Students attempt to convert David Turpin Building’s green roof into growing space

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rooftop garden
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Rooftop garden proposal has deep roots in campus food movement

Six students in a 400-level environmental studies course are working to convert the green roof atop the David Turpin Building (DTB) into productive gardens to increase food security and build community on campus. The green roofs were included in the original design of DTB, which was completed in 2008. There is some evidence that seeds were planted years ago but the space has since been reclaimed by weeds and grass.

Ideally, the students would like to see the food served in cafeterias on campus and supplied to the UVSS Food Bank and Free Store, and envision the gardens being a community gathering space and opportunity for hands-on learning.

According to a survey the group has circulated among the campus community, 80 per cent of respondents had not heard of the available plots on DTB and 97 per cent said they would be interested in seeing it revived as a growing space.

“We’re more focussing on showing the school that there are people that are wanting to bring this back,” said Lindsay Williamson, a member of the project for ES 407: Mindfulness, Sustainability, and Social Change.

The group only has a semester to work on this project so they’re focussed on getting support from the student body. The next step will be to present the report of their findings to the chairs of the environmental studies and geography departments, as well as Kevin Hall, UVic’s new president.

“We’re hoping with the recent changes in staffing that maybe a more open dialogue will be possible compared to the prior attempts that have taken place to increase food security,” said Williamson.

The first attempts to establish a place on campus dedicated to sustainability and food production date back to 1994, but the most dramatic events took place by guerilla gardeners on March 24, 2010. Over 500 people converged on the quad in front of the McPherson Library to attend the first installment of the “Resistance is Fertile” movement where speakers talked about colonialism, corporate control, space reclamation, and the feeling of alienation from food served on campus. Participants then began digging and planted several fenced garden beds before police arrived that afternoon. At 1 a.m. the next morning UVic administration arrived with Grounds Management, Campus Security, Saanich Police, and three bulldozers. By dawn there was nothing left but torn-up sod. Activists attempted another garden in the following weeks, which was again demolished.

The gardeners then put together a proposal for “UVic as a garden campus” that would act to expand and complement the efforts of the Campus Community Garden, which had been established in 1999. Their proposal included a garden in the centre of campus and 10 acres of ethnobotanical gardens spread across campus.

Current students and community members are still wondering why UVic’s ample green space cannot be used to grow food.

“It’s really unfortunate to see that all of the land […] is being taken up by grass and they value that as green space more than food,” said Nicole Cymerys, coordinator of UVic’s Campus Community Garden.

Syd Welsh, outreach coordinator of the garden notes that, “a lot of the food that we grow here, we grow because it’s what people are accustomed to eating […] but it’s not what’s supposed to be [here],” and work could be focussed on cultivating more native plants on campus. 

The students that are proposing the rooftop gardens of DTB say that growing native species is a part of their vision, and use the success of Ryerson University’s urban farm as a template.

In 2004, the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre at Ryerson was built with a green roof. Like DTB’s, it saves energy by naturally heating and cooling the building, reduces storm water runoff, improves air quality, and promotes biodiversity. In 2013, a student-lead initiative transformed the rooftop into a 10 000 square-foot urban garden that produces 9 000 pounds of produce and 66 pounds of honey each season.

The farm feeds students and community members through a variety of avenues, including a farmer’s market, much like the pop-up market stands that UVic Community Campus Garden opens to students during the harvest season.

“It would be really nice to see a more closed loop food system on campus, instead of having to ship everything in,” said Kellan Moore, another member of the rooftop project.

UVic is currently designing an extension for the Engineering and Computer Science building that will have a green roof and/or solar panels, which the ES 407 group hopes could be designed as a garden from the beginning.

Food insecurity affected an estimated 4.5 million Canadians before the pandemic.That number increased by 39 per cent in the first two months of COVID-19, disproportionately impacting BIPOC and low-income residents.

“I think the fact that UVic has the opportunity and they are equipped with the resources to mitigate that issue within their own school community is such a cool opportunity that I think needs to be taken,” said Williamson.

The future of the rooftop gardens is not without obstacles, including accessibility, visibility, and safety issues. Further study on how much weight the roof can support will also need to be conducted, as well as practical questions of who will provide year-round care and leadership for the space. The ES 407 group hopes that if realized, the gardens will be embedded in course curriculums, like the maintenance of the Ian Ross Memorial Garden in the DTB courtyard has been.

Cymerys warns that the high turnover rate of students at university has stalled projects like this before. “I think that the project will not succeed or be passed on unless there is institutional support from UVic and a willingness to see value in that type of project,” she said.

For Moore, who is close to the end of his degree, this project is now more than just homework, and he says he would be keen to help out as an alumnus.

“It’s one of the first things I’ve done that doesn’t feel like schoolwork, it feels like something I’m passionate about,” he said. 

The university did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.