Media Releases

U of T Cities Podcast Ep. 3 Building Sustainable Cities

October 20, 2014

The future of Toronto's economy, transportation and environment

In the third episode of this miniseries, U of T Cities features University of Toronto experts working to build more sustainable cities in the realms of environment, infrastructure and economy. Learn more

Landscape architecture professor Liat Margolis describes her work on green roofs and its implications for emergency management, energy use and reviving the bee population; Richard Sommer, dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design explains an enlightened vision for transit; and innovation policy expert David Wolfe, who teaches at U of T’s Mississauga campus as well as the Munk School of Global Affairs, describes the future of Toronto’s economy as a team sport. Previous episodes and more at .


[Sting: This is the U of T Cities podcast. Brought to you by the University of Toronto]

[Sounds of quiet city street]

(Music up)

Brianna: What does sustainability sound like? Is it the sound of a coffee cup being recycled? Or the sound of someone walking to work instead of taking the car?


[Sound of construction]

Sustainability sounds like this. Like progress.

[Music in]

Because it’s the only logical way to build the streets we drive on, the homes we live in, the ways we get our electricity.

Days of sustainability as a niche issue are long gone.

Now it’s construction, it’s the economy, it’s the quality driving development in our city.

This is the U of T Cities podcast, I’m Brianna Goldberg.

In the first two episodes of this miniseries we heard from U of T researchers and entrepreneurs building the future of traffic and transit in Toronto – both clear election flashpoints.

Building a sustainable city has not been a key platform for any of the candidates.

And yet, it’s there, implicitly, bubbling up behind everything else they’re promising. How else could you make a transit plan, a garbage collection scheme, a vision for the city, if not sustainably?

Today you’ll hear from University of Toronto experts whose work is helping to build a more sustainable city, regardless of who gets the most votes on October 27.

Later this episode, we’ll hear more from Richard Sommer. He’s the dean of U of T’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. In the previous podcast, he shared a new vision for transit hubs in the outer GTA. And today we’ll hear a bit more about why designing an integrated – possibly environmentally responsive- transit plan for Toronto is key to the city’s success.


We’ll also check in with Professor David Wolfe, from U of T’s Mississauga campus and the Munk School of Global Affairs. He’ll explain why Toronto has to get on board with a dramatic re-branding for our economy to stand a chance.

But first, we’re going to look up, way up, as we get our hands dirty and go a bit green.

My name is Liat Margolis, I research all sorts of green building technologies like green roofs, green walls and solar energy.

Green roofs. We’re talking about vegetation on tops of condos and towers. A few years ago, the City of Toronto made them mandatory for all new buildings over a certain size.

And so Margolis and her team at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design are testing different versions of them on the roof of the Daniels building on College Street.

…to figure out what could optimize things like storm-water management, so can we increase the retention capacity of green roofs so that they function in storm events and they retain the water and alleviate things like flooding, can we optimize the evaporative cooling effect to lower ambient temperature and affect energy usage, such as cooling in the summertime with air conditioners. So those are the kinds of questions and they operate on a very micro-scale, but they effect macro-issues on a regional and urban scale in terms of environmental management, and they also have an effect on construction standards, guidelines, municipal standards and the construction industry.

So it might seem like green roofs are only relevant to a small section of Toronto. But once they optimize irrigation schedules, vegetation choices, and more, these roofs could affect more than flood management or energy use.  They might even save the bees.

[Music out]

You have a loss of these ecosystems and diversity of plants and the corollary is a loss of pollinator species, and those are critical to maintaining the ecosystem, not to mention agricultural production and so on. So we’re looking at what plants are more attractive, let’s say, to certain bee species.

What is the reception in the building industry to ideas like this? Are they kind of dragged kicking and screaming into green roofs because it’s a policy that’s been made or does it seem like they’re actually interested in the future of this?

Absolutely. And I think one of the important ideas to remember is that sustainability and business are not at odds with one another. In other words they absolutely need one another in order for the whole system to work effectively. If you think about it, any sort of new green technology is an economy, it’s manufacturing, it’s jobs, it’s construction, it’s new knowledge. So the green roof economy in North America has definitely multiplied by quite a bit. Same with the solar and clean-tech industry. I think that the industry is very keen on green building technologies. They’re very interested in finding out what works best because they need to keep up with what’s the latest. They have to remain competitive, they also see sustainability as a marketing opportunity.

