Our cities are smothered by excess asphalt but there’s hope for change

Environment | Gregory Beatty | May 12, 2022

They depaved a tennis court, and put in an orchard and pollinator garden.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist riffing on Joni Mitchell’s iconic opening line from her 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi”: “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.” It maybe borders on cheesy, and has probably been done by a journalist (or three) before in connection with an international program called Depave Paradise. But in this instance, it’s doubly appropriate.

Depave Paradise (yes, the name is inspired by Mitchell’s lyric) started in Oregon in 2007. The program sees groups identify patches of unused pavement in their communities and, with cooperation from property owners and city administration, organize working bees to remove the asphalt and reclaim the area for nature.

Canada’s program is administered by Green Communities Canada out of Peterborough (greencommunitiescanada.org), and this month GCC is partnering with a group in Saskatoon (hallowed hometown of Joni Mitchell) to do the city’s first depave project.

So the riff is a natch, right?

“GCC has done over 60 projects across Canada, but they’ve never done one in Saskatchewan,” says Zoe Arnold, who is coordinating the project for the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. “They reached out to us and asked if we were interested. This is the first depave project in Saskatchewan, and hopefully it will lead to us and other groups in the province doing more.”

Game, Set, Match

To prepare for the project, Arnold took some online training with GCC and participated in monthly meetings with other coordinators. If you check the FAQ on the GCC website, you’ll find tabs that range from “Why Depave” and “What Makes a Good Site” to “What Is Expected of a Site Host” and “Are Children Allowed to Participate?”

The site host for the SES project is Walter Murray Collegiate. The school has an asphalt tennis court that’s sat mostly unused for decades, says Arnold.

“We created a plan with the school,” says Arnold. “The site is 320 square metres and we’ll be removing asphalt from 235 square metres and replacing it with pathways and a learning space so it will be like an outdoor classroom.”

Plans also call for a pollinator garden of perennials, along with a fruit orchard and vegetable garden.

“In our mind at SES, it didn’t have to be a food garden,” says Arnold. “We would have been happy with a pollinator garden. But when we partnered with Walter Murray that was one of the biggest things that came up — that they would like students to be able to harvest produce that could be used in lessons or for healthy snacks.”

Between 500 and 600 plants and trees [see sidebar] will be planted on the June 5 planting day. Before that, a bobcat will score and cut the asphalt, then on May 28 teams of volunteers will remove the pavement and haul it away for recycling.

The project has funding from Affinity Credit Union and Green Communities Canada, and CHEP Good Food and other local partners have provided in-kind support. It truly is a community effort.

“Over the summer, students and other community members will be involved in watering,” says Arnold. “Then once the plants are established, they can do some of the harvesting and preserving. The school hopes to do some work with cooking, and teaching that as well.”

Why Depave?

The benefits of depaving extend well beyond education and urban food security, says Arnold.

“The main benefit we’re focused on is runoff,” she says. “In Saskatoon, our stormwater doesn’t go through any filtration — it just goes straight into the river. Any pesticides that people are using on their lawns, or salt on the roads from winter, is going to be swept into the river.”

Plant fertilizers, animal waste, oil, heavy metals and cigarette butts are other potential contaminants.

“If we can include a step before that where the water can go through a garden or green area, it will help prevent those pollutants from reaching the river,” says Arnold.

That’s good for the environment. It’s also good for a city’s bottom line, because when rain and snowmelt soak into the ground instead of being funnelled by dirty pavement into the sewer system it eases the pollution burden on wastewater treatment facilities.

“Another benefit is the greening of communities, which will help with the urban heat island effect, as black asphalt can get quite hot in summer,” says Arnold.  “We can reduce some of that.”

A second big concern with runoff is volume. With climate change generating more intense downpours, depaving can help control flooding and erosion by, again, allowing water to soak into the ground instead being channelled to clogged sewer grates and other low-lying areas.

That will reduce property damage, while also providing valuable infrastructure support to cities as they struggle to adapt to a climate-changed world.

