TEXT by Emily Amon and René Fan
Over three weekends this past June, friends and neighbours of Old’s Cool General Store (OCGS) came together to deconstruct a paved area at the side of their building and create a garden. Volunteers removed the pavement, brought in soil, and planted trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers in an area approximately 70 square meters (750 square feet). One of sixty-six such Depave projects in Ontario, this site was selected and the construction was managed by the non-profit organization Toronto Green Community (TGC) and its social enterprise RAINscapeTO. Depave Paradise is a program of Green Communities Canada, a national organization that works in partnership with local community environmental organizations across the country to support community-led climate action.
Old’s Cool General Store, Toronto, after the Depave project. IMAGE/ René Fan, OALA, Toronto Green Communities
For over 10 years, Green Communities Canada has coordinated a nation-wide, multi-community program in which volunteers come together to rip up asphalt (by hand) and replace it with beautiful urban green spaces. Green Communities Canada empowers local organizations to lead these projects, and in doing so, transform their neighbourhoods. The program provides educational and mentorship opportunities, training local Depave Paradise coordinators from partnering organizations, and guiding the implementation of community-led projects through grants and logistical support. Monthly community practice meetings bring coordinators together from across the country to discuss their project progress and troubleshoot local concerns.
Depaving underway at Old’s Cool General Store. IMAGE/ Mary Jenkins, Toronto Green Community
The Depave project is a labour of love that empowers communities to make positive changes to their surroundings. The physical effort exerted for deconstruction and planting shows community support and buy-in, and the likelihood for long-term stewardship and responsibility for the space. The completion of the project brings satisfaction and reward, along with the benefits of being active outside, making connections with neighbours, and mentoring younger volunteers.
On the event day, it’s nothing but smiles. Local volunteers gather to do the heavy lifting, releasing any pent-up frustrations about climate-change, and investing their time and energy to transform a local site into a beautiful plant-filled permeable landscape. These demonstration projects make permanent positive changes to neighbourhoods, and encourage others
to take action.
The community at work at Old’s Cool General Store. IMAGE/ Mary Jenkins, Toronto Green Community
Beyond the beauty of a vibrant garden, there are many environmental benefits to replacing impermeable surfaces with plants and softscape. As a starting point, stormwater is retained and infiltrated instead of draining into storm sewers with associated pollutants. With infiltration, plants are nurtured, groundwater is recharged and flows, subsurface, to rivers and lakes, which helps to restore the hydrologic cycle. As a softscape, the growth of trees and shrubs sequesters carbon to reduce greenhouse gasses, and the selection of native species provides habitat for birds and pollinators in our ecosystem. The growth of trees provides shade, improves air quality, and reduces the urban heat island effect—all improvements for human comfort in the city.
Work is underway at Old’s Cool General Store. IMAGE/ René Fan, Toronto Green Communities
OCGS was an ideal Depave site because of its role and value among the community in East York. The store has a loyal following on social media and is active in the community with outreach to nearby schools and partnerships with local organizations. The site itself is publicly accessible and highly visible at the intersection of two bus routes. Like many lots in Toronto, the side yard next to the store is a public right-of-way owned by the City, but is the property owner’s responsibility to maintain. TGC worked with the City to secure a permit for work and prepared a planting plan with native species that suited the sandy soils and sunny conditions of the site.
The new, improved, depaved Old’s Cool. IMAGE/ René Fan, Toronto Green Communities
Depave Paradise in Ontario
Since the establishment of the program in 2012, Depave Paradise has completed 80 projects across 32 Canadian cities, converting a total of 16,384 square metres of underutilized paved surface into beautiful community green spaces with native grasses, flowers, and trees—nearly two thirds of which (66) have been in Ontario.
Each Depave project is as diverse as the sites and communities that host them, and no two Depaves are entirely alike, as community-involved design planning is a central component of the program. Sites have been installed at schools, universities, community centers, faith buildings, parks, right-of-ways, and more.
Claude E. Garton Public School, Thunder Bay, ON (2019) - Locally Coordinated by EcoSuperior
Take Claude E. Garton Public School, as an example. Claude E. Garton is a K-8 elementary school in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In 2019, they were recognized as an “ecoschool” for their involvement in a Depave Paradise project, led by local Depave Paradise delivery partner EcoSuperior. Through this project, over 100 square metres of asphalt was converted into a rain-garden with a large infiltration trench. The rain garden featured a clear stone leaching pit to promote as much stormwater infiltration as possible, reducing pooling that previously took place on the lot.