What might cities look like 10 or 20 years from now if the kind of green roofs and solar get applied? What might the city of the future look like to you?

Yesterday I saw this presentation by an architect from Copenhagen and they did these kind of new configurations allowing traffic to operate in the same manner and yet integrate all sorts of green vegetated components on the ground, on roofs, on the side of the buildings. Not only allowing for this kind of new environmental performance to be integrated into the urban realm but also all of a sudden opening up these new public spaces and recreational spaces and a new way of actually experiencing the built environment. So I think a kind of new thinking where natural systems are more integrated as a new planning form, as a new urban method, an architectural method, I see that as not only a way to mitigate the kind of environmental issues that we’re facing today, and I think that’s an important distinction to not only think about climate adaptation, but actually the possibly of integrating solutions that could mitigate the effects and reverse the kind of negative impacts on the environment. Integrating natural systems into the urban environment is absolutely a tool and a key aspect of how we can actually do that. And at the same time all this opens up opportunities for a kind of new social behavior, a new social and cultural interaction with our cities. We’re somewhat familiar with it because we know what it’s like to be in parks and on waterfronts and so on. But a lot more of that. So I’m sort of imagining a new kind of culture around cities following this kind of integration more landscape.

[Music in]

That was Liat Margolis. She’s an assistant professor at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. To learn more, head to .

Later in the podcast, we’ll get a sneak peek at what a successful Toronto economy might look like in 10 years – if the city gets brave enough to start playing as part of a regional team.

But first, an integrated transit system that could help its riders become their best selves. Planning for the sustainability of Toronto’s transportation and its citizens…


Last episode, we heard from Dean Richard Sommer. He talked about the Daniels faculty’s joint project with Metrolinx, as they imagined a new kind of transit experience for the outer GTA in a book called Huburbs: Transit and Urbanism in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area.

But he says that rethinking transit in the city and its outer reaches is about much more than just moving people from A to B.


If you look at great metro systems and great systems in other parts of the world, sometimes they are very monumental and singular in their quality. We haven’t even been able to have this discussion in Toronto because it’s always subways or surface rail without asking any bigger questions about what kind of system we’re trying to build, who we’re building it for, or what the experience of it is like, or what the bigger picture looks like. It’s really been a very, very low level debate around is it light rail, buses or subways. And I think that’s been a bit of a distraction from asking what kind of experience do you want to construct for our citizens as they move through the city, and not just for people in the downtown.

Sommer is working to imagine a transit plan that could offer a new way of interacting with our world.

If you have to change your form of transit 3 times to get to work there is already the nervousness about the amount of time it takes and being late and depending on the weather it can really be disheartening on a daily basis. So one of the things we thought about, to get back to the Huburbs Project is, developing a more nimble form of transit infrastructure that might even change the degree of openness depending on the season. We have a need to be protected from the weather in the middle of the weather and there’s much less of a need for that – there may be a need for shade and other things in the summer.

And so the next step is to find a way for Toronto’s transit to strike a balance between pragmatism and possibility.

[music out]

If you grew up in an environment where you only drove and that’s the only way you saw the city, the experience of going somewhere and seeing the city on foot or moving through the city on a bicycle can be a revelation. If a city is able to facilitate your being able to go about your everyday life doing, all the better. Not that many are. I think it has to be in people’s self-interest when they realize that their life could be improved by cutting down on commuting times or that a better design and coordination of the sites and networks of transit can create a more pleasant experience, not just getting from here to there, but on the way. These are things that in lots of different realms people think about. People think about the shopping experience and the creation of new retail environments. Universities think about the student experience over the 4 year period. It’s not that different from…if you think about a city and for some of its citizens may have to travel anywhere between 20 minutes to 2 hours, if you actually map the itinerary of that person, and think about everything from the spaces you’re designing to the quality of the signage to the way in which the tickets and passes are integrated, that’s going to have an impact on people’s quality of life. I think one of the struggles we have in Toronto is it would be great if everyone could ride their bike to work or walk, but it’s a big city and really I think is the case that often the least economically advantaged people in society have to travel the farthest to make a living and to get to work. So we have to really be mindful of what their life is like. And as much as we would like to pedestrianize everything or make the downtown even more lively than it is, that’s the bigger challenge, which is that for people to succeed they need to be able to move through the city and they need to be able to move through the city in a way which is not deadening to their spirit, if you will.

