Parents with Purpose: Green Roof Visionary Liat Margolis

For Liat Margolis, a conference session introduced her to the practice of using plants for clearing toxins from soil and waterways, and it changed her life. Already working in industrial design for NYC’s Material ConeXion, Margolis helped companies find use for newly developed materials, but this new knowledge set her on path to a degree in landscape architecture. Following, Margolis wrote a book on living systems, that focused on using nature and technology in ecological design, which led to a teaching position at University of Toronto, and reputation as one of Canada’s experts on green rooftops. We spoke to Margolis about her career and how she navigates working in academia while raising her four-year-old son.

What do you love about your field of research?

When I learned how natural systems can cleanse soil of pollutants through our waterways, I thought, “Wow this is really radical.” It was really amazing to think about plants actually cleaning and breaking down pollutants in streams and lakes and remediating toxins in post industrial sites. That was it for me, that’s how I arrived at what I do today. It was the turning point.

What was it that took you from practicing landscape architecture to academia?

The book I wrote became a reference to a lot of landscape architects, educators, and students because it positioned landscape materiality in terms of natural systems and processes – treating a landscape as fluid, where water flows, evaporates, and infiltrates the soil. This prompted invitations to lecture at universities around the world. When I came to University of Toronto the chair offered me a job and I thought it was really exciting. I really liked Toronto and the university, so here I am.

You’re known for green roofs now, why is that?

In 2009 the city of Toronto adopted a bylaw on green roofs. All new buildings over 2,000 square meters had to have one. It not only changed professional practice here but also the industry — now you have all these manufacturers in Southern Ontario producing green roof products and technologies. But, what occurred to me was that there wasn’t enough evaluation of performance. How green are they? How well are they performing in terms of holding on to water, reducing runoff and consequent flooding? How well are they cooling the air so we have an impact on climate change mitigation and the reduction of energy consumption for cooling buildings? How well are they operating in terms of ecological habitat for pollinators? It seemed to me there weren’t enough metrics, so I focused my research on that.

Green roofs at the University of Toronto where Margolis teaches and carries out research

Weren’t these things already being assessed?

There was no follow-up, and the guidelines adopted here were not evidence-based. Instead they were based on advice from manufacturers, which isn’t exactly arm’s length. Another thing — there’s a lot of literature on green rooftops, but if you are doing research in Nova Scotia, Toronto, or Singapore, you’re going to get completely different results. You have different climates, ecological, and infrastructural contexts so not all green roofs are the same — nor should they be. You can’t take a study done in Germany and just copy and paste those specifications and guidelines for Toronto. In a way this is kind of what they did. They didn’t test them in place. They just launched the program.

I think it’s a great thing that they did, because if it wasn’t for that program there wouldn’t be funding, there wouldn’t be interest in research, or a way to move this forward. They put the cart before the horse, but it worked.

Do you think that’s a good thing to do with green initiatives? Just push them out and go for it?

It worked here, but no. I really think decision making needs to be evidence based and include as many voices as possible. Both in terms of the technical and the social. For example, there’s a project I’m working on now that is trying to incorporate indigenous world views and voices into green infrastructure, environmental conservation, education of landscape architecture, and environmental planning, etc.

In Toronto there was a visionary mayor and under his leadership the green roof bylaw was passed — along with a bunch of other environmental legislation. Then we had another mayor who wanted to shut down all these programs. Luckily they weren’t. In this instance it was important to jumpstart something, even though it may not be perfect. There was enough evidence green roofs were effective and not damaging.

There are lots of decisions around energy and environment where we’re asking if they’re damaging, like nuclear power. Yes, it is an alternative to fossil fuel, but it’s extremely problematic so there are enormous debates. When it comes to this decision making there needs to be a deep dialogue if making a shift in direction because you’re setting a new path and sometimes it is very difficult to recourse and shift away. Sometimes it just isn’t that straightforward.

Implementing these green solutions are tough then?

It isn’t always hard to implement these things, but it boils down to people changing past-dependencies around how things are done. Sometimes you have to restructure the conversation. There’s no shortage of money and no shortage of technological knowledge when it comes to changing things. It’s really a matter of governance, people, and vision.

There are lots of examples of creative solutions transforming cities. Transforming banking and finance, merging policy with financial structures to unleash a new market — carbon pricing is a good example. Once you start carbon pricing you unleash new solutions, new technologies, and new markets in renewable technologies and low-carbon solutions because funding is channelled differently.

There could be emphasis on training if trying to move a new sector from oil and gas to renewables. Think of the high paying jobs in construction and engineering there could be if there were incentive programs for individual families or companies. If we could say, “We’re going to give you X amount of rebate on your taxes or cash back to insulate your home,” imagine how many high paying jobs that would create, and this would offset economic downturn in provinces suffering from plummeting prices of oil and gas.

Do you think we have a hope with regard to climate change?

There are challenges but exciting things could happen. I’m very hopeful. What we need to work out is what the priorities should be in terms of a low carbon transition for society. We’ve got to move fast and we’ve got to be vigilant, but there are a lot of positive, hopeful, and committed people working on tangible solutions. All these things are in place, it is just a matter of being creative about how we change things.

How do you manage this challenging work with being a mom?

I don’t know. That’s partly why I stopped at one, I don’t know how people balance a career with multiple children — this is tough! Maybe if I’d had my son ten years earlier I’d have a different perspective.

There’s been discussion in academia about this, because when women go through their tenure track years they’re also their childbearing years so it’s really difficult. I’m not sure that there’s enough support. In my case not only did I stop the clock on my tenure track, but when I returned I was supposed to submit my tenure dossier but my mind was just mush! I was still sleep deprived, and there was no way I could fathom putting together a coherent book about who I am, what I’ve done, and where I’m going. I felt fortunate to get support from the university, but in the professional sector I’m not sure I would have had that. If you’re not wealthy, or you’re a single mom, or you don’t have nearby family to support you, it’s a real challenge.

That said, I’m really grateful to have this experience. It wasn’t easy to get pregnant, so I’m incredibly thankful I got to experience this love in my life. It really is the best, but still tough.


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