Preserving the Environment

A Small Nonprofit Has a Genius Idea for How to Turn Parking Lots Into Paradise

March 15, 2019
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A Small Nonprofit Has a Genius Idea for How to Turn Parking Lots Into Paradise
parking lot
Volunteers at the Depave project at the Inukai Family Boys & Girls Club. Courtesy of Depave and Boys and Girls Club of Portland
Founded a decade ago, Depave is at the forefront of a movement to transform parking lots into lush mini-parks.

The Inukai Family Boys & Girls Club in Hillsboro, Oregon, sits about 20 miles west of Portland. As one of ten Boys & Girls Clubs in the Portland Metro region, it provides after-school and summer programs for about 200 kids, most of whom come from low-income families. For the young people who attend, it’s a chance to develop leadership skills and participate in a range of activities, from the visual and fine arts to STEM, finance and nutrition classes.

The club also offers sports and recreation, which until recently was a bit ironic, considering that the nearest green space was almost a mile away. Instead, the building sat adjacent to a little-used 4,500-square-foot parking lot.

The lack of a suitable play area for the boys and girls of Inukai caught the attention of Ted Labbe, a conservation biologist and volunteer with Depave, a Portland nonprofit that transforms over-paved areas by breaking up asphalt and replacing it with natural vegetation. Since it was founded by Labbe and a friend more than a decade ago, Depave has worked with local schools, churches and businesses to turn concrete eyesores into lush landscapes replete with rain gardens, vegetable beds, tree groves and bioswales.

parking lot
Volunteers at the Depave project at the Inukai Family Boys & Girls Club.Courtesy of Depave and Boys and Girls Club of Portland

To repurpose the Inukai club’s parking lot, Labbe gathered a team of about 100 volunteers last fall to rip up the paved lot and make room for a revamped play area. Features of the new space include a rain garden, a stage, bike racks, garden beds and picnic tables. At the end of this month, more volunteers will assemble to plant additional vegetation, with the grand opening of the new green playspace set for April 12.

Depave’s mission of re-greening urban spaces through the lens of community engagement is spreading. To date, the organization has completed about 70 projects in the Portland area (which collectively cover roughly 165,000 square feet of asphalt) and now counts five affiliate programs in its network, spanning from Cleveland to Canada. They believe their model has the potential to be scalable almost anywhere. And as the Green New Deal talks gain steam in Washington, communities have been beefing up efforts to address the impending threats from climate change.

That includes New York’s Hudson Valley, where Arif Khan, one of Depave’s founders, now lives. Khan says he has seen a growing need for de-paving projects in his new community and has been consulting with municipal governments along the Hudson River. He believes that Depave’s model of tactical urbanism sits at the forefront of a bigger push to prioritize open spaces for people instead of paving them for cars.

In cities like New York, for example, local neighborhood groups and business improvement districts have for several years been installing temporary parklets for use in warmer months. Also known as “street seats,” the idea is to repurpose parking spots into tiny but vibrant green spaces with public amenities like outdoor seating and food vendors. Similar street-seating efforts exist in cities across the U.S.

parking lot
The parking lot at the Inukai Family Boys & Girls Club after its transformation.Courtesy of Depave and Boys and Girls Club of Portland

But what makes Depave’s efforts stand out from typical parklets is that rather than constructing a new space on top of existing infrastructure, volunteers remove the concrete and asphalt first. In this way, Depave’s projects improve the environment. Because they’re impervious, paved surfaces divert stormwater into a region’s waterways, carrying with it toxic pollutants like oil, antifreeze and pesticides. Depave estimates that their efforts divert more than 4 million gallons of stormwater away from storm drains annually.

“Parklets are all well and good but they are a band-aid, not a permanent fix,” says Labbe, adding that “elected officials are ​discussing how to scale up more general de-pave strategies to address the worsening climate crisis.”

In addition to benefiting the environment, de-paving projects can inspire civic engagement. In its first decade of existence, Depave has worked with more than 4,800 volunteers around Portland.

The act of de-paving satisfies a social need just as much as an environmental one, says Labbe, and a project’s success directly depends on a community’s involvement. “You can’t [de-pave] without a willing and engaged community,” he says.

More: Embracing Diversity In The Great Outdoors

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