• April 19, 2014

An Urban Charity Pulls Up Pavement to Create 'Paradise’

An Urban Charity Pulls Up Pavement to Create 'Paradise’ 2

Photograph by Eric Rosewall

Depave volunteers put their backs into their work at a “pry.”

Maia Nativ’s job involves a lot of dirty work, and she loves it. She works as a fund raiser at Depave, a charity in Portland, Ore., whose mission tagline—“From parking lots to paradise”—upends the old Joni Mitchell song.

True to its name, the organization promotes the removal of urban pavement to create community green spaces, not just to prettify cities but also to prevent stormwater runoff from sweeping pollutants into streams and rivers.

Depave got its start in 2007 when Arif Khan bought a house in Portland that had a driveway and a garage—but he didn’t have a car. Mr. Khan demolished his driveway and garage and planted fruit trees in their place, giving birth to an idea. Over the past five years, Depave, his brainchild, has organized 24 events to remove 94,100 square feet of concrete and asphalt from sites around the city of Portland, soaking up more than 2,221,000 gallons of stormwater that otherwise would have gone into storm drains.

Depave hosts four to six “prys” each summer, recruiting an all-volunteer labor force to break, pry up, and remove pavement from unused parking lots and former playgrounds. It is arduous and filthy work, yet 60 to 100 supporters show up each time to help.

“People ask why we use human power instead of renting a machine to remove the asphalt,” says Ms. Nativ. “Well, if 100 people come to an event and then each go home and tell just one friend how they spent their Saturday, then our mission and our goal just spread to 200 people.”

Depave makes extensive use of social media to spread the word about events, but representatives also attend neighborhood meetings and distribute fliers near a planned “depaving” site.

The charity is currently run by two part-time staff members, who donate their time during donation droughts. Ms. Nativ first showed up to help with a depaving event in 2009. She oversees fundraising and management of the group’s $65,000 annual budget, 95 percent of which pays for the depaving site work. About 10 percent of revenue comes from individuals; the bulk of Depave’s operating budget is covered by local government grants, chiefly from soil- and water-conservation bureaus.

Laura Niemi, community-gardens program coordinator at Portland Parks & Recreation, has worked with Depave to create green space on a former city playground. “I was really impressed because they were able to pull off a large, complex, and impressively professional event as an essentially all-volunteer group,” says Ms. Niemi.

Beyond carrying on with Depave’s mission, says Ms. Nativ, the charity intends to begin focusing on policy issues, putting pressure on city lawmakers to lower the number of parking spaces required per building and increase parking spaces for bikes. Over the long range, she says, the charity hopes its approach will spread to other American cities.

“After all,” she says, “anywhere you go, there’s a lot of unnecessary asphalt.”

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