So take everything that you are thinking about with your modelling research and everything you’ve learned in Huburb study and everything that you just think about being the Dean of an Architecture School, and think of the Port Credit traveler 10 years from now, 15 years from now, if all of your hopes come true, what will their transit reality look like?

It’s a very simply thing. Toronto is still a little bit too convenient to drive in and to move through Toronto in a car. So our ambition has to be to make the experience, and it’s not just a matter of a convenience, but the experience and the quality of commuting into the city through transit something which is a better experience than driving. So one can read, one can shop, one can exercise, one can socialize. Some you can do which is enriching rather than seen as a sacrifice.

[Music in]

That was Richard Sommer. He’s an architect and Dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. You can read more, and find a link to his interview in the previous episode, at


Liat Margolis’ green roofs – sound great, and cost money. Dean Sommer’s revolutionized, utopian transit system – sounds great, and is bound to cost a lot of money.

So how exactly would we pay for this enlightened, sustainable future city of Toronto?

David Wolfe is a Professor Political Science at U of T’s Mississauga campus. He’s also part of the Innovation Policy Lab, the Program on Globalization and Regional Innovation Systems based at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

A lot of his work has looked at how industrial clusters drive economies. Ontario’s former industry giants like automotive manufacturing, and even Blackberry, are teetering… and Wolfe  is working to help Toronto – and the region around it – think about new ways to build jobs and companies and policies for a sustainable economy.

He says it’s all about the digital. And it’s going to mean giving up Toronto’s independent identity – a little bit, anyway – as we join forces with other cities further west along the 401.

[Music out]

There’s software being developed in Waterloo that can contribute to the growth of the financial services industry in the downtown business core in Toronto. There are hardware wireless skills at McMaster University in Hamilton that played an important role in the development of the Blackberry. So that both the knowledge-base, the research-base in our universities, post-secondary institutions, the firms are all interconnected in this region, and we need to begin to think of the region with a much broader perspective than we have in the past.

So what would it look like if this region was able to successfully brand itself? What’s the best case scenario? How do you see that working?

I think there’d be greater recognition for us in North America and globally that we are an integrated region and that as a region economy we have great strengths in a number of economic sectors, one of the most important of those is the Information technology or Digital Economy sector. People in Waterloo have been pushing for this recognition for awhile. I think Toronto has been a little bit slow to get on the bandwagon. I think a number of people in Toronto are starting to see the value in doing this and agree with the importance of branding it. Somebody in Ottawa who publishes a list of the Top 300 Information Technology Firms in Canada every year made a call in the summer that we brand this region Ontario’s Digital Corridor. I think that’s as good a name as any, but I’m happy to defer if somebody can come up with a better name or better brand for it. But I think we need to start getting more attention from different levels of Government about how to contribute to growing and integrating the region more effectively and branding it internationally.

I understand why perhaps smaller regions, like we’re talking St. Catharines, Niagara, they of course would be interested to buy into this integrated branding. But Toronto it seems to me would have something to lose in that they already have a bit of an established brand. What do you think it will take for Toronto to say I want to be looped in the same concept and the same idea as Waterloo/Kitchener?

