With more snowfall blanketing the streets of Toronto in a few nights than we’ve seen in years, it’s about time we call back to sunnier days. CSI Member RAINscapeTO knows all about those.
Operating since 2016, RAINscapeTO is a Toronto-based social enterprise that offers eco-landscaping services with a focus on installing rain gardens and other earth-friendly landscapes. They mostly focus on residential areas, like backyards and business improvement areas, but last year, they took on a whole new project: improving green infrastructure across the city.
The City of Toronto approached RAINScapeTO to green the in-between. Many of the ditches next to the roads that connect water to the drains are no man’s land, belonging neither to the Parks Department nor Transportation Services. As a result, they often remain unkempt and unmanaged throughout our beloved neighborhoods.
Partnering with fellow employee social enterprise, Building Up, RAINscapeTO hired a small crew to de-weed, mulch, and plant twenty-five sites in the pilot phase. Together, the organizations provided in-class and on-the-job training, introducing trainees to a new industry.
As Jose Torcal, Manager of RAINscapeTO, explains, this partnership was vital:
“For the employee social enterprise model, it’s challenging because gardening is seasonal so you are introducing people into an industry that isn’t year-round. We have to find ways to bridge the winter gap. Some people clear snow, which isn’t great because it’s weather dependent. Some people go on EI. So with Building Up, it allowed us to have whoever was going through the pilot to join Building Up and get into another job to bridge the winter, at least.”
The CSI Member provides wraparound support for its employees, including counseling, financial support, and paid time off to attend appointments. “We also developed our own ‘green curriculum,’” Jose says. “Throughout the season, every Wednesday, they do at-home training that we prepare for them. For example, the City of Toronto has rain garden masterclass training. They did a site visit to a rooftop urban farm. The City of Toronto is a leader in green roofs. We hired a consultant to provide that training.”
Employees also work with the team on a professional development plan where they define their career goals, receive training and are connected with the industry they’re interested in. One of the program’s goals is long-term employment. “We learned through the pilot that the city doesn’t fill all of their gardening jobs each year,” Jose reflects. “They are well-paid jobs with benefits. We are trying to work with them to say, ‘if we have a trainee who works with us for two years, can we transfer our trainees to you?’ We are trying to develop this as a program where people can come on with us, be trained and then move on.” That’s what Lorena is hoping to do.
Lorena spent her summer tending to overlooked areas in the city. At first, having never worked in landscaping, she wasn’t sure she’d like it. Now, she hopes to join the city gardening team: “I love it. (…) I’m probably going to go to school for something along the lines of landscaping. I absolutely love the team I work with. The garden we’ve done – from where we started to where we are now – it’s just amazing. We get a lot of people walking by with incredible feedback.”
Community connection is important. RAINscapeTO developed neighborhood advisory committees to present projects to local councilors and conduct employee outreach. Having the team on the ground leads to “positive interactions. They see the same faces working and coming back. It’s a much more personal interaction. Some neighbours pass notes like ‘we’d love to see more trees here” and we give those notes to the city. It’s been really positive,” Lorena emphasizes.
What is Rain Scaping?
RainscapeTO is raising environmental standards for commercial landscaping. As Jose explains, the industry often cares more about aesthetics than sustainability: “The thing with the landscaping industry is that it’s not green at all. The standard landscaping industry is focused on using cookie cutter solutions. They use the same species that are not native but people are used to that. For example, if you live in the Annex, you see Japanese Maple. This beautiful tree with the red leaves. It’s beautiful but it’s Japanese. It’s not Canadian. It’s not from this ecosystem so it struggles. It sometimes needs lots of water and care. It doesn’t survive winter sometimes. Few people look into the actual ecosystem to see if they are contributing instead of taking from it.”
RainscapeTO is different. “Our focus is to use plants that are native, and get water from the roads into the garden. We use local, pollinator plants that bring in butterflies and bees and introduce different colours, textures, and smells,” Jose emphasizes. While choosing a different variety of plants may not sound like systems change, this work has large-scale impacts on the health of our cities.“If the water doesn’t infiltrate into your garden, it usually goes into the sewer and picks up heavy metals and waste and then ends up in the lake.” Jose explains. “These huge episodes of pollution are called combined sewer overflow. In the same pipe, you have wastewater and rainwater. When there are heavy storms, all of that water can’t go to the treatment plant and so it’s sent to the lake.”
Rainscapes are specifically designed to capture, retain and manage rain. The organization employs strategies like rainwater harvesting, composting and soil care, permeable paving, and woodland restoration.
Lorena says it best: “To see something that has been abandoned and we go in and clean it over and maintain it, it looks so amazing. I’ve learned so much about how green infrastructure impacts the community. I’m so grateful to Rainscape and BuildingUP for the opportunity.” That’s what we call putting people and planet first!