Depave in Portland, opening the way for greener and resilient communities

When I started to wear barefoot shoes a few years back, I disliked feeling the hard asphalt under my feet. In addition, my doctor beware me about how barefoot-like walking on pavement was damaging to the spine’s health. My urban itineraries have turned since into a sort of unaware jumping circuit from a grass and soil island to another – if you see me, now you know why.

It turns out that ‘more soil and less asphalt’ is not just good for barefoot-shoes-wearers’ backs. Paved surfaces – such as parking lots and most of our streets and urban spaces – contribute to increasing flood risk and stormwater pollution by preventing rain from soaking into the ground. Rainwater carries toxic urban pollutants to local rivers and lakes, greatly degrading water quality and the surrounding habitats. Hard pavement surfaces also warm up cities – do we need more of that?- through what’s known as “heat island effect”. Last but not least, asphalt difficulties the necessary connection of people in urban settings with the natural world we are all part of. 

Depave, a nonprofit based in Portland (Oregon, US), transforms ‘over-paved places’ to “empower disenfranchised communities to overcome social and environmental injustices and adapt to climate change through urban re-greening”. Starting up as a neighborhood initiative back in 2008, they have spearheaded the movement of ‘depaving’, which refers to the act of removing pavement and freeing up the soil below. Doing so reestablishes balanced ecosystems: replacing pavement with native plants, shrubs and trees helps replenishing groundwater and creating places for local wildlife to live, as well as cooling and beautifying neighbourhoods.  An important angle of the organisation is that depaving should be for and by people. Offering an accompanying service for community depaving projects – around a school, a public park, or a hospital, for example – they also share numerous free resources to encourage an autonomous outscaling of this practice, such as a DIY depave guide

With a similar perspective, and drawing indeed its initial inspiration from the Portland practices, the Canadian Green Communities’ initiative Depave Paradise promotes depaving ‘by hand’ as a way to connecting people to each other and to their neighbourhood, giving them a sense of ownership to their community. Although some heavy equipment and specialized services may be needed sometimes, basic depaving can be done by using shovels, wheelbarrows, and pry bars. By doing it by hand, therefore, the necessary tools remain accessible to any community, bringing in a ‘low tech’ approach. The concept refers to a wide array of practises, and even ways of thinking, that use techniques and technologies that are both useful, accessible, and sustainable (which can involve using in fact less technique, and more sharing).

Other than in Canada, Depave’s activity has been reproduced in an international network through cities across the United States, Australia and the UK. But there is depaving beyond the Commonwealth. The Netherlands seems to be a sort of ‘champion’ in freeing up soil. In its third edition, the NK Tegelwippen competition takes dozens of Dutch local authorities to replace with greenery as many pavement tiles as possible. And in the metropolis of Buenos Aires the Calles Verdes project is underway to unpave about 20,000 square meters in several areas and streets.