Once there were parking lots, now it’s a peaceful oasis

I think I've used this subject line before, but it's evergreen, right???

Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.

We were having dinner with some new architect friends a few years ago when the conversation turned to the decreasing permeability of the city. (Yes, this is the kind of dinner party I throw). 

“Wow, you’re really into ground surface permeability,” remarked my new friend, after I had vented about the lack of vents for the water that needs to be absorbed by city soil. Now, every time I read an article or see a report about how our city is failing to hold developers to waterlogged account I hear her voice saying, ‘wow, you’re really into ground surface permeability.’ It’s not the catchiest of catch phrases, but I’ll take it.

Think of it this way: All the cement and pavement is creating a thick sheet of saran wrap over the ground, and exacerbating the city’s inability to absorb water and filter toxins. That’s bad. And once you notice it, you can’t seem to un-notice it. Especially given the increasing incidence of damaging storms. Without permeable surfaces, cities can’t absorb all the water that’s coming our way with climate-induced extreme weather. And if your city is anything like Toronto, the permeability has decreased greatly with urbanization. Writes Monica Iqbal of U of T:

How did impervious surfaces contribute to each of these floods? The GTA’s population has grown 700% since 1931, and more than 75% of the GTA has undergone urban development (Rincón et al., 2018). More urbanization implies more impervious surfaces and greater runoff rates (Rincón et al., 2018). 

In Toronto, when our sewers can’t handle the deluge of rainfall, the city is forced to do a ‘bypass.’ Bypass is a euphemism for dumping our sewage into Lake Ontario. Which is not just disgustingly grody but deeply unfair, as it renders the lake unswimmable for days thereafter, sometimes emitting a bonus stench. With increasingly hot summer days, people who don’t own pools or cottages or homes with air conditioning actually NEED the lake. And until just a few weeks ago, there was no charge for parking lot owners to mitigate water on their properties. It was basically a license to flood.

(any excuse to post this video)

Depave Paradise 

But there’s a solution: Depaving! Writes Lynn Freehill-Maye in a great piece in Yes! Magazine

The official depave movement began with a single Portland lot in 2007. A man named Arif Khan moved into a house whose backyard was completely paved over, but Khan wanted a garden. He and some friends discussed how to go about it, then hit on the idea of just taking it out by hand themselves. 

I love this. I want to feel more earth beneath my feet. Obviously, in a city, for accessibility and practicality reasons, we’re not going to disappear all our pavement...but...why not try? This is the solarpunk aesthetic in action, as per Wakanda. And Montreal, where I’ve been living for the past few weeks, fills every cranny with wildflowers and parkettes. I’m green with envy. Why can’t we have nice things, Toronto?

If you like makeovers and transformations, it’s hard not to love the beautiful work of the depave movement. The before-and-afters show places transformed from squatly inhospitable to beautifully inviting, courtesy Depave org and others.


No need to depave if you behave

Of course, the opposite of depaving is behaving in the first place. That means preserving green spaces instead of cementing their death. In Ontario, groups have been activating against an onslaught of efforts to pave over important wetlands, Class A farmland, and waterways. It never ends. In Montreal, my wonderful cousin Deborah has been working to bring attention to efforts to build a factory (read this great piece, by MVP pal, reporter Allison Hanes!) on one of the city’s best loved pieces of wetland and bird sanctuary. As I’ve droned before, once wetlands are gone, you can’t get them back. It’s all so obviously vile as to be almost laughable. Which is why it’s great that depaving requires a crowbar or a jackhammer. What better way to release some anger?

Cheap and cheerful

The beauty of depaving is it’s an inexpensive solution that reaps huge economic and social benefit. People are starting to see this. In Toronto my friend Jode’s back alley has one of the first permeable paving strips, a tiny line of greenery shooting through the pavement called a laneway puncture. (Jode is also the genius behind mammoth efforts to green up our city by turning it into a national park, a butterfly highway, and more!) The possibilities for green alleys are endless. As usual, Montreal does it better with its ruelles vertes.

“The exciting thing about green infrastructure is obviously this storm-water management piece, but if we are literally ripping up concrete and putting in trees, or shrubs, or even parks, that is going to have a multiplicity of benefits. Besides the positive impact on people’s health, green infrastructure also has the capacity to lift up communities economically through well-paying, quality local jobs,” says Johanna Bozuwa, author of a Democracy Collaborative report on green infrastructure. Win win win (win win win). And look how effective it is:

If Come on Eileen is an earworm, ground surface permeability is an earthworm. Once it’s in your brain, you see the hard, impenetrable surfaces of the city everywhere. There are so many daunting problems coming at us at vicious speed. This seems like an easy one to start cracking away at. 

This week:

Have you sledged through any impervious surfaces lately, literal or metaphorical? How did it go? Please let me know.

Reading and action:

Learn more about the Technoparc bird sanctuary here. If you live in Montreal, write a letter or call your politicians!

Depave Paradise: A movement started by ReepGreen Canada. You can reach out to start a project.

Last week:

What puts the pep in your step? I illustrated a few lovely reader submissions. Send me yours, too!:

Writes Marilee so beautifully, “Nature crews on, totally affected by our choices, but crews on regardless. I love walking in it. The vista as I saw yesterday...7pm golden sun falling on wetlands side by side with gorgeous Wisconsin rolling hills planted with three-foot high corn took my breath away and for one tiny moment made me feel as if everything was okay.”

From Iris and Emily, this funny (but real) one:

More things:

Thanks so much for reading. If you know someone who might like MVP, please share.

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Hope you are happy and healthy. Have a lovely weekend,