in a room they shared with someone else.

The green roof also helped with rehab exercizes. The rehab workers are committed to giving patients everyday opportunities to exercize their hand-eye coordination and fine motor control. So having one floor for a green roof where people could garden, as well as a place where people could paint, made sense.

Last but not least, sitting on a green roof and looking over Toronto’s Don Valley is a beautiful thing, and can remind people going through a tough time that there can be some light at the end of every tunnel. That feature of green roofs is also attractive to hospitals that deal with people going through pain and stress, especially hospitals that specialize in the treatment of children and cancer patients.

Green roofs and other green technologies are signs that administrators understand biophilia, peoples’ innate comfort, kinship and love for Nature. Indeed, the project architects of Bridgepoint Health, Diamond Schmitt Architects, designed the whole building with this in mind. It features natural light, open spaces, and natural materials, such as stone and wood. (For more insights into the design philosophy, see this.)

Green infrastructure is also a sign that cities know how to deal with the trade-offs of modern cities. Cities have to be crowded and dense to succeed; that is what supplies the “urban advantage.” But the bright lights of the big city needed a counterpoint in natural experiences that correspond to the way human minds and bodies evolved outside of a built environment.

Herbert Dreiseitl, leading European city designer, says stress needs to be countered

As matters stand now, leading city designer, Herbert Dreiseitl, said in his opening keynote, Europe spends three to four per cent of its GDP on stress-related disorders, many of which can have dire consequences for individuals and groups. (For proof that he is not exaggerating, see here and here and here. )

That is part of the urban disadvantage that green infrastructure technologies are uniquely poised to address. I am fully aware that this is not easy. In my former life as a senior union official, which led me to play an active role around workplace health and safety, I was told early on by a wise old hand that “no-one ever thanks you for not being killed on the job, because they don’t know they were saved by our efforts.” The same is true for people who avoided a mental health challenge. We have our work cut out for us as public educators in the mental health promotion field!

The lack of a power base for people-centered services is disappointing and difficult to confront. But dealing with it must become part of the Why Not phase of the green infrastructure movement. It is important to accentuate this benefit of green infrastructure; indeed, it might be called people infrastructure, every bit as much as green infrastructure. (This is a direction I promote within the food movement, in which I champion people-centered food policy.)

Alongside with consciously orienting to champions who can make the case for multifunctional benefits of green roofs, we need to reach out to people in organizations who have a mandate to serve people (a dean of students in a university, for example, or a pastor in some institutions) so that this virtue of green infrastructure can be highlighted.

A River Ran Through It: Seoul in South Korea revived its downtown by reviving its river, also serving as green infrastructure. See


I am not usually a Dirk Downer (Dirk is Debbie Downer’s brother). I want to end on the upbeat side of the Why Not challenge.

Green infrastructure innovations, like all genuine innovations, face many inevitable challenges. That is the way of the world, as Clayton Christensen has famously warned in his deeply insightful book on the dilemmas of innovation. Although almost as many people support innovation as talk about the weather, damned few people do anything about either. Almost all innovators disrupt somebody who profits or benefits from things staying as they are. Consequently, advocacy needs to be part of any innovation budget.

But there are two advantages that can be leveraged better. One is that infrastructure is mostly in public hands and is mostly (about two-thirds) municipal — roads, sidewalks, sewage, water, green space, parks, public transit, and so on. That means it’s more open to local influence than senior levels of government, where established interest groups hold sway.

The other huge advantage is that green infrastructure has over almost all other innovations. It is stunningly beautiful and breathtakingly magnificent. Our biophilic need to be in Nature comes through for us in what we intuitively recognize as beautiful, awesome and breathtaking in green technologies, and what we intuitively recognize as dreary and dull in grey infrastructure.

Constant vigilance is required to stamp out guerilla gardeners

Why Not have some DIY fun with some random acts of green??

Not all forms of green infrastructure are expensive. There are many ways to imitate guerilla gardeners who subverted the conformity of green lawns with public mischief crimes such as dropping “seed bombs (seeds encased in earth) and other forms of plantings. Bird baths on a front lawn suggest how technologies can support biodiversity. Fruit trees can provide carbon storage, shade and soil stability as well as any trees. We can green our balconies and porches, and include food plants in our plantings. For 20 years, I have watered the tiny 160 square foot garden in front of our fourplex with grey water left over from dishes and rinse water left over from cleaning bottles of tomato sauce and cans of beans, instead of watering the garden with new but less nutrient-rich water from a hose. The garden is flourishing.

Philadelphia is open to experiments that boost the combo of people-friendly, green and water-soaking technologies. Park it here!!

Check out what some people did in Philadelphia, one of the most progressive cities on green water treatment methods — converted a parking spot into a people-friendly, water-sucking green lounge. Put a rain barrel in your front yard to capture the rainfall from your downspout. Plant a tree to honor someone who just graduated or had a child; trees shouldn’t only honor people who have died. Invade a traffic island and plant a pollinator garden in the deep of the night. Or if you’re a small green business with a small flat roof, like Top Drawer in Toronto, convert your roof and use it as a statement: as the great Wendell Berry says, “I stand for what I stand on.”

And don’t just do it. Brag about it. Almost daily, I post a beautiful picture of green infrastructure on my Facebook (5000 followers), Twitter (83000) and Linked in (5000 followers), and let the picture speak one thousand words.

As penance for my guerilla sins, I randomly checked out five leading green roof/infrastructure organizations to see how many people follow them on Twitter. The numbers of followers for the five sites I checked were 684; 1460; 3418; 16,600; 849.

There is no excuse for this. I am willing to coach any green infrastructure organization that wants to learn how to do its bit to build a customer and political base for the Why Not era. We cannot blame politicians for not getting it if we aren’t educating the voters.

Part of the mindset of green infrastructure is that it is people friendly. We need to practice what we preach by making our advocacy people-friendly, a central part of the mindset needed for green infrastructure to pass the Why Not test.

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