“There are lots of possibilities for future projects in Saskatoon and other Saskatchewan cities, as we have lots of aging pavement that isn’t really useful,” says Arnold, pointing to paved boulevards as one example.

And while Depave Paradise is geared to removing existing pavement in cities, its principles are equally valid for new development, says Arnold. 

“It’s important developers and the city think about areas where they can avoid putting down pavement in the first place,” she says. “Whether that’s by using porous pavement or incorporating swales and other water infrastructure that doesn’t require people to come in 30 years later to rip out asphalt to create a green space.”

Volunteers are welcome for the May 28 and June 5 events, plus the week in between when the site will be prepped. E-mail depave@environmentalsociety.ca for details.


Arbor of Love

The week before the Saskatchewan Environmental Society holds Saskatoon’s first depave project, SOS Trees Coalition will host the city’s second annual Arbor Week.

“Last year, we had over 20 events,” says Linda Moskalyk of SOS Trees. “Some we organized and others were done by businesses, individuals and other groups that jumped on board. It went quite well.”

The province has since committed to an annual proclamation of Arbor Week in late May, says Moskalyk. And this year in Saskatoon, by city proclamation, Arbor Week will run May 21–29.

Following Saskatoon’s lead, Regina is planning an Arbor Day of its own on June 1. The day arose out of a city report last fall that recommended a sizeable bump in the tree replacement budget to better protect the urban forest, which has suffered significant losses lately from drought, heat, severe storms, smoky skies from forest fires and other climate change stressors. To mark the day, the city plans to donate 1,000 tree seedlings.

Tree giveaways are a common feature of Arbor celebrations. But the main goal is to promote awareness and appreciation of trees, says Moskalyk.

“Saskatoon’s Urban Forestry department doesn’t have much funding for formal education and outreach programs related to the urban forest,” she says. “We, as an organization, are trying to help.”

One event SOS Trees organized last year was a self-guided tree walk, with QR codes posted beside different tree species that people could scan with their phones to hear a talk.

“It would be like the tree was talking to them, and saying ‘I’m a spruce tree. Feel my needles. You’ll see how prickly they are,’” says Moskalyk. “Then it would talk about the history of the spruce tree, and what benefits it provides.

“A lot of people probably don’t realize how many different tree species we have,” she continues. “So once people learn about them, they can start looking when they’re out for a walk, and go ‘Yeah, I think that’s a linden’. So it’s a great way to get people excited about trees.”

This year’s Arbor Week theme is Trees Breathe Life, and events include a community planting for a fruit orchard, a tree-pruning workshop, plein air painting sessions, a forest stories sharing circle, a webinar on trees in a changing climate and more (see sostrees.ca).

It’s an historical fact that every tree in Saskatoon and Regina was either hand-planted or is descended from a hand-planted tree. And participating in Arbor celebrations, and learning how to better care for neighbourhood trees, is a great way to honour that legacy, says Moskalyk.

Timely watering is one thing residents and businesses can do to help. “It’s essential to water trees in late fall before freeze-up because it’s expected they will be most affected by climate change in the winter and early spring,” says Moskalyk. “If trees go into winter dry from the fall, they won’t have that moisture in their roots.”

In years with low snowpack, timely spring watering also helps spur growth. With proper education, people can also keep an eye out for pests and diseases such as Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm Disease which — if they ever took hold — could devastate the elm and ash trees that currently dominate our urban forests.

If people have some knowledge of pruning, they can maybe tackle small jobs, says Moskalyk. “But if it’s a major job, they need to get a certified arborist. They’ll check the entire tree, and maybe spot something you didn’t know was happening. Then they’ll make the right pruning cuts, and give you information on how to look after the tree.”

In the past few years, Saskatoon and Regina have both seen high tree mortality. And since the cities lie in what historically has been a dry grassland region, says Moskalyk, we need all hands on deck to ensure our urban forests stay healthy.

“It would be great to see more citizen science when it comes to trees, because if people do notice something, they can call the city and get someone out to check,” she says. “They could end up saving trees in the entire community.”