Toronto’s problem is that we have a great brand as a city but we don’t have a distinctive brand in particular economic or industrial sectors. Toronto is widely recognized as a financial services centre, which it is probably the 4th largest in North America. We have a great reputation as a centre for creative industries, film, television, broadcasting, huge sources of growth and strength in the Toronto region. But we don’t have any recognition of Toronto as a digital centre. The Information Technology industry in Toronto gets buried and lost in the rest of the broader economy. Everyone knows that the University of Waterloo has a great Computer Science Department and that Google and Microsoft and lots of other companies come to Waterloo to recruit from there. But nobody knows that the university of Toronto’s Computer Science Department is actually ranked higher in global rankings that Waterloo’s, and that our Computer Science Department is the highest ranked Department internationally of any Department in the University. So I think Toronto has every bit as much to gain as Waterloo does from participating in this global branding and raising the profile for Toronto as well as the rest of southwestern Ontario’s digital economy in terms of global recognition.

How do you get there? How do you change opinions?

One of the challenges we have in this region is we have a multiplicity of economic development and marketing organizations that are all working, sometimes together but often on their own, to market and brand their own parts of the region. None of them are marketing the region and none of them have put a label on the region, and none of them are going out and representing the region as a whole on a global scale. I think it’s time for somebody to take the lead. The leadership might have to come from the Province to bring all of the cities together and help and support them in creating. I know there were serious discussions in the Province about 2 years ago about doing this. They faltered because some of the various organizations didn’t want to come to the table and give up their own little sandboxes. I think it’s time for the Province, once they sort out all of our transit problems, I think it’s time for the Provincial Government to step in and bring all the parties in the region together to the table and say what do we need to do to put the digital corridor on the map globally.

What will this region look like maybe 15 or20 years from now and what needs to happen in addition to Provincial support in this marketing coming together to make it happen?

In my most optimistic moments I think the region will continue to grow and thrive and prosper. We know that it’s very likely there will be at least a million-and-a-half more residents in the region 15 years from now because we’re absorbing at least 100,000 people a year, just into the GTA. If you take in Hamilton, Kitchener, Waterloo, Guelph, Niagara there will probably be at least 2 million more. We know we need much better, much more integrated transit across the region to make that many more people be able to work effectively in the region. But also I would hope if we succeed in branding it, we will be able to create much better, higher value-added jobs, higher income generating jobs for all of those people moving into the region and all of the tremendous creativity that we have going on across the University of Toronto’s various Incubators, the ones at Ryerson, OCAD University, York University, Waterloo, those will be generating tens if not hundreds of new firms that will be growing and creating employment opportunities for all of our very bright and talented students.

That was David Wolfe. He teaches at U of T’s Mississauga campus and through the Munk School of Global Affairs. You can learn more about the University of Toronto accelerators he mentioned by heading to

We’ve featured companies that developed with help from U of T accelerators in the two previous episodes of this podcast.

Listen back to those episodes to learn more about Soujourn Labs, a company that’s building a human-powered car-bike hybrid… and Vote Compass, offering users an online platform to figure out which mayoral candidate most closely aligns with their views.

OTI Lumionics is a very sustainably-driven startup that developed with help from U of T’s entrepreneurship supports. Head over to to learn more about their business. It makes organic LED lighting more affordable and efficient for architects, interior designers… and anyone wanting to read a book, using their new consumer-ready OLED lamp called aerelight.




From a newly branded digital economy to an enlightened and environmentally responsive transit system, and green roofs and green walls and a green city saving us from flooding – as well as possibly saving the bees – this is the sustainable future of Toronto. And it’s happening regardless of which candidate tops the polls next week.

We at the U of T Cities podcast were happy to bring you these stories in third episode of this series.

To check out previous episodes featuring interviews about artificially intelligent traffic lights, an upstart alternative to the TTC, and the secret wish of transit-policy expert Eric Miller… just head over to U of T News at .

That’s also where you can find more news and features on U of T work transforming cities, entrepreneurship, health, education and more.

Please get in touch with any questions or suggestions for future episodes. You can tweet us at uoftnews . Or send an email to .

Next time on the U of T Cities podcast we’ll be thinking big as we talk about the role of the city with experts including Richard Florida, Patricia McCarney, and Meric Gertler.

Today we featured  music made available on the Free Music Archive. The artists are Cheese N Pot-C, Tha Silent Partner and The Custodian of Records. Also, Jazzafari, Mnag Quad and Cosmic Analog ensemble. You can find their work and more at

This program was produced by myself, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T News editor Jennifer Lanthier. Thanks for listening.