From parking lot to park: Why Depave Paradise is tearing up asphalt across Ontario

Volunteers throughout the province are turning old infrastructure into new gardens — part of a larger movement toward greening urban spaces
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on April 24, 2019
People digging up pavement with shovels.
A group of volunteers lifts a piece of pavement at a “de-pave” site at the southern end of Water Street in Peterborough in October 2018. (Karen Halley, courtesy of GreenUP)

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Last October, a group of 68 volunteers assembled at a site on Water Street in Peterborough, where they de-paved paradise and tore up a parking lot — more specifically, an unused strip of road that was once an entrance to a Canadian Tire store.

With the help of some heavy machinery, they broke up the asphalt and then pried the pieces out by hand. It was, and remains, the largest project of its kind in Canada

“And, while they’re doing that, we teach them about the urban water cycle and the benefits of the work: to filter water, help reduce flooding, and help with the heat sinks [paved surfaces absorb more heat and can contribute to higher temperatures],” says Dawn Pond, who coordinated the project on behalf of the Downtown Business Improvement Area and GreenUP, a local environmental organization.

The project, part of a broader vibrancy initiative in the city, resulted in the removal of 787 square metres (or 20 tonnes’ worth) of asphalt. Two weeks later, the space was converted into a rain garden — designed to soak up rainwater where it falls — featuring 35 shrubs and trees. Another 1,000 will be planted in June. 

Inspired by an Oregon-based organization called Depave, Canada’s own Depave Paradise movement is in full bloom: volunteers have completed 35 projects since 2012 and will be taking on 33 more between now and 2021. At least 13 are planned for 10 communities across Ontario in 2019. Most of the sites are old parking lots and schoolyards in highly visible urban areas. 

“We have a growing infrastructure deficit in our cities. We’re paving too much,” says Alix Taylor, manager of water programs with Green Communities Canada, a national association of community organizations. “We have old pipe systems to deal with stormwater that seem to be falling apart, which causes environmental issues.”

When rain falls in a forest, it usually soaks into the soil or returns to the atmosphere. In cities, Taylor explains, up to 55 per cent of stormwater is unable to be absorbed into the ground. That runoff flows through the urban environment, she says, and “picks up oil and gas, lead, copper, dog poo — all sorts of undesirable things.”

De-paved areas filter out such contaminants. Taylor estimates that a 100-square-metre section of de-paved land can divert approximately 20 to 700 cubic metres of stormwater and 10 to 100 kilograms of contaminants annually, depending on the amount of rainfall. 

Reclaiming paved spaces can also help with urban flooding, says Taylor, because gardens soak up water instead of leaving it to pool. While these flood-mitigation effects will mostly apply to individual sites that have been de-paved, she says, cities will see larger benefits as they create more urban green spaces. 

Pond, who holds a master’s degree in biology from the University of Manitoba, says these reclamations also help create a more vibrant ecosystem: “City ‘hardscapes,’ as habitat, offer very little in terms of resources for wildlife, pollinators, and native plants and are often described as food and refuge deserts. Green space in urban settings can provide refuge for native species.”

One of the most significant impacts of the de-pave process, according to organizers, is the community education and engagement that it stimulates. 

Laura Anderson of the environmental-education non-profit Green Venture has coordinated six de-paves in Hamilton. She says the movement is a “great demonstration of the community support we have.” There were five de-pave projects in the city in 2017 and one last year. Two more are in the works for 2019; they’ll involve tearing up pavement along Barton Street.  “People love that they can walk by a space and say, ‘I did that; I removed it by hand,’” Anderson says.

In Ottawa earlier this month, Peterborough’s de-pave project on Water Street received an award from the Ontario Business Improvement Area Association. Taylor says the honour, like the project, comes as a breath of fresh air at a time when most environmental stories are gloomy, if not downright apocalyptic. 

“We need to hear positive stories,” says Taylor. “Depave Paradise is a positive way to take action in our communities — to give people relief from climate-change anxiety and build community and camaraderie.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen's University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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