Claude E. Garton Public School, Thunder Bay, before. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Green Communities Canada
This project benefitted from student involvement, in both the planting and depaving efforts. Furthermore, students were able to learn first-hand about stormwater and the altered urban water cycle, which tied into their water, earth, and science curriculum. Over the last few years, the garden has been maintained by the school, and remains a functional and aesthetically beautiful feature on the playground. Informational signage explains the purpose of the garden and describes the natural and altered water cycles that result from converting naturalized landscapes into urban hard-scapes. This is but one example of a schoolyard depave which is alleviating localized pooling of stormwater, and creating outdoor classrooms and opportunities for nature-based education.
Claude E. Garton Public School, Thunder Bay, after. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Green Communities Canada
Down in South Western Ontario, a number of Depave Paradise demonstration sites have been installed by Hamilton Depave Paradise delivery partner Green Venture. Over the history of the program, 14 of the 66 Ontario-based depaves have taken place in Hamilton—guided by their knowledgeable staff, and supported both through Green Communities Canada and a number of partnerships within the city. For the last few years, a string of projects have focused on the Barton Street area, revitalizing a local area of concern, and bringing in new greenspaces for the underserved communities there.
EduDeo Ministries 621 Barton St. E, Hamilton, ON, (2020) - Locally Coordinated by Green Venture, Designed by Adele Pierre, OALA
The Depave at 621 Barton St. E is close to the industrial sector of Hamilton. The area has a high percentage of impermeable surfaces and lack of green space, contributing to combined sewer overflow. The priorities for the site included management of stormwater runoff, pollinator plantings, and a pleasant spot for informal meetings and lunches to be utilized by the charity site host. The area of the site is 98.25 square metres, all of which was covered in asphalt. A downspout from the roof directed runoff into the street.
621 Barton Street East, Hamilton, before. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Green Communities Canada
The design is divided into three distinct areas. A rain garden planted with native species infiltrates runoff from the diverted downspout. The recycled plastic picnic table sits on a base of Ecoraster permeable paving, which is filled with fast-draining gravel, and a walkway winds through a pollinator garden with boulders along the path providing seating. Additionally, EduDeo plans to install a Little Free Library in this garden. This site, and many others in Hamilton, were designed by Adele Pierre of the OALA.
Barton Street East, Hamilton, after. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Green Communities Canada
Additional sites have been installed at parks, such as the transformation of an old outdoor rink at Honey Harbour Park in Georgian Bay this past spring, led by Severn Sound Environmental Association. There, plans included removal of an old skating rink, which had been on the site for decades, and replacement with a smaller, covered rink, and pollinator gardens. They also worked with the Georgian Bay Métis Council to put in a healing circle, expanding opportunities for cross-cultural learning and meaningful Indigenous presence in this public space. In Collingwood, Environment Network replaced a run-down parking lot between two baseball diamonds at Heritage Park this past spring, and installed a large community garden with raised beds, and mulch base. The site is located across the street from two social housing apartment complexes and the community garden will be used by families living in the new housing complex, as well as by the general public. The families given priority will be single mothers who are receiving help from a local Mothercare program and low-income seniors. This site is not only expanding opportunities for local food production, but also creating a sense of empowerment and food security, all while replacing broken infrastructure and improving drainage.
In Peterborough, a number of projects of significance have been installed, including the auspiciously titled “Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong” (The Place Where the Heart of the Canoe Beats).
Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong - The Place Where the Heart of the Canoe Beats (2019), Peterborough, ON, Locally Coordinated by GreenUp
Born out of a partnership between local Depave Paradise delivery partner, GreenUP and the Peterborough Downtown Business Improvement Association’s vibrancy project, this attractive pocket park became a showcase not only for sustainable urban design and green infrastructure, but a meaningful public art installation celebrating Indigenous culture. Located on the corner of King and Water Street, on what used to be a piece of the Euphoria Wellness Spa car park, this area is now a thriving green space with benches, boardwalks and trees. The site design features a rain garden, as well as native-prairie planting, and a canoe-art installation designed by local Curve-Lake artist, Tia Cavanaugh, celebrates the location as a historic portage route.
Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong - The Place Where the Heart of the Canoe Beats, Peterborough, after planting, but before the art installation. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Green Communities Canada
Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong - The Place Where the Heart of the Canoe Beats, Peterborough, with Tia Cavanagh. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Green Communities Canada
The Depave Movement
In many communities, a Depave event is the start of a conversation about how we can better design our urban areas with nature in mind. Participants and volunteers at Depave Paradise events agree these engagements create a transformation beyond the physical alterations of the site, opening up a dialogue about equitable access to greenspace, and questioning assumptions about the permanence of hardscaping (and environmentally destructive development in general). Further, Depave Paradise sites are by-and-large partnership projects, which bring together a variety of stakeholders: community members, site hosts, contractors, volunteers, and environmentalists. In this way, the Depave Paradise movement goes beyond creating demonstration sites, and pushes towards shifting the culture around urban land reclamation and sustainable stormwater management.
