Instead of an endless expanse of gray concrete, picture a sea of green grasses, with flowers as bright flourishes. With that vision in mind, Portland, OR-based nonprofit Depave uses community enthusiasm and volunteer power to remove pavement, turning it into green public gathering spaces that are more aesthetically appealing and environmentally sound. “We say, ‘Let’s go rip up some pavement and make a garden,’” explains the organization’s program director, Eric Rosewall. “It’s an exciting concept for people.”
The need for this work, in suburbs and urban areas alike, is vast. In the nation’s first suburb, Long Island, the downtowns alone have more than 4,000 acres of surface parking. There are currently some 43,000 square miles of paved surfaces—roads, sidewalks, parking lots, and other impervious surfaces—in the United States, covering an area about the size of Ohio. Stormwater streams off this pavement and into watersheds and rivers, taking pollutants and debris with it. All of that hard concrete and asphalt also retains heat, bouncing it back into the air and making surrounding areas warmer in what’s called the heat island effect. Plus, most people simply prefer playing and gathering on green space rather than pavement.
In response to all of this asphalt, Depave tore out its first 3,000 square feet of concrete in 2008 with the help of 150 volunteers. Called the Fargo Forest Garden, what used to be an underutilized parking lot is now a flourishing edible green space. Apricot and cherry trees shade wildflowers, berries, and vegetables, and a rainwater catchment system diverts an estimated 126,000 gallons of stormwater per year away from city sewers.
Since that initial project, Depave has transformed an additional 30-odd places throughout Portland, totaling over 110,000 square feet. Completely community-driven, whether the proposed site is at a school, church, art center, or within a neighborhood, each organization approaches Depave with its own green vision. Once grants and funding are secured, volunteers of all ages gather at the site—which is first cut into a grid with a diamond steel blade—and pry out the pavement, then clear out the underlying gravel. “It’s like a barn raising in reverse; people have a blast,” says Rosewall of the removal process, which typically takes around 4 hours. Soil is brought in, and the landscape is prepped for the new garden or green space.
These new green spaces also add to the area’s overall environmental health. Almost 2.4 million gallons of rainwater every year are diverted from storm drains and sewers as a direct result of Depave’s efforts, instead sinking into the soil to feed trees and gardens. A host of other documented sustainable benefits also result from taking up pavement. Green spaces are about 30 degrees cooler than asphalt in the heat of summer, helping cool down surrounding areas, and they also prevent soil erosion and make the air cleaner to breathe.
There are also enormous benefits of a new playground, garden, or park in terms of neighborhood building and to counteract suburban sprawl. In place of an empty mall parking lot, or an unused asphalt strip on a suburban street, a new green space can bring neighbors together and create stronger community. And ultimately, that is the message Depave wants to provide. “Instead of the city putting in a rain garden and people driving by once a day in their car, it’s about getting a community to work together and invest in green space,” says Rosewall. “This is about having people realize that pavement isn’t forever, that they can totally change a space in one day. This is a transformation that people get to be part of.”
Interested in depaving in your own community? Depave offers a free online booklet called How to Depave: The Guide to Freeing Your Soil.