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Bonnie Burstow at her home in Toronto on Dec. 27, 2019.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

A living wall is supposed to brighten a building, clean the air and introduce a sense of calm to bustling public spaces.

But to education professor Bonnie Burstow, it’s a threat, a faddish architectural conceit that threatens to force her into retirement.

Prof. Burstow is allergic to plants. The University of Toronto plans to put a living wall of plants in the lobby of the education building where she works. She’s applied to Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal to stop it because, in her view, the air itself would become a threat to her health.

Prof. Burstow said plants can affect her in a number of ways, ranging from nausea, difficulty breathing to spasms. She can also pass out, she said.

“I’ve had extreme allergies since I was five- or six-years old,” she said. “I don’t spend time outside. The outside makes me sick.”

Prof. Burstow is 74, uses a rolling walker and a cane, and has difficulty seeing. “I have a whole lot of disabilities,” she said, “but I am highly productive ... I’m in the office every day. I mean seven days a week.”

But in her view, the living wall could mean the end of her career.

“I think of [the living wall] as a threat to my existence.”

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) is a brutalist building, opened in 1970, on a stretch of Bloor Street near St. George subway station. After 50 years, the building is undergoing a renovation that includes a vertical hydroponic plant wall in the ground-floor lobby. According to the university, there were extensive community consultations before the final design was completed.

The single most requested feature, the university said, was a living wall.

The U of T declined to comment on the specifics of Prof. Burstow’s complaint because it remains before the Human Rights Tribunal, but said it makes extensive efforts to accommodate staff.

“While there are already many plants in OISE, the idea of a living wall as a key feature is viewed as important in terms of promoting and supporting OISE’s work in environmental education and, of course, is in line with broader efforts to green the University of Toronto,” the university said in a statement.

Prof. Burstow sees it differently. She said there was scant consultation. Staff and faculty were invited to a session at which she raised her concerns about the living wall several times. She felt she was ignored.

Brian Gibson works in public, environmental and occupational health and has been commissioned by Prof. Burstow’s lawyers to produce a report on the potential impact of the living wall on their client’s health. Dr. Gibson said Prof. Burstow has the most acute sensitivity to plants he has seen.

“I think they basically shouldn’t put the living wall in. I know people think it’s a nice thing but it’s going to be difficult to accommodate her,” Dr. Gibson said.

Prof. Burstow hopes it’s not too late to stop the project. Her human rights case will likely be heard in early 2020, roughly the same time that she says she believes the living wall is scheduled to be installed.

Over her career, Prof. Burstow has taught social work, adult education, psychology and literature.

She has stirred a great deal of controversy with her views on psychiatry, which she thinks should be abolished, and she has endowed a scholarship in anti-psychiatry studies at OISE, which upset many people inside and outside the university.

She said her work at the university is her life. "For a lot of people approaching 75, they’d have other things. But this is my life: writing, the students, OISE,” Prof. Burstow said. “If you have very hard working faculty and staff you work around them.”

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Editor’s note: (Dec. 30, 2019): An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced the Ontario Human Rights Commission when it should have said the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.

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