Green Communities Canada has continued to push the conversation about green infrastructure forward through the Living Cities Canada project, an innovative policy and advocacy program designed to provide municipal governments and grassroots organizations with the capacity to better advocate for and advance equitable, abundant, and thriving green infrastructure in communities across Canada. The Living Cities framework document, published in Fall 2022, synthesizes key learnings about how municipalities in Canada and around the world have successfully implemented and mainstreamed green infrastructure. This framework guides the development of “Living Cities policy pathways” which chart a course forward on what policies, plans, strategies, processes, and instruments can make each community a “Living City.” This program represents a shift in approach, moving beyond simply creating demonstration sites, and pushing for a more strategic and organized approach to green infrastructure implementation, led by both community and municipal partners.
Depave Precedents & Context
In Toronto, the Old’s Cool depave project transformed a paved side yard into a verdant garden. Many similar right-of-way and boulevard spaces exist throughout the city, and in aggregate are an opportunity for a higher use of overlooked remnant space. In cities across North America, reclaiming public space has been an initiative for safety, greenery, and the desire to pedestrianize automobile-oriented landscapes.
One example of the movement toward reclaiming remnant spaces is “PARK(ing) day,” an annual event that began in San Francisco in 2005. DIY in spirit, it started as a guerrilla art project to create temporary social spaces with seating and greenery in a curbside parking spot. Estimating that streets makes up 20-30 per cent of the city’s land area and only 20-30 per cent of that is sidewalk, organizers calculated that curbside parking rates were actually affordable real estate. PARK(ing) day is now a yearly event and their website describes it as a “global, public, participatory project where people across the world temporarily repurpose curbside parking spaces and convert them into public parks and social spaces to advocate for safer, greener, and more equitable streets for people.”
A greener precedent of public space reclamation is the establishment of community gardens across North American cities in the 1970s. Established in reaction to the number of abandoned lots during a period of economic recession and disinvestment, communities and activist gardeners turned derelict properties into vibrant green spaces. New York City’s Green Guerillas transformed over 100 vacant lots into gardens during their first three years of operation. Although the work was arduous and laborious, one of the many rewards was the support and stewardship from the local community, including children. In New York City, the creation of community gardens were a process of grassroots organizing and a product of community direct action to improve the bleak and dreary landscape of neighbourhoods experiencing decline.
A unique and central tenet of Depave projects is citizen direct action. Depave projects are organized to be community events with residents and neighbours doing the work of removals and installation, to secure community buy-in, support, and long-term stewardship. In the 1970s, direct action was in the face of inaction by bankrupt municipalities that did not invest in parks and maintenance for all neighbourhoods. Similarly, municipalities today are under-resourced for parks investment and maintenance, and design is often constrained for lower maintenance.
Today, direct action is also a response to the urgency of the climate crisis. While governments and corporations stall on making measurable changes, many people are compelled to act on their own or through community efforts to resist unsustainable practices that contribute to environmental degradation. In built-up environments, a disproportionate amount of pavement contributes to increased stormwater, basement flooding, and combined sewer overflows which result in poor water quality in lakes and rivers. Removing unnecessary pavement is arguably one of the most beneficial things a community can do to mitigate the built environment.
The other half of the Depave equation is planting native species. Ecological restoration depends on the growth of native plants that have co-evolved with the soils, pollinators, and wildlife of the area. Restoring natural processes and native species on a large scale is part of the rewilding movement, a method of ecosystem restoration to reduce biodiversity loss and mitigate against climate change. Nature-led solutions, such as depaving and rewilding, deconstruct the built environment to provide a measure of incremental environmental restoration.
“Undoing is just as much a democratic right as doing,” said the architect and artist Gordon Matta-Clark, whose practice in the 1970s combined social critique with community empowerment and civic engagement. His interventions on vacant buildings by splitting, cutting, and sculptural excisions were a commentary about a failed financial system and a repressive architectural discourse that valued buildings only as property. Instead, Matta-Clark considered architecture as the entire fabric of the city, and saw voids, gaps, and remnants as opportunities for intervention. In a similar spirit, Depave projects embody destructive and creative energies, and work with residual overlooked spaces to help communities create vital green spaces that provide immeasurable environmental benefits.
Emily Amon is the Green Infrastructure Program Lead at Green Communities Canada. She holds a Master of Arts in Sustainability Studies and a Hon. Bachelor of Environmental Sciences and Studies from Trent University. Emily coordinates the Depave Paradise program nationally.
René Fan, OALA, is a project manager with the Toronto Green Community, a non-profit organization that supports diverse communities to develop an environmentally
sustainable city. She is a landscape architect with a background in geography, environmental studies and historic preservation.