Office building green roofs tend to be a ‘spectator sport’: look but don’t touch. Telus, one of the Big-Three telecom in Canada, launch their participatory rooftop garden in their downtown Toronto building where staff are encouraged to seed, water, weed, and harvest the vegetables. I talk to Sameer Panjwani, National Chair of Telus Green Team, to see how this environmental employee engagement initiative came to harvest.
Located in Toronto’s financial district, the thirty-floor office building is surrounded by Union Station, Air Canada Centre, Maple Leaf Square, and the under-construction new RBC headquarters. On the fifth floor of this LEED Gold building is a beautiful outdoor space that overlooks the historic Fairmont Royal York Hotel and downtown core. It was in this space two years ago that Audrey Bayens, marketing manager responsible for the print production of national in-store merchandise, germinated the idea of a staff community organic vegetable garden. As National Chair of Telus Green Team Sameer Panjwani recalled, “Audrey thought we have this amazing space that people come and hang out, we can take advantage of it and grow stuff. In her personal life, Audrey is very passionate about sustainability.”
In my experience, bottom-up volunteer-driven green projects tend to be more effective than top-down ones. Executive buy-in is essential, of course. But generally executives would be wise to assist, motivate, encourage, and break down bureaucratic red tapes rather than drive such projects. This is a prime example. The volunteers from the Telus green team and other staff own the project and they are passionate about leading it, from small scale trials with potted plants to large scale construction of bedding. But they also needed much logistical help. This is where management came in to provide assistance with real estate permit, approval from external property management, compliance with the various bylaws and architectural requirements. (For more on how to recruit passionate green warriors from within your workplace, see “Super Greens are your best troops” in How Small Green Team Can Transform Large Corporation.)
In the end, volunteers lead, management assist. “Everyday we send out a call to our staff for volunteers to come and water the garden,” says Panjwani. “Two people come down and spend ten minutes in the garden. Any staff can sign up. Then we will have calls for weeding and harvesting.”
Professional garden consultant Renée Nadeau provides guidance and on-site training to staff once a week. “The volunteers also form a governance committee to decide what direction to go. It’s really putting the ownership back to the staff. It’s a team volunteer run enterprise. Renee is our gardening expert and guide, but it’s the team that decides the future of the garden.”
The 2014 summer launches the garden’s first full scale growing season. The varieties of vegetables planted include Purple Plum Radish, Lipstick Sweet Red Pepper, Long Purple Eggplant, Chioggia Beet, Thai Basil, Costoluto Genovese Tomato, English Thyme, Gold Nugget Bush Winter Squash, Chocolate Mint, and Caro Rich Tomato. Telus is already planning similar projects for their corporate offices in Vancouver and Calgary. I can see some wonderful harvests coming in the future. (Check out this YouTube video of the garden by Eric Novak.)