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Food crops flourished at a Toronto office tower garden and the successful experiment goes Canada-wide this year

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If you live in an urban environment you are surrounded by cars, roads, highrises, concrete and sometimes, with a bit of luck, some green space.

The pandemic has prompted a new vision of urban space that may change the way we live. Some of us are implementing our dreams of greener, cleaner and healthier workplaces.

Shiri Rosenberg is one such dreamer. She is the director of asset strategy at Colliers Real Estate Management Services in Toronto. Rosenberg is passionate about reimagining commercial spaces in our urban landscape.

“Why do outdoor commercial spaces need to be associated with grass or decorative landscaping? We have an opportunity to activate these spaces and introduce uses that are more dynamic and productive,” she said.

Rosenberg is helping to lead the charge with Colliers Edible and Pollinator Garden program. Through this initiative, the company grows food for those that need it (including the bees), engages building occupants and the surrounding community, promotes wellness, supports urban biodiversity while also helping real estate owners achieve building sustainability certifications such as LEED, BOMA Best and GRESB.

Last year an urban farm was created in front of the office building at 95 St. Clair Ave. W. in a team effort with client Desjardins, the on-site Colliers property management team, and urban growers/consultants Hoffmann Hayes. It was the first garden of its kind in the Colliers program.

This year, Colliers will follow up the successful Toronto venture and introduce 67 pollinator gardens to the sites it manages, as well as landscaped edible gardens to a number of sites in B.C., Alberta and Ontario.

“We were not sure whether food would grow on the busy St. Clair thoroughfare (surrounded by condos and strong winds),” said Rosenberg. “Our clients, Brian Spratley, regional vice-president at Desjardins and Frank Sinclair, asset manager at Desjardins, said to us: ‘Let’s just view this as an experiment,’ and they said it with a light heart and a smile.”

“It was a real gesture of trust and teamwork. As well as a willingness to even fail in the context of possibly succeeding,” she added.

The outcomes of the project were outstanding. Eyes popped as pedestrians passed by the building. The Yonge and St. Clair BIA began posting photos of the garden on social media as a new community destination. The garden provided a place where owners, tenants and locals could connect through a common purpose.

What was once traditional office landscaping took an about-turn last summer andgrew over 400 pounds of kale, plus onions and herbs that were donated to The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. Not to mention that dozens of native pollinator plants were added to the site. The location won the prestigious international Outstanding Building of the Year Award (BOMA International TOBY Award). For the edible garden program, Rosenberg was also presented with a Corporate Social Responsibility Leadership Award from the Global Association for Corporate Real Estate.

Was food poaching a problem? “We have signage in the garden that indicates that the food grown will be donated. This has deterred people from taking it,” Rosenberg said.

The idea of growing food on otherwise underused commercial and industrial land leads to another natural extension: pollinator gardens. “Our thinking is this: Instead of only concrete, mowed grass, or decorative landscaping, why not add an area of native plants that support the environment. Not only is it better for the planet, but it’s also better for the bottom line,” she said.

“Native plants are just as nice and are perennial, they grow back yearly,” Rosenberg added. “It’s about making thoughtful choices. Commercial spaces account for a meaningful amount of land in our city ... we have an opportunity to manage these spaces in ways that enhance the real estate, benefit our communities, and support the environment. We can make choices that do all three.”

“I would love to see our competitors and others in the real estate industry do this, too. It’s a win-win for everyone: our business, communities, our cities and most importantly our planet.”

The David Suzuki Foundation further supported the drive by acknowledging the Colliers Edible and Pollinator Gardens as contributors to the city’s Butterfly Way Network. The foundation’s goals are to plant 54,000 butterfly plants in the ground this year and create over 1,000 “pollinator patches” across the country. With Colliers help, they might just meet their ambitions.

As edible and pollinator gardens become established on Colliers properties across the country — the firm manages 64 million sq. ft. of commercial property in Canada — the sites will most certainly become community hubs. Places of social activity where none existed before. This will further support the differentiation of participating buildings, making them trendier and more attractive to work at or live nearby.

The site at 95 St. Clair Ave. W. confirmed that people love to be near plants. There was no shortage of volunteers to help tend the soil, sow seeds, plant, weed, water, and harvest last year.

“This is very much a team effort. We would not have been able to execute the project at this site ,or any of the sites being rolled out, without the dedication of our on-site property management team, our incredible vendors Hoffmann Hayes, and the shared enthusiasm and support from our clients and local community,” said Rosenberg.

So how does Colliers determine whether they will plant and grow a food or a pollinator garden?

“The edible garden does not work on every site. It needs space, sunlight, and stakeholder interest,” Rosenberg said.

She’s excited for the future of the program. “Imagine if we could have gardens connecting the various sites we manage across the country. Imagine if we then inspire other Colliers offices in other countries to do the same with the real estate they manage. We could connect our sites globally.

“Imagine, if we inspired our competitors and others in the real estate sector. We could start changing urban environments. I know I’m dreaming, but hey, I’m a dreamer,” she said.

For those of us with concerns about the future of our world, especially as it relates to food security and the environment, including the wildlife that we share the planet with, like butterflies, hummingbirds and bugs, the new scenario for commercial and industrial properties provides some hope and perhaps also inspiration.

Suddenly it is easier to imagine living and working in the perfect urban environment.

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on June 9